The Chronicle Review

The Nature of E.B. White

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Katharine and E.B. White in the 1940s, with their dachshund Minnie
May 29, 2011

"Dear Mrs. White," the letter began, but it hadn't been delivered by a postman. It was the spring of 1930. The New Yorker editor Katharine S. White—who had acquired the new surname a few months earlier, upon marrying her younger colleague E.B. White—soon realized that the letter was from their Scottish terrier, Daisy.

Katharine had recently informed her husband that she was pregnant. Using the dog as a kind of ventriloquist puppet, 30-year-old White was trying to express the tangle of emotions that often overwhelmed him in his personal life. He sometimes referred to the dog as "an opinionated little bitch," but he was fond of Daisy—as he wound up feeling about most animals he was around—and he couldn't resist imagining his way into her psyche. Hence Mrs. White found herself reading along as Daisy explained that Mr. White was thrilled that there was to be "what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event," but then explained that nothing White ever said or wrote was able to quite express his true feelings.

In late December, their son, Joel, was born. It was a difficult birth; Katharine and the baby stayed in the hospital through Christmas and beyond. On New Year's Eve, White—again masked as the family terrier—wrote a letter to Joel, whom they had already nicknamed Joe, wishing him a happy first New Year and encouraging him to come home and see the blossoming narcissus in pots in their New York apartment. The excited new father tossed in a melancholy aside about the percentage of tears in life, then signed the letter, "Faithfully yrs, Daisy."

During my research into the inspirations for and the writing of Charlotte's Web, which took me back to White's early childhood, I was intrigued by many aspects of his personality: his anxieties and hypochondria, his passionate defense of free speech and civil liberties, his one-man campaign for world government. But nothing else about him caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.

In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb's tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey. He interpreted a Boston terrier's bark as, "I'm in love and I'm going crazy." When his henhouse's brooder stove burned itself out, he said he found the chicks "standing round with their collars turned up, blowing on their hands and looking like a snow-removal gang under the El on a bitter winter's midnight." Of his legendarily stubborn dachshund, Fred, White wrote, "And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up."

Of course, such ways of thinking and writing can easily veer into the kind of whimsy that inspired Dorothy Parker to say of The House at Pooh Corner, "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." White's whimsy is less twee than Milne's, but some readers dislike his personification for other reasons. In 2006, for example, Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White's anthropomorphism. "White's is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals," he wrote; "rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children's books, but (also in the tradition of children's books) for being against nature." White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as "against nature" as he was when a reviewer of Charlotte's Web declared that White had written it "with many a fearful glance backward for fear of horse laughs from the left."

It's true that "this boy," as White wrote of himself in childhood, "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux's indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures' reality, not less.

A quarter century after White's death, American culture is experiencing a babel of talking animals. Naturally they're still there in children's books. But beasts aren't exactly keeping quiet in adult literature (Yann Martel's Life of Pi) and film, both fictional (seemingly endless additions to franchises featuring Ice Age megafauna and pandas who learn martial arts) and documentary (Project Nim, about the famous scientific attempt to teach a chimpanzee sign language). Only the latter makes even the slightest effort to respect creatures' real lives or avoid sentimentality.

White's relationship with animals was more imaginative than sentimental. He was no Jain unwilling to swat a mosquito. During World War II, he claimed that when he shot at rats ("mine enemies," he called them), he pretended they were Nazis. The morality of farming bothered him but didn't turn him away from it. He would sit up late in April, tenderly nursing a lamb or pig back to health, only to slaughter it come August. Sometimes his sympathy leaped past the obligations of farming. In his 1948 Atlantic Monthly essay "Death of a Pig," he described his confusion in trying to save the life of an animal that he himself had planned to slaughter: "He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world."

Not surprisingly, White's three children's books all take place on Dr. Dolittle turf—a world in which animals speak and experience human emotions. Stuart Little may be carefully described as merely resembling a mouse, but he interacts with talking animals, and such beasts comprise most of the cast in Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. Chatty animals, barnyard and wild, populate all of literature, from Balaam's ass in the Bible (who memorably asks when beaten, "What have I done unto thee?") to Black Beauty's invention of the tortured-youth memoir. Literature—not just children's literature—provides countless examples of animals that bridge the gap between us and them by speaking in our language. Thus White joined in a venerable tradition.

My research in the E. B. White papers at Cornell (his alma mater) revealed that he went even further in his imaginative response to animals. In writing Charlotte's Web, White developed much of his fanciful, empathetic story from what might seem the least likely direction—natural science. After watching a real-life spider spin an egg sac above his barn doorway, he determined a likely species for her so that he might learn her characteristics. Turning to scientific sources, both recent and antique, he carefully researched the life cycle of spiders: how they spin orb webs and egg sacs, how they trap prey and lay eggs, how in the spring the spiderlings balloon and disperse on filaments of web. "I discovered, quite by accident," he wrote, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows."

From the first, his scientific research and his whimsical imagination encouraged each other. He envisioned Charlotte performing certain actions in her web, such as writing letters that showed up well enough for people to see, and immediately he turned to scientists to learn by what chemistry and acrobatics she might accomplish what he had in mind. He pounced on an unexpected tidbit of information in a source book, such as the detail that stream-side spiders have been known to catch small leaping fish in their webs, and soon Charlotte was retailing these facts as anecdotes about her extraordinary family.

It's less common to build a talking-animal story on a scientifically accurate foundation, but White isn't alone even in this subset. Beatrix Potter's elegant little books, most of them published during White's childhood, were rich in details from the world around her. After White, in the early 1970s, Richard Adams found the inspiration for Watership Down in a similar marriage of personal experience and science. Watership Down is a real place in Hampshire, and Adams constructed his rabbit colony around the scientific accounts of lapine social life by the Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley.

Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1899, and grew up there. His upper-middle-class parents had a stable almost as big and handsome as the family home, and in its dark and aromatic precincts, young Elwyn tended various animals, especially birds; he kept pigeons, chickens, a turkey, ducks, geese. He had a succession of beloved dogs. He helped with the horses, tended his rabbits in their hutch, watched the predatory antics of a stray cat that sometimes camped out under the stable. And sneaking around the stalls, as well as nesting under them, were thieving rats that crept into the subterranean pathways of his imagination as the embodiment of gluttonous dishonesty.

In the first years of his life, nature writers were lining up on both sides of a controversial issue—how to respond emotionally to nature, especially to animals, while keeping a science-informed reality in mind. The two camps were represented by writers such as John Burroughs and John Muir, who advocated nature's virtues in a lyrical way but did so within a rigorously factual approach; and William J. Long and Ernest Thompson Seton, who dramatized and fictionalized the natural world while claiming to be meticulously realistic.

The question wasn't about the role of personification in literature. No one argued that Black Beauty was a bad book because it portrayed animal characters from the inside, imbued with human thoughts and emotions. Such tales were avowed fiction, even fantasy. The uproar was over narratives that tried to have it both ways, claiming to be realistic—presenting true-to-life animal behavior—despite their outrageous tales of cunning, vice, and derring-do. Seton claimed to describe only what he witnessed, yet in Lives of the Hunted, he provided a legend for deciphering the humanlike wolves, bears, and crows that populate his books: "Lobo stands for Dignity and Love-constancy; Silverspot, for Sagacity; Redruff, for Obedience; Bingo, for Fidelity." From any scientific point of view, this was bestiary turf. Young Elwyn devoured such books.

From early childhood, he found the dark and pungent stable intoxicatingly rich in romantic associations with life and death and adventure. But it was also a refuge where a thoughtful young boy could spend time by himself. Inevitably, he saw barns and stables and farms in a symbolic light. The White family owned a toy farm that had belonged to Elwyn's mother in her own childhood—an entire nighttime scene with moon and stars in a dark blue sky over a bucolic farm with toy sheep and cows. "My dream farm," she called it. Every December she placed this peaceful miniature world at the foot of the Christmas tree, where its barn and duck pond were at Elwyn's eye level as he sprawled on the rug and wondered what was inside the colorfully wrapped Christmas gifts behind it.

Two decades later, in the mid-1930s (and six years into their marriage), E.B. and Katharine White bought a 40-acre farm on the coast of Maine. The house, which had been built around 1800, casually withstood the rugged winters. Attached to it in northeast fashion, linked by a wood shed, was a big barn whose handmade stanchions and hoof-scarred plank floors conjured like a genie the barn's own memories of and need for cows and sheep. "When I got a place in the country," White wrote later, "I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did." He surrounded himself with animals whose lives and personalities he observed in his half-factual, half-fanciful way.

Over the next decade and a half, he wrote his first children's novel, Stuart Little, and his essay collection One Man's Meat, and other books, around his daily tasks of carrying slops to hogs and helping cows give birth and watching the horrors of World War II and grieving over the deaths of his parents. Often he struggled with a sense of inadequacy, a nagging feeling that he had seldom written anything worthwhile.

In the late 1940s, several factors merged to inspire Charlotte's Web: the death of the pig, White's concerns about the morality of farming, his desire to capture on paper the rhythms of life. He began to weave all of those yearnings into a single story, a seemingly innocent tale of talking animals that, paradoxically, would be haunted by mortality's scythe from the very first sentence. To write about the most important issues in his life, this emotionally complex and timid man, who had turned 50 before he dived into Charlotte's Web, returned to the voice that had served him in the past. He hid behind animals, his favorite people.

Michael Sims is author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, due out this month from Walker & Co.