Accused of Harboring an Unlicensed Dog? Take a Lesson from Writer E.B. White

 

Writer E.B. White and his dachshund Minnie--the subject of White's hilarious letter to the ASPCA

 

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog,” says the writer E.B. White. “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

It’s been years since I’ve read White’s classic books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I had forgotten how funny the author could be until yesterday, when I nearly choked on my breakfast because I was laughing so hard at this letter written by White, currently posted on Shaun Usher’s wonderful site Letters of Note.

In 1951 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals accused E.B. White of not paying his dog tax and “harboring” an unlicensed dog. White wrote the following letter in response to the ASPCA…


12 April 1951

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
York Avenue and East 92nd Street
New York, 28, NY

Dear Sirs:

I have your letter, undated, saying that I am harboring an unlicensed dog in violation of the law. If by “harboring” you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her, I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off. I suppose you are wondering by now why I don’t get her a sweater instead. That’s a joke on you. She has a knitted sweater, but she doesn’t like to wear it for sleeping; her legs are so short they work out of a sweater and her toenails get caught in the mesh, and this disturbs her rest. If Minnie doesn’t get her rest, she feels it right away. I do myself, and of course with this night duty of mine, the way the blanket slips and all, I haven’t had any real rest in years. Minnie is twelve.

In spite of what your inspector reported, she has a license. She is licensed in the State of Maine as an unspayed bitch, or what is more commonly called an “unspaded” bitch. She wears her metal license tag but I must say I don’t particularly care for it, as it is in the shape of a hydrant, which seems to me a feeble gag, besides being pointless in the case of a female. It is hard to believe that any state in the Union would circulate a gag like that and make people pay money for it, but Maine is always thinking of something. Maine puts up roadside crosses along the highways to mark the spots where people have lost their lives in motor accidents, so the highways are beginning to take on the appearance of a cemetery, and motoring in Maine has become a solemn experience, when one thinks mostly about death. I was driving along a road near Kittery the other day thinking about death and all of a sudden I heard the spring peepers. That changed me right away and I suddenly thought about life. It was the nicest feeling.

You asked about Minnie’s name, sex, breed, and phone number. She doesn’t answer the phone. She is a dachshund and can’t reach it, but she wouldn’t answer it even if she could, as she has no interest in outside calls. I did have a dachshund once, a male, who was interested in the telephone, and who got a great many calls, but Fred was an exceptional dog (his name was Fred) and I can’t think of anything offhand that he wasn’t interested in. The telephone was only one of a thousand things. He loved life — that is, he loved life if by “life” you mean “trouble,” and of course the phone is almost synonymous with trouble. Minnie loves life, too, but her idea of life is a warm bed, preferably with an electric pad, and a friend in bed with her, and plenty of shut-eye, night and days. She’s almost twelve. I guess I’ve already mentioned that. I got her from Dr. Clarence Little in 1939. He was using dachshunds in his cancer-research experiments (that was before Winchell was running the thing) and he had a couple of extra puppies, so I wheedled Minnie out of him. She later had puppies by her own father, at Dr. Little’s request. What do you think about that for a scandal? I know what Fred thought about it. He was some put out.

Sincerely yours,

E. B. White

 

Writer E.B. White and his dachshund Minnie (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

 

I Was Allergic to Platforms, and Still Am

Elwyn Brooks White grew up as one of six children in Mount Vernon, New York. As Michael Sims details in his article The Nature of E.B. White in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, the young Elwyn was passionate about animals from a young age. 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 1969 White told the Paris Review that his childhood “lacked for nothing except confidence.”

“I suffered nothing except the routine terrors of childhood: fear of the dark, fear of the future, fear of the return to school after a summer on a lake in Maine, fear of making a appearance on a platform, fear of the lavatory in the school basement where the slate urinals cascaded, fear that I was unknowing about things I should know about. I was, as a child, allergic to pollens and dusts, and still am. I was allergic to platforms, and still am. It may be, as some critics suggest, that it helps to have an unhappy childhood. If so, I have no knowledge of it. Perhaps it helps to have been scared or allergic to pollens—I don’t know.”

 

 

Self-doubt afflicted White throughout his career. As Sims says in his book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic,  White was “afraid of commitment and romance and confrontation; he hid behind animals even in his early love poems and letters to his wife.”

“I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing,” he told the Paris Review. “I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use.”

But White persisted, and before long, he was receiving a regular stream of checks from The New Yorker. He went on to publish many books, including the widely-used English language style guide, The Elements of Style, also known as “Strunk & White”.

But even after several successful publications, White struggled with a sense of inadequacy, and a nagging feeling that he had seldom written anything worthwhile. “When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said—it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.”

 

E.B. White in his boathouse in Allen Cove, Maine. "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world," White once remarked. "This makes it hard to plan the day.” (Photo by Jill Krementz)

 

“Writing is an act of faith,” says White, “not a trick of grammar.”

“Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along…I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.”

 

In his 1978 piece The Second Tree from the Corner, White describes the slight sense of terror that confronts so many artists at the beginning of their work day:

“The thought of writing hangs over our mind like an ugly cloud, making us apprehensive and depressed, as before a summer storm, so that we begin the day by subsiding after breakfast, or by going away, often to seedy and inconclusive destinations: the nearest zoo, or a branch post office to buy a few stamped envelopes. Our professional life has been a long shameless exercise in avoidance. Our home is designed for the maximum of interruption, our office is the place where we never are. . . . Yet the record is there. Not even lying down and closing the blinds stops us from writing; not even our family, and our preoccupation with same, stops us.”

 

In 2005 in The New Yorker, E.B. White's stepson, Roger Angell, described his stepfather and his farm in Maine: "A saltwater farmer with a hundred and fifty pullets, a dozen geese, twenty or thirty sheep ... When the war came, he even took on a cow - the first time he leads her out to the pasture, he writes, he feels 'the way I did the first time I ever took a girl to the theatre' - and his production goals for 1942 were four thousand dozen eggs, ten pigs, and nine thousand pounds of milk."

 

I Handed Them a Mouse-Boy, and They Accepted It Without a Quiver

White lived in both New York and Maine, and nature was a constant source of pleasure for him, even in the city. From his apartment on East Forty-eighth Street, he would watch hermit thrushes, white-throated sparrows, brown thrashers, jays, and kinglets.

As Sims details, White 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…cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey.”

 

 

White’s passion for animals has made him the occasional target of critics over the years, as Sims explains:

“In 2006…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.'”

But Sims, who spent several years immersed in E.B. White’s work while writing his book The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, disagrees. “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…White’s relationship with animals was more imaginative than sentimental. He was no Jain unwilling to swat a mosquito.”

 

 

White was encouraged to attempt children’s fiction by his wife, Katharine White, the fiction editor of The New Yorker and a regular reviewer of children’s literature. It was Katharine who prodded her husband to write his first children’s book, Stuart Little. The book took six years to complete.

White believed that in order to connect with young readers, an author must respect the intelligence of children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

 

 

According to Sims, White developed much of the fanciful, empathetic story of Charlotte’s Web 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.'”

As Sims explains, several factors merged in the 1940s to inspire Charlotte’s Web: the death of a beloved 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,” says Sims, “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.”

 

Katharine and E.B. White in the 1940s, with their dachshund Minnie (Photo courtesy Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library)

 

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(Sources: Letters of Note & The Chronicle of Higher Education. Quotes from The Paris Review unless otherwise noted)


By | 2016-11-11T21:53:09+00:00 02.22.12|Found, Greatest Hits, Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

2 Comments

  1. Tammy February 22, 2012 at 6:22 am

    What an hysterical letter! It’s made even better by coming from such a beloved writer, one who charmed my childhood and whose “Elements of Style” continues to grace my adulthood. It was delightful to read this post, Michelle, thank you.

  2. Jeffrey Gross February 22, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    My god, what a grouch Theroux can be. But the Minnie stuff is hilarious (I speak as an unlicensed dog myself).

Comments are closed.