“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
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.
E. B. White
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.”
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.”
“Writing is an act of faith,” says White, “not a trick of grammar.”
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:
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 Charlotte’s 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.”
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