In this highly descriptive essay, the author of “Charlotte’s Web” recaptures old memories of the Maine lake where his father had taken the family camping every August. After a long lapse, White returns with his son. White then spends lengthy paragraphs accounting, down to the dragonflies on their fishing rods, how nothing has changed. Besides a now-tarred entrance road and the proliferation of noisy outboard motor boats, the character of the lake has not moved forward in time at all.
This essay is popular with college Anthology texts. I know this, being a community college English prof. Part of why I assign it, however, is the never-failing, divided opinion on the essay’s significance. Most criticisms stem from its meticulous detail and long digressions without an apparent direction resulting in a baffling last line coming out of left field.
To defend the piece, I happen to love all the sensory detail; students should defer to White in demonstrating how to transport the reader in more ways than one. Furthermore, describing the Lake’s present condition is the essay’s impetus. Despite this, readers may feel White’s sentimentality taking over. A longing nostalgia for olden times fuses into his many observations. What makes the essay worth reading is how readers may identify with their own personal experience. But this requires the similar experience of returning to a place of old regularity.
At a closer look, the essay’s value comes in subtle tones. White is not over-sentimental. He’s dealing with getting older but also thinking of himself as older. That’s a giant leap, which the re-experience of the Lake brings into sharp contrast. He has become the (old) authority figure; the carefree kid has materialized in his son. In effect, he’s forced to deal with nature, which results in an identity crisis.
The theme of “nature” shows up in all the similar sights. Things naturally “are” this way, as are the “types” of people, characters actually, that the environment produces time and again. The gossiping, 15 year old, diner waitresses are an example of unchanging nature, as well as “this person with the cake of soap.”
To complicate things, White has moments of resisting change, or nature. The loud new motorboats annoy him, and he wistfully longs for the fuss of arrivals and the handling of trunks, a ceremony now obsolete because cars render the arrival anonymous. Surely, he relives old memories; this is evident in the “creepy sensation” where White experiences moments from his father’s point of view. White foreshadows this in the opening paragraph, noting his being a “salt water man” now makes him “wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods.” He wants to go “back,” yet the creepy sensation arrives after the fourth paragraph and is further developed from there. The rest of the essay recalls more creepiness all driving to the startling last line, without which, we probably wouldn’t have this work showing up in anthologies.
But what does “the chill of death” mean? Notice that White has “no thought of going in.” He’s facing the realization of not wanting to do kid things like going swimming in a storm. He’s accepted his mortality, thus the “chill of death” is arguably a reference to middle age. White recounts the nature of the lake while ignoring his own, only to be confronted with how he’s changed. “Once More to the Lake” describes that moment of awareness through an array of astounding sensory detail. His reflections matter because he has become a different person. Admitting that is easier said than done, and White shows us how places act as mirrors for our own lives and understanding.