There’s a moment in E. B. White’s widely-known essay “Once More to the Lake,” when the narrator-protagonist (I’ll simply call him White), who has returned with his five year old son to the same Maine lake he visited every summer as a child, acknowledges that not everything has escaped the passage of time and that the lake hasn’t entirely remained the same. The lake is noisier in 1941 than it was in 1904, thanks to outboard motors having replaced the sleepy-sounding old one-and-two cylinder inboard engines he fondly recalls. “This was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving.”
The essay’s central “illusion” is that time has dissolved; nothing at “this unique, this holy spot” has changed. “There had been no years” he repeats several times, repetition being one way to thwart the passage of narrative time. Yet throughout the essay, White doesn’t seem determined to reinforce this key illusion. He frequently points out small details that challenge it: the roads are now tarred; the waitresses “were still fifteen” but now “their hair had been washed” as ”they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair”; arriving at camp now lacked the excitement it once had when the farmers’ wagons waiting at the train station dropped you off after a bumpy ten miles (now you simply drove in and parked); the road leading up to the farmhouse for dinner once had three tracks—one for horses—but now has only two: “For a moment I missed the middle alternative.” Things look the same…except. Inside the camp’s general store, “all was just as it had been, except there was more Coca-Cola and not so much Moxie and root beer and birch beer and sarsaparilla.”
These small but noticeable changes, all brought about by twentieth-century progress—like the earsplitting outboard motors—have the effect of disrupting the illusion that time has stopped, the fantasy that the now forty-something White is enjoying the very same magical lake he loved as a small boy. As he insists on the odd feeling that nothing has changed and minimizes the changes he fastidiously observes, we slowly realize that we’re not meant to ignore them as he seems to do. Earthly time doesn’t ever stand still; it moves forward, or, in terms of human life, it oscillates between forward and backward as we live both in the moment and in our memories. White subtly reminds us of these back-and-forth oscillations when he recalls how as a boy he learned to master his old one-cylinder inboard. By getting “close to it spiritually,” he could-—instead of shutting off the engine and coasting in to land—reverse the engine “by cutting the switch and putting it on again exactly on the final dying revolution of the flywheel, so that it would kick back against compression and begin reversing.” A good metaphor for how the essay itself has been advancing.
Contrary to popular misconception, this essay doesn’t recount a nostalgic journey back to a vanished world, to a sacred place cherished in one’s memory. White’s revisit to “old haunts” actually comes closer to a nightmare, as he experiences throughout the week a series of disconcerting and uncanny sensations resulting from the initial illusion that the passage of time has somehow dissolved. Other things are dissolving as well. First of all, the boundaries of personal identity. No sooner do they settle in at the camp than White recognizes a “creepy sensation” in seeing his son: “I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, I was my father.” He starts to feel that he’s living a “dual existence.” “Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants.” The loss of boundaries seems everywhere; at one point, White notices that the line tape of the camp’s tennis court had “loosened along the backline.” Even the official boundaries of the tennis court are dissolving.
The penultimate paragraph introduces us to a medley of indistinct boundaries. An afternoon thunderstorm has rolled in and the air is full of friction. White sees this, too, as part of the unchanging nature of the lake, as this storm unfolds like every storm he remembers. First, the sky darkens, next a breeze picks up from a new direction causing the boats to reverse their moorings, and then “the premonitory rumble.” It is all so predictable, it seems artificial: “Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then cracking light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills.” And then with the inevitable calm, the campers return to the lake with “their bright cries perpetuating the deathless joke about how they were getting simply drenched.” Swimming in the rain is as good an example as any to demonstrate the dissolution of sharp outlines and—as the children enjoy this new sensation—the shared old joke itself momentarily dissolves the boundary of generations.
The essay ends with a striking epiphany. Many personal essays, in my opinion, are marred by what I call “unearned epiphanies,” a suddenly I realized moment that seems unwarranted or gratuitous, the result more of an artificial writerly convention than a genuine shock of recognition. But this epiphany has been mounting from the opening sentence and comes as the culmination of all the creepy sensations of time and identity that persisted during White’s return to the lake.
His son decides to join the cheerful swimmers and pulls his rain-soaked trunks from a clothesline and wrings them out. Not going in himself, White sees the boy “wince slightly” as he pulls “up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment.” And then in the final sentence he realizes what has been troubling him the entire time. And it is nearly a literal “shock” of recognition, an intense physical sensation transferred from his son’s “vitals” (the perfect word) to his own: “As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
I read that final sentence with an emphasis on “my.” By transferring the unpleasant physical feeling of the icy trunks to his own “vitals,” White once again blurs the distinctions between his son and himself, himself and his father. But this time the uncanny sensation hits home with a profound difference. The eerie feeling that time has stopped has all along alleviated a core anxiety—namely, a growing fear of his impending death, or what psychologists call “thanatophobia.” White, it seems, returned to the lake hoping therapeutically to suspend the passage of time, and the lake almost supplied him with the necessary anodyne. Though “creepy,” the illusion of his “dual existence” temporarily camouflaged his inescapable anxiety. Hardly the idyllic account of a father-son fishing expedition, “Once More to the Lake” opens with illusion and evasion, struggles with contradiction and self-delusion, and ends in panic.
Robert Atwan founded The Best American Essays in 1985 and has served as series editor since. An earlier and longer “close reading” of White’s “Death of a Pig” (Creative Nonfiction, Spring 2011) examines more fully the author’s often incapacitating anxiety disorders.