“Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E. B. White and Edmund Ware Smith” Submitted photo

DAMARISCOTTA — The book world rarely sees a new book with such an unusual history as “Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E. B. White and Edmund Ware Smith.” New work by a famous, long-deceased writer is big news. But two such writers in the same book? This book comprises correspondence between White and Smith during the 1950s and 1960s, when they both had residences in their beloved Maine.

The letters lay forgotten in a bank vault in Damariscotta for nearly four decades, packed in boxes with other documents belonging to Skidompha Public Library. In 2016, a Skidompha staff member discovered the letters and realized immediately that they should be published.

E. B. White (1899–1985) was a popular writer and author, a longtime contributor to “The New Yorker” and other publications, perhaps best known to the public for his children’s book “Charlotte’s Web.” Edmund Ware Smith (1900–1967) was an avid outdoorsman, famous for his raucously funny, fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the North Woods. The two men met when White wrote essays for “The Ford Times,” a publication of Ford Motor Co. edited by Smith. When the letters were exchanged, White and his wife, Katharine, lived in Brooklin; Smith and his wife, Mary, had a place in Damariscotta.

The two men shared, besides their appreciation for each other’s wit and good writing, a love of Maine and the outdoors; a passion for (as the book title suggests) raising chickens; and the habit of enjoying an adult beverage at the end of a busy day.

The letters addressed to “Whitey” (or sometimes “Andy,” White’s nickname) and “Smitty,” abound with humor, incisive and insightful writing, details of their lives, good-natured ribbing, and much commentary, with some friendly rivalry about how to raise chickens. They exchange views on travel, the business of writing, health challenges and summer visitors.

The correspondence begins in 1956 and ends with Smith’s death in 1967. Smith had saved White’s letters, as well as copies of his own. When Smith’s wife Mary died in 1980, the correspondence was donated to Skidompha Library with White’s permission. Not sure what to do with the letters, the library’s board tucked them into an archive-quality box and placed them in a vault at a local bank. Over time, the correspondence was forgotten.

Nearly 40 years later, in 2016, the bank asked the library to remove its several boxes of old files from the vault. At the library, a staff member discovered the letters and realized their significance. Library staff and volunteers transcribed and edited the letters, with guidance from Martha White, E. B. White’s granddaughter, who wrote an introduction for the book. Besides the correspondence, the book reprints four essays by the two writers, including “The Hen: An Appreciation” by White and “The Outermost Henhouse” by Smith.

Martha White, the granddaughter of E.B. White and manager of his literary estate, is a writer and editor who lives on the coast of Maine. A longtime contributing editor to Yankee Publishing and “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” her work has appeared in various publications. She edited “E. B. White ON DEMOCRACY,” “E. B. White On Dogs,” “In the Words of E. B. White” and the Revised Edition of “Letters of E. B. White. ‘

Down East Books was chosen to publish “Chickens, Gin & a Maine Friendship.” Sales of the book benefit the Skidompha Public Library. “Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship” is available at bookstores and online.

 


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