Thursday, June 2, 2011

On E.B. White

Earlier this week, C forwarded me an essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education about E.B. White’s writing: in particular, about his relationship with nature and the anthropomorphism of his animal characters. The author, Michael Sims, recalled White’s description of a Boston terrier from One Man’s Meat, so I pulled out my copy of that book to find the essay, titled “A Boston Terrier.” White translates for his dog:

“I’m in love,” he would scream. (He would scream just like a hurt child.) “I’m in love, and I’m going crazy.”

What follows is a hilarious description of his dog's trials and tribulations as he pursues the object of his affection: a little Scotty dog who lived down the road. White is a keen observer, but that can be said of almost any great author. He’s deeply empathic, but that adjective also gets thrown around a lot where good writing is concerned. He attributes human emotions to non-human subjects, namely animals, but other skilled authors do this as well. What I think sets him apart from most writers is his knack for observing and empathizing with a dog’s dogginess--the “brown vestigial bumps” that are the remains of an old dog’s teeth, and “awful” breath to go along with them, the dachsund that “quivers like an aspen” as he sleeps--while also attributing human qualities to the animals that resonate perfectly with behavior we’ve seen. It’s that special ability of a very few authors to create an image, description, character, that seems as familiar to us as if it were drawn right from our lives.

My sisters and I read Charlotte’s Web growing up, loved it; watched the movie, loved it. I can still picture the Garth Williams cover art, with the little girl Fern holding Wilbur the pig, and Charlotte dangling down at Fern’s eye level by a thread. Charlotte’s Web accomplishes the amazing feat of getting children to love, really adore, an insect that most of them probably hate/fear/avoid in every day life. I used to cry every time we got to the wrenching scene when Charlotte says goodbye to Wilbur, her voice growing faint as she nears death. Then I would relish the description of Charlotte’s little spiderlings floating away on filaments of web to find their own homes. Sims mentions that White carefully researched the life cycle and habits of spiders before writing about Charlotte, and through these discoveries he realized “that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows.”

White, like Gerald Durrell (another favorite author of mine), spent many hours as a child studying animals and plants on his family’s land in upstate New York. He hid away in the large barn with birds, dogs, rabbits, horses....rats, too (inspiration for the marvelous character Templeton). He was also a voracious reader of contemporary naturalists, and expanded upon the knowledge he gleaned from hours of observation. Durrell too

read contemporary science books, and was especially inspired by Jean Henri Fabre, a French naturalist who was most noted for his work in entomology. As young readers, both White and Durrell were drawn to writers who wrote animated prose about nature, eschewing the dry academic tone that that most scientists used. Fabre recognized that his writing lacked the “solemnity” and “dryness” that connoted truth for many people, because he felt truth could better be served with more accessible, engaging writing.

Fortunately for their readers, both White and Durrell took this idea and ran with it, but in very different directions. White’s nonfiction essays about life on the farm in coastal Maine delighted countless city readers of the New Yorker with their stories about dogs, cattle, fence building, chicken raising, and all manner of quotidian concerns in a small, rural town. But his fiction, and particularly what he wrote for children, has had the greatest impact, I think.

One Man’s Meat is a product of its time, as it was meant to be. Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and the The Trumpet of the Swan, on the other hand, transcend the times in which they were written. They feel as present now as they probably did 40 or more years ago when they were first released. In each of those books, White creates wonderfully unique animal characters that live with humans and that are imbued with human abilities, concerns, interests, and emotions. Louis the swan doesn’t have a voice, so he learns to write on a slate and play the trumpet in order to communicate. Wilbur lives with farmers who consider him to be a potential source of revenue or food, so his spider friend protects him by writing positive messages about him in her web. Stuart the marvelous mouse is the son of humans and lives, in great style, like a human AND a mouse.

Stuart Little came out in 1945, and family lore says that my grandmother started reading it to my mother in the early fifties while she was pregnant with her third child. I say she started reading it because as soon as she realized that Stuart Little, the mouse, was born to human parents, she allegedly stopped reading it, so alarmed was she by the thought of giving birth to a "surprise." If this story is true, then my grandmother must have put it down after just a couple of sentences, as this is how White begins Stuart LIttle:

“When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.”

What other author could have pulled off such an outrageous opening to a children’s book? I identified deeply with Stuart when I was a child because he was small and different. I loved him because he was a very dear mouse-person. His devotion to the bird Margalo felt incredibly convincing to me, even though I knew they were of different species and probably wouldn’t fall in love in "real life." Margalo herself seemed like just the sort of person a songbird would be, if we could talk to songbirds. That’s the magic of E.B. White--creating characters that feel completely familiar to us and that make us comfortable being both human and animal.