For a nonfiction-writing class I am teaching, I have gone once more to “Once More to the Lake,” by E.B. White, and I have been hanging around and turning with this sentence:
I kept remembering everything, lying in bed in the mornings — the small steamboat that had a long rounded stern like the lip of a Ubangi, and how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails, when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar, and how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night, and what it had felt like to think about girls then.
I’m drawn to how casually yet precisely the sentence depicts the movement of memory, of retrospective association. From “lying in bed in the mornings” we dash with a dash right to that steamboat, prosaically described; and then, as we enter memory, we enter the poetic: “how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails.” What most interests me, though, is how the rest of the sentence implicitly comments on how memory works.
We’ve seen the boat, its shape and its peaceful movement on the water in the silvered night. Now, stage set, we hear and we taste, in a rolling, unpunctuated list that shows how the remembering mind slides from one detail to the next, associating and collecting: “when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar.” How far in we’ve come from that initial, distant description, with the foreign simile (“like the lip of a Ubangi”); now we have memory on the tongue, live music in our ears.
But only for a moment.
Notice, next, how we start to recede. The sweetness “we” tasted expands to describe the whole scene — the music, the lake, the moon over it: “how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night.” We’re rising and entering pure nostalgia, which is where the sentence ends. It’s not with an image for the mind’s eye that E.B. White leaves us; it’s with something we experience closer to the heart: “what it had felt like to think about girls then.”
Isn’t that often how memory works? We see the experience again, and then we feel what it was like back then.