What Is the Purpose of “Once More to the Lake”?

The purpose of E.B. White’s 1941 essay, “Once More to the Lake,” is to illustrate the way in which White’s trip back to his childhood vacation spot with his son evokes powerful sensory memories: these memories make him acutely aware of his own mortality. White layers past memories on top of present-day experiences in order to emphasize the cyclical nature of human existence.

In this essay, White recalls the vacation trips he took with his father when he was his son’s age, and uses the non-linear narrative to bridge the gap between past and present. As he begins to recount the deeply embedded sensory memories from his childhood, White starts to connect the ways in which he now occupies his father’s place.

As he and his son fish, White marvels at his ability to straddle the line between past and present: he writes that he “…didn’t know which rod [he] was at the end of.” The split between his two selves becomes clearer as he and his son walk up to the farmhouse for supper. The growing weight of his own mortality becomes stronger when he notices that modernization has left only two tracks in the road: he acknowledges that he “…missed terribly the middle alternative.”

When an afternoon thunderstorm moves through, White describes it in terms of an old melodrama in which the tension builds until the skies explode with a cacophony of noise. However, once darkness is supplanted by the return of “light and hope and spirits,” the campers spring to life and run out to swim in the rain. It is at this point, as White stays out of the rain and watches his son prepare to join the swimmers, that he recognizes the cycle has come full circle. It is in this moment, that “… suddenly [his] groin felt the chill of death.”