CAMDEN, Maine — The spirit of Katharine S. White and E.B. White loomed over the third annual Maine Literary Festival this weekend, as writers focused attention on the festival’s theme of the environment in literature and on the roles of writing, poetry, nature and science in shaping lives.
Local author Martha White, granddaughter of the late couple, set the tone Friday night at the Camden Opera House by reminding the audience that all writing is about nature.
“Environmental writers will tell you it’s all environmental,” she said in her opening address.
About 400 people attended the annual literary event, which this year ran from Friday evening through 1:30 p.m. Sunday. All sessions were held in the opera house.
Martha White offered background and observations on her well-known grandparents, especially E.B. White whose essays and writings for The New Yorker in the mid-20th century have been widely anthologized .
“Katharine and E.B. White moved to their saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, from New York in 1938,” Martha White began, giving an account of her grandparents’ early days in Maine.
“In addition to writing for The New Yorker, my grandfather was writing columns that were published in Harper’s magazine and columns that were later collected for ‘One Man’s Meat,’” she said of her grandfather’s book of essays.
“My grandmother was reviewing children’s books and seed catalogs and also writing gardening essays,” she said.
When the Whites moved to the farm, their publishers were worried that they might lose touch with the big subjects of the day that their readers had been so interested in.
“As it turned out, the small matters of the daily lives on the farm were inseparable from the larger issues of the time,” Martha White said. “The need for a dog license would lead to a humor column about the IRS; a town meeting in Brooklin, Maine, would lead to a piece about freedom or democracy.”
She said her grandparents sometimes wrote their columns at the “spy post” in town, where they were supposed to be on watch for bomb planes, because it was wartime. They were raising food not only for themselves but also for the war effort.
“They were intensely interested in what was going on in their own backyard,” she said. “That appreciation translated nationally to their concerns about our world.”
E.B. White’s views on writing were expressed in a 1929 letter to his brother Stanley White: “I discovered a long time ago that the writing of the small things of the day, and the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, were the only kinds of creative work that I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace,” Martha White read from her grandfather’s published letters.
Keynote speaker Verlyn Klinkenborg of Austerlitz, N.Y., on Friday night gave the E.B. and Katharine White Memorial Lecture on “Writing and the Perception of Nature.”
Touching also on the word “grace,” Klinkenborg said E.B. White was one of his teachers through his book “The Elements of Style.”
An author and writing teacher, Klinkenborg said he admired the grace and naturalness of a well-written page. He came to understand how much grace in prose depended on the amount of labor that went into that prose.
“I’m not going to speak directly about the environment, because I know that everyone here is paying as much attention to the environment as I am,” he said.
In his recent book, “Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile,” Klinkenborg becomes the tortoise that lived for 13 years in the garden of 18th century English curate and naturalist Gilbert White and looked at the world though the turtle’s eyes.
Klinkenborg said he once was asked to give a talk on the craft of writing.
“I don’t like the word much,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but the word ‘craft’ makes me jumpy, and it makes me think of things like landscapes painted on cross-cut saw blades or macrame owls.”
He said a good friend once made Windsor chairs, and he thought of his chairs not as craft but as art.
Saturday and Sunday headliners were University of Vermont professor emeritus of biology Bernd Heinrich and Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl.
Other guests included Kate Braestrup, Kathleen Ellis, Annie Finch, Melissa Kelly, Gary Lawless, Sy Montgomery, Molly O’Neill, Michael Rhulman, Jonathan Skinner, Candace Stover, Joy Williams and Sandip Wilson.
The Midcoast Branch of the American Association of University Women presented the festival. Proceeds go to finance scholarships in the area, said Festival Chairwoman Maryanne Shanahan.