At the start of every fall term, countless students are asked to write an essay on what must be the most uninspired composition topic of all time: "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Still, it's remarkable what a good writer can do with such a seemingly dull subject--though it may take a bit longer than usual to complete the assignment.
In this case, the good writer was E.B. White, and the essay that took more than a quarter century to complete was "Once More to the Lake."
First Draft: Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake (1914)
Back in 1914, shortly before his 15th birthday, Elwyn White responded to this familiar topic with uncommon enthusiasm. It was a subject the boy knew well and an experience that he fiercely enjoyed. Every August for the past decade, White's father had taken the family to the same camp on Belgrade Lake in Maine. In a self-designed pamphlet, complete with sketches and photos, young Elwyn began his report clearly and conventionally:
Maine is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and Belgrade is one of the most beautiful of the lakes of Maine.
This wonderful lake is five miles wide, and about ten miles long, with many coves, points and islands. It is one of a series of lakes, which are connected with each other by little streams. One of these streams is several miles long and deep enough so that it affords an opportunity for a fine all-day canoe trip. . . .
The lake is large enough to make the conditions ideal for all kinds of small boats. The bathing also is a feature, for the days grow very warm at noon time and make a good swim feel fine.
(reprinted in Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography, Norton, 1984)
Second Draft: Letter to Stanley Hart White (1936)
In the summer of 1936, E. B. White, by then a popular writer for The New Yorker magazine, made a return visit to this childhood vacation spot. While there, he wrote a long letter to his brother Stanley, vividly describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the lake. Here are a few excerpts:
I returned to Belgrade. Things haven't changed much. There's a train called the Bar Harbor Express, and Portland is foggy early in the morning, and the Pullman blankets are brown and thin and cold. But when you look out of the window in the diner, steam is rising from the pastures and the sun is out, and pretty soon the train is skirting a blue lake called Messalonksi. Things don't change much. . . .
The lake hangs clear and still at dawn, and the sound of a cowbell comes softly from a faraway woodlot. In the shallows along shore the pebbles and driftwood show clear and smooth on bottom, and black water bugs dart, spreading a wake and a shadow. A fish rises quickly in the lily pads with a little plop, and a broad ring widens to eternity. The water in the basin is icy before breakfast, and cuts sharply into your nose and ears and makes your face blue as you wash. But the boards of the dock are already hot in the sun, and there are doughnuts for breakfast and the smell is there, the faintly rancid smell that hangs around Maine kitchens. Sometimes there is little wind all day, and on still hot afternoons the sound of a motorboat comes drifting five miles from the other shore, and the droning lake becomes articulate, like a hot field. A crow calls, fearfully and far. If a night breeze springs up, you are aware of a restless noise along the shore, and for a few minutes before you fall asleep you hear the intimate talk between fresh-water waves and rocks that lie below bending birches. The insides of your camp are hung with pictures cut from magazines, and the camp smells of lumber and damp. Things don't change much. . . .
Over at the Mills there's a frog box, sunk half in the water. People come there in boats and buy bait. You buy a drink of Birch Beer at Bean's tackle store. Big bass swim lazily in the deep water at the end of the wharf, well fed. Long lean guide boats kick white water in the stern till they suck under. There are still one-cylinder engines that don't go. Maybe it's the needle valve. . . .