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English, Frustration, and Living Fruitfully

Many within the liberal arts tradition agree that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but it is possible that too much introspection creates unnecessary doubt. Between work, education, family, church, and community, life will create a lot of expectations. The well-known writer E.B. White offers counsel for those of us prone to question our own life choices in a 1963 letter written to his niece.

I know just how you feel, Judy. Frustration is youth’s middle name, and you mustn’t worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don’t like, walk away from what fails to inspirit us.

White goes on to describe his own turbulent beginning in journalism with the United Press. His son also changed course from studying English to naval architecture and operating a boatyard. White defends studying English even if the majority of students don’t have a profound love for literature or a “burning desire” to write.

Your majoring in English was no mistake, even though you do not become a critic or a publisher’s assistant or a playwright or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives, no matter what we do, and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. ‘To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.’ I agree with Mr. Thoreau himself a victim of youthful frustration. You seem to me a girl whose head is on straight and I don’t worry about you, whether you are majoring in English or in bingo.

He commends her desire to live “fruitfully and honestly,” a goal that many of us likely share. “If you truly want that,” White concludes, “you will assuredly bear fruit and be an adornment to the orchard whatever it turns out to be.”

In other words, don’t overthink it.


White, E.B. “To Judith W. Preusser.” 10 November 1963. Letters of E.B. White. Ed. Dorothy Lobrano Guth. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 462-464

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