In his essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” E. B. White uses two distinct tones toward his subject matter of the problem of human acquisition and inability to shed our possessions. By initiating the essay with a wry and occasionally sarcastic tone, White creates an expectation in the reader that there will be a humorous approach to his subject throughout the essay. This continued singular tone for most of the work makes his last-minute shift to a more wistful and vulnerable approach to his subject an effective, forced reflection for the reader on how we use – often unwittingly – our physical environment to protect our emotional and psychological worlds.
Early in the essay, White suggests that the things in his apartment have a will of their own:
For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world.
The reader knows right away that this will be a tongue-in-cheek narrative; naturally, the narrator is the only one with a will in this series of events, but his suggestion that he is in some kind of battle with the objects in his life is funny. The narrator is in some form of denial. He suggests that he is a victim of some sort of universal scheme.
Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ball point pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I once had a man send me a chip of wood that shows the marks of beaver teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.
This series of random acquisitions as preying on the narrator begins to raise the reader’s eyebrow. The gnawed wood chip is especially noteworthy, as one can imagine no purpose in retaining something like that; yet White did keep it. One might use a bank memo book, but what can one do with beaver-chewed wood chips? By throwing in that ridiculous item, White now creates suspicion that he is more culpable than he admits.
Another day, I found myself on a sofa between the chip of wood gnawed by the beaver and an honorary hood I had once worn in an academic procession. What I really needed at the moment was the beaver himself, to eat the hood. I shall never wear the hood again, but I have too weak a character to throw it away, and I do not doubt that it will tag along with me to the end of my days, not keeping me either warm or happy but occupying a bit of my attic space.
At this point, White decides to lock up the apartment and go to a fair, further enhancing the reader’s growing belief that the narrator is in denial. White meets that belief:
A fair, of course, is a dangerous spot if a man is hoping to avoid acquisition.
For multiple paragraphs after he locks his apartment, White writes about his experience at the fair. It is a seemingly strange shift, until he reconnects with the last lines of the essay, which open, “But that was weeks ago.”
As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.
No more jokes. Now White is allowing himself to feel the pain and loss of leaving the familiar.
After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.
Visiting birds, dogs, gardens, “the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow” – now White’s loss is shifting to life. The reader understands that the possessions have only been a cover for busying the narrator with things that are not important. What is painful and held at bay in his emotions is the living elements of his home that he must abandon and cannot take with him. This revelation makes the delivery of White’s final words devastating, when the reader realizes the entire essay has been a protective cover for another reality:
In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.