White, E. B. 1899-1985
E. B. White 1899-1985
(Full name Elwyn Brooks White) American essayist, critic, editor, journalist, poet, nonfiction writer, and author of juvenile fiction.
The following entry presents an overview of White's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volumes 1 and 21.
A naturalistic writer who earned enduring respect throughout much of his career for his adult-oriented essays and wry observations of life for the New Yorker, White is today primarily remembered for his three children's books, Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). Dedicated to concision of thought and feeling in his own writing as well as an honest and forthright approach to every facet of life, White was a fastidious editor of his own work, often altering passages and sentences repeatedly in an effort to express his intent in as direct and unpretentious a manner as possible. As a result, while his output was limited, his three works of juvenile fiction are generally regarded as masterworks of children's literature that remain very much a part of the American literary ritual of adolescence.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899, Elwyn Brooks was the sixth and final child of Samuel and Jessie White, who were both in their forties at the time of his birth. The elder White was a general manager of a musical instrument manufacturer who was able to provide a comfortable upper-middle-class existence for his large family. A naturally shy child, White later indicated in his semi-autobiographical essays for the New Yorker that he felt ill at ease among other children and, when the opportunity arose, preferred the company of his pets. Despite this retiring nature, he nonetheless pressed himself—at the urging of family members—to become more outgoing once he reached college. Following the legacy set by several of his older siblings, White enrolled at Cornell University where by all accounts he began to blossom. He joined a fraternity, eventually ascending to its chapter presidency, and became editor-in-chief of the Cornell student newspaper, the Daily Sun, by his junior year. One of the principal writers for the editorial page, White used these early journalistic exercises as a means of honing his natural talents for straightforward writing and clear expression. Recognized for his editorial ability with the Arthur Brisbane award, White turned down an offer by one of his professors to teach English and instead attempted to jump start a career in journalism upon his graduation in 1921 with a succession of jobs with the United Press, the Seattle Times, the American Legion News Service publicity arm, and several advertising agencies. But it was not until publisher Harold Ross created the New Yorker that White was able to find his literary niche. Intended as a more literary weekly magazine, the New Yorker was established in February 1925 and included essays of varying styles by noted writers and columnists of the era, as well as by relative unknowns. White's first piece, which appeared in April of that year, displayed flashes of his trademark subtle humor. A second column, entitled "Child's Play," about salvaging dignity in an upscale restaurant after tipping a glass of buttermilk on one's self, so impressed the magazine's literary editor, Katharine Sergeant Angell, that she recommended White be added as a permanent writer. As a regular columnist for the New Yorker, White found himself with a platform in which to hone his writing style, while exposing his talents to a broad base of appreciative readers. Additionally, White was able to befriend already established and up-and-coming writers who were fellow contributors to the New Yorker, among them, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, and Robert Benchley. Before long, White had his own weekly editorial column titled "Notes and Comment." But White found more than professional respect at the New Yorker when, in 1929, he married his early admirer Katharine Angell, their marriage lasting until her death in 1977. In 1938, seeking to bolster his reputation as a serious writer, White quit the "Notes and Comment" column and attempted to try his hand at longer material. To that end, he attempted an epic autobiographical poem that he found himself unable to finish. Eventually, he returned to his more natural medium with a series of monthly essays for Harper's, ultimately contributing fifty-five such pieces which were collected in One Man's Meat (1942), The Second Tree from the Corner (1954), and with his cumulative New Yorker articles in Essays of E. B. White (1977). Freed from the restrictions of having to live full-time in New York, White returned to the country to write, settling on a rural North Brooklin, Maine farm. As a result, many of the essays that arose from this period reflect these surroundings even as they simultaneously speak to more universal themes, such as in his famous essay, "Death of a Pig" (1948), in which he speaks of his desperate attempts to save a dying pig while reflecting upon the larger nature of life as a whole. During this period, White also found himself moving away from his former earthy subject matter and began composing essays to reflect his growing belief in American responsibility in world matters in the wake of World War II. Thusly, White became a strong voice of support for the nascent United Nations. In 1943 White resigned from Harper's to return to his role as essayist for the New Yorker, a role he would serve in varying capacities until his death from Alzheimer's disease on October 1, 1985.
Despite his recognized skill in crafting essays, White is most commonly associated with his children's books, particularly Charlotte's Web, which many consider to be his masterwork. Popular with children and their parents, White's three children's works are recognized for their simple diction and structure, a spare style which belies the affecting stories and moral lessons to be found within their pages. His first juvenile novel, Stuart Little, is the tale of the second child born to the Little family, a little boy who looks enormously like a mouse. Set within New York City, it reflects White's love for Manhattan as well as first introducing one of the major thematic elements of White's children's novels: a small child/animal forced to overcome a physical handicap. Stuart Little is not a normal human child and faces a series of hardships, despite even the protective love of his immediate family. While White emphasizes that Stuart is, in fact, the birth child of the Littles, he is, for all intents and purposes, a mouse. White's idea to use a bright but miniature character as the central figure of Stuart Little allowed the author to write from a child's own eye-level, yet because Stuart is essentially a nearly mature figure almost from birth, he is able to act in a more adult fashion. Children viewed Stuart as a stand-in for themselves, short in stature and at the mercy of those larger than themselves. But unlike them, as a near-adult in mental capacity, he has the potential for action and freedom, regardless of his physical limitations.
Released seven years after Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web is another extension of White's famed gentle moralism. Almost from its first sentence, "Where's Papa going with that ax?", the story is very clear about the potential fate of Wilbur, the runt pig Fern Arable begs her father not to kill. Spared this initial sentence of death, Wilbur is still at risk for slaughter throughout the book. It is only after Wilbur's treasured mother-figure/friend, the spider Charlotte A. Cavatica, and her astonishing ability to weave clever messages into her webs is revealed that he finally earns a measure of security. However, the reader is still left to mourn the inevitably short lifespan of spiders when Charlotte dies alone at the fair, the site of Wilbur's ultimate salvation. Death, therefore, is always at the forefront of Charlotte's Web, giving it a surprisingly heavy plot for a book intended for small children. Even so, White carefully constructed the text to reflect frank truths about the realities of life and death, yet in a characteristically benign and witty manner. Charlotte's Web is also suggestive of the power of childhood and its relation to that of the animal kingdom. Fern is able to comprehend the animals speaking, even if she never interferes or even particularly interacts with them. Two parallels universes seemingly exist on the farm, each operating in tangent to the other. Wilbur's barnyard finds nature reflecting many human characteristics such as Templeton the rat's greed, Charlotte's selflessness, and Wilbur's child-like innocence.
White's final book, The Trumpet of the Swan, was the result of financial anxieties in White's life that caused him to believe he needed another successful book in order to secure enough money to cover his wife Katharine's growing health crisis. As a result—by White's standards—the book was rushed, taking less than a year to write and edit. By comparison, he spent nearly twice that time composing his first two children's books. For his part, White always regretted rushing the book and allowing himself to rely on others to provide details about Philadelphia (Trumpet's primary setting) as well as the behavior of trumpeter swans. Unwilling to leave Katharine during her illness, he asked others to send him photos of the swans in the Philadelphia Zoo. His relative lack of familiarity with the subject is generally evident, but only in comparison to the high standard he set in his first two novels. Nonetheless, The Trumpet of the Swan continues White's overriding theme of overcoming disability to become a success in the world. Born mute, Louis the swan is given a stolen trumpet by his father so that he might communicate with other swans. Louis becomes a master jazz player and takes it upon himself to earn enough money to pay for the trumpet his father stole and thus redeem him. Ultimately, Louis's music becomes wildly popular, and he wins the heart of a beautiful female swan.
Since the initial publication of Stuart Little, White has remained one of the twentieth-century's most favorably regarded children's authors. His three works of juvenile fiction were best-sellers at the time of their release and remain in print, with both Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web often appearing at the top of critics lists for all-time best children's books. But as critically acclaimed as both Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan have become, Charlotte's Web has continued to be considered White's most enduring work. Elliott Gose has commented that, "many animal tales deal with the difficulty of accepting death, none handles it with as fine a combination of tact and realism as Charlotte's Web." However, there has been some critical debate regarding certain thematic elements of Charlotte's Web, particularly White's characterization of Fern Arable. Though some reviewers have considered Fern to be a secondary character and have dismissed her for losing interest in the barnyard characters, others have noted her importance both as a figure with whom young readers can identify and a representation of how the mutability of nature affects humans as well as animals. Discussing the legacy of Charlotte's Web, Matt Freeman has noted that, "[i]t has joined the pantheon of masterpieces that are honored by critics as much as they are loved by readers. And it has come to epitomize the power a few special books have to move their readers, to remain in their memories, to leave them feeling wiser, kinder, a little more human."
As one of the most well-regarded authors in children's literature, it is surprising that White never won one of his field's highest honors, the Newbery Award, narrowly missing on several occasions. However, among his many honors are the Gold Medal for essays and criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1978, and honorary degrees from seven American colleges and universities. Further, he was a member of the American Academy and, in 1970, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web jointly won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a major prize in the field of children's literature. Additionally, The Trumpet of the Swan was honored with the Sequoyah Award from Oklahoma and the William Allen White Award from Kansas, which were presented by the school children of those states to their favorite book of 1972. White also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and the National Medal for Literature.
Stuart Little [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1945
Charlotte's Web [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1952
The Trumpet of the Swan [illustrations by Edward Frascino] (juvenile fiction) 1970
Other Major Works
Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do? [with James Thurber] (essays and criticism) 1929
Ho-Hum: Newsbreaks from the New Yorker [editor] (essays and journalism) 1931
Another Ho-Hum: More Newsbreaks from the New Yorker [editor] (essays and journalism) 1932
Every Day Is Saturday (essays and criticism) 1934
The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems (poetry) 1938
Quo Vadimus?; or, The Case for the Bicycle (essays and criticism) 1939
One Man's Meat (essays and criticism) 1942
Here Is New York (essays and criticism) 1949
The Second Tree from the Corner (essays and criticism) 1954
The Elements of Style, 2nd edition [editor and contributor; with William Strunk, Jr.] (nonfiction) 1959; revised editions, 1972, 1979
The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South (essays and criticism) 1962
An E. B. White Reader [edited by William W. Watt and Robert W. Bradford] (essays, criticism, and journalism) 1966
Letters of E. B. White [edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth] (correspondence) 1976
Essays of E. B. White (essays and criticism) 1977
Poems and Sketches of E. B. White (poetry and essays) 1981
Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976 [edited by Rebecca M. Dale] (essays and journalism) 1990
STUART LITTLE (1945)
Malcolm Cowley (review date 28 October 1945)
SOURCE: Cowley, Malcolm. "Stuart Little: Or New York through the Eyes of a Mouse." In Critical Essays on E. B.
White, edited by Robert L. Root, Jr., pp. 67-8. New York, N.Y.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.
[In the following review, originally published in the October 28, 1945 edition of The New York Times, Cowley praises White's ability to write simply and clearly—ideal for a young audience—but ultimately, given White's great potential, finds Stuart Little to be a disappointment.]
Although Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Little were normal persons in every way, their second son looked very much like a mouse. Stuart, as they named him, had a mouse's sharp nose, a mouse's whiskers and a mouse's tail. At birth he was so small that a three-cent stamp would have carried him anywhere in the United States. At the age of 7, when he was fully grown, he weighed three and one-half ounces and was a little more than two inches tall, not counting the tail. He wore a gray hat and twirled a little cane.
In his pleasant, mouselike manner, shy but inquisitive, he was always getting into scrapes. Once he tried to do gymnastics on the cord that hung from the window blind, to impress the household cat. The blind rolled up and Stuart was imprisoned there all morning. Once he tried to go skating in Central Park; but a dog chased him, and he had to hide in a celery grove on top of a garbage can. The can was emptied into a truck, the truck was emptied into a scow, and Stuart was carried out to sea. He would have drowned that time, except for a friend of his, a little wrenlike bird named Margalo, who let him cling to her feet and carried him back to his own window sill.
When Margalo flew away to the north the following spring, Stuart went searching for her in a toy automobile with a real engine. He would drive into a filling station and say, "Five, please."
"Five what?" the attendant would ask, looking down at the car not half so big as a scooter.
"Five drops," Stuart would answer in a firm if squeaky voice. "Better look at the oil, too," he would say before riding off to look for a brownish bird, in much the same spirit as Galahad seeking the Grail.
Little Stuart is a very engaging hero, and Stuart Little is an entertaining book, whether for children or their parents. If I also found it a little disappointing, perhaps that is because I had been expecting that E. B. White would write nothing less than a children's classic. He has all the required talents, including a gift for making himself understood. He never condescends to his readers: if they happen to be younger than the audience he reaches through the New Yorker, he merely takes more pains to explain his story. Style is even more important in children's books than in those for adults, because one often reads aloud to children, and a bad style wearies the reader, not to mention what it does to the listeners. Within his own range of effects, Mr. White has the best style of any American author: clear, unhackneyed and never tying the tongue into knots.
He has, moreover, a talent for making big things small and homely, as if he saw the world distinctly through the wrong end of a telescope; or as if—to change the figure—he took his readers down the rabbit hole and showed them the bottle that Alice found there, the little bottle with "Drink Me" printed on the label. The liquid in the bottle had a sort of mixed flavor of cherry tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy and hot buttered toast; and when Alice drank it, she began shrinking until she was only ten inches high, so that she could look through a tiny door into the loveliest garden you ever saw. But the garden that Mr. White describes in his essays is the world as a whole, and the effect of smallness is deceptive—just as the effect of bigness is deceptive in the authors who imitate Walt Whitman; they describe a world that is really bare and simple, whereas Mr. White's world merely gives, through art, the effect of simplicity.
With this combination of talents in the author, one has high hopes for the book, and Mr. White doesn't always let us down. His dialogue is good from beginning to end. Each of the separate episodes is entertaining, and one at least is uproarious—I mean the boat race in Central Park with Stuart braving the storm at the wheel of a toy yacht. The day he spends as a school teacher is an effective fable about the San Francisco Conference: "Nix on swiping anything" and "Absolutely no being mean" are the two fundamental laws he proposes for a world organization, and I doubt that our statesmen could improve on them.
But the parts of Stuart Little are greater than the whole, and the book doesn't hold to the same mood or move in a straight line. There are loose ends in the story, of the sort that make children ask, "What happened then?"—and this time there isn't any answer. For example, a gray Angora cat plans to climb through the window and eat the little bird who is the heroine of the story. Margalo is warned and flies away; but we never learn what happened to the cat when she prowled through the house at night. We never learn what happened to Stuart as he pursued his search for Margalo: did he ever find her? Did he return to his family? Mr. White has a tendency to write amusing scenes instead of telling a story. To say that Stuart Little is one of the best children's books published this year is very modest praise for a writer of his talent.
Rosemary Carr Benét (review date 8 December 1945)
SOURCE: Benét, Rosemary Carr. "Mrs. Little's Second Son." In Critical Essays on E. B. White, edited by Robert L. Root, Jr., pp. 65-6. New York, N.Y.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.
[In the following review, originally published in the December 8, 1945 issue of The Saturday Review, Benét lauds White's matter-of-fact narrative voice in Stuart Little, commenting that the "humorous, wise quality found in E. B. White's other work is reflected here in miniature."]
Although Stuart Little may be listed as a children's book, and children will undoubtedly be the excuse for getting it into the house, it is for all ages, all shapes and sizes of readers who like the light fantastic tone. The exact number of years of the reader won't matter here any more than it does with Alice, The Wind in the Willows, some of Milne, or indeed the work of Walt Disney, who created that other popular mouse.
What is Stuart Little about? A mouse. Well, what was The Wind in the Willows about? A toad. But not the usual mouse or toad; neither one belongs to the general run of the animals-in-waistcoats school of writing. The first three sentences here will give the reader a definite ideas as to whether this is or is not his meat. "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son was born, 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."
The humorous, wise quality found in E. B. White's other work is reflected here in miniature. Stuart's conversation, towards the end of the book, with an earthy, much traveled telephone repair man who likes the North, has something of the philosophy of One Man's Meat. There is a matter-of-factness about all Stuart's adventures that keeps them from being too whimsical and that gives them substance and charm. "Before he was many days old, he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one too,—wearing a grey hat and carrying a small cane."
There is bound to be a charm about the miniature. Thumbelina is apt to be more popular always than Gargantua. Again, of course, one must qualify that statement by adding, for some people. Others may prefer elephants and the scale of Grand Central Station. At any rate there are many fine, small details about Stuart's fine, small life; the bed made from four clothes-pins and a cigarette box, the skates fashioned from paper clips, the dime rolled along like a hoop. Since the other Little son, George, is normal size, these all present family problems. Stuart's life in New York, his mistrust of Snowbell, the sinister family cat, his tour on the open road, all give us life in a new dimension, a mouse's eye view of things.
It is easy to see, by the way, from Garth William's illustrations why Stuart mistrusts Snowbell.
This is Mr. White's first venture into the present field. He began Stuart Little for a niece who was six years old at the time but had "grown up and was reading Hemingway" before he finished. "Oh, fish feathers," as Stuart Little once said, "size has nothing to do with it. It's temperament and ability that count!" That applies to Stuart Little the book, too.
Marah Gubar (essay date January 2003)
SOURCE: Gubar, Marah. "Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescence in E. B. White's Stuart Little." Lion and the Unicorn 27, no. 1 (January 2003): 98-119.
[In the following essay, Gubar equates the diffıculties of the inter-species relationship between Stuart and his human parents in Stuart Little to that of the inherent problems between most adolescents and their parents.]
When E. B. White's Stuart Little appeared in 1945, quite a controversy ensued; as Lucien L. Agosta has recounted, various readers and critics "assailed [the work] as a tasteless venture into the monstrous and unnatural in its grotesque depiction of the birth of a mouse to a human mother" (29). The influential children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore declared the book unpublishable, while White's New Yorker colleague Harold Ross was so disturbed by the first chapter that he burst into his friend's office shouting, "God damn it, White, you should have had him adopted!" (qtd. in Elledge 264). White himself was troubled by the issue of his hero's species; although he admitted to referring to Stuart as a mouse during the course of the narrative, he nevertheless insisted to his editor that the Littles' "second son . . . obviously is not a mouse," but rather "a small guy who looks very much like a mouse" ([Letters of E. B. White, ] 270). Although Stuart Little has long been accepted and indeed embraced as a children's literature classic, the vexed issue of the tiny protagonist's strange birth has not disappeared, as demonstrated by the recent—and very popular—film version of the book. Following Ross's advice, the movie opens in an orphanage, where Mr. and Mrs. Little discuss their decision to adopt Stuart with an extremely uneasy matron, who explains, "We try to discourage couples from adopting children outside of their own . . . species."
It is my contention that such "species trouble" symbolizes and speaks to the condition of another creature caught between two categories: namely, the adolescent.1 Even as miniature subjects like Stuart Little blur the line between the animal and the human, they also tend to inhabit the fraught frontier of adolescence, that unsettling period during which the boundary between childhood and adulthood is constantly breached and reasserted. This is a controversial claim, since most critics associate the trials and tribulations of miniature heroes with the plight of children, who must also navigate a world built to a scale that exceeds their size. Summarizing this view in reference to Stuart Little and Mary Norton's Borrowers series, Perry Nodelman notes that, "when these small beings prevail over insurmountable odds, as they always do, they represent a potent version of the . . . fantasy [that] the very small can triumph over the dangerously large, the very powerless over the exceedingly powerful" (Pleasures 199). Rob Minkoff, director of the Stuart Little film, endorses this paradigm when he maintains that White's narrative "[i]s a child empowerment story" (qtd. in Sterngold 7).2
Without a doubt, this interpretation pinpoints one way in which such texts appeal to young readers. Yet this focus on the enabling aspects of these narratives does not fully account for the frequency with which they plunge their main characters into positions of utter abjection; in both Stuart Little and the Borrowers series, the act of expulsion, coupled with the threat of extermination and extinction, drives the narrative. Neither fully human nor entirely animal, the status of miniature beings is always problematic: will they be treated like vermin (hunted down, caged, killed) or like humans (incorporated into the family, nurtured, embraced)? The radical reversals these characters undergo—from empowerment to abjection, from autonomy to dependence—evoke the vicissitudes of puberty, a perilous period during which independence and power sometimes turn out to be gratifyingly real, and sometimes depressingly illusory. In other words, the "species trouble" that complicates the lives of these beleaguered figures provides a metaphor for the adolescent's struggle to negotiate the gulf that separates childhood from adulthood.
The opening of Stuart Little therefore sets its hero up not only as a "mouse-child," as White once called him, but also as a child-man. In chapter one, White explains that,
Unlike most babies, Stuart could walk as soon as he was born . . . Mrs. Little saw right away that the infant clothes she had provided were unsuitable, and she set to work to make him a fine little blue worsted suit with patch pockets in which he could keep his handkerchief, his money, and his keys.
(Elledge 253; White, Stuart Little 2)
Citing this passage, critics have claimed that Stuart, like Tom Thumb, is "mature at birth . . . a miniature grown-up" (Agosta 31).3 But surely the mix of infantile and adult characteristics that he exhibits better matches our concept of an adolescent; by turns capable and helpless, suave and embarrassed, Stuart is at once a "great help" to his family and the most troublesome member of the household, a youth who "present[s] many problems to his parents" (4, 9). Indeed, in the course of the narrative he experiences many classic and discomfiting adolescent moments: first love, first date, first car wreck, and first job, to mention a few. Furthermore, despite his deep desire to be neat, clean, and well-dressed—that is to say, adult and human—Stuart constantly finds himself soiled, wetted, and trapped like an animal. And appropriately enough, it is his family who constantly place him in these embarrassing situations.
The titles of the first three chapters—"In the Drain," "Home Problems," and "Washing Up"—hint at how Stuart is pressed into assuming an abject position within the Little household. Mr. and Mrs. Little, White lets slip, "had never quite recovered from the shock and surprise of having a mouse in the family," and their anxiety and discomfort lead them to encourage their son to embark upon dirty and dangerous adventures that basically constitute attempts to expel this disturbingly animalistic presence out of the family body (9). For example, when Mrs. Little loses a ring down the bathtub drain, Mr. Little suggests they send Stuart down after it.
"How was it down there?" asked Mr. Little, who was always curious to know about places he had never been to.
"It was all right," said Stuart.
But the truth was that the drain had made him very slimy, and it was necessary for him to take a bath and sprinkle himself with a bit of his mother's violet water before he felt himself again. Everybody in the family thought he had been awfully good about the whole thing.
Nevertheless, "everybody in the family" constantly asks Stuart to perform similarly unpleasant duties, like retrieving stray Ping-Pong balls from under furniture and remaining inside the piano while it is played to push a sticky key and make it sound. The Littles urge Stuart into one domestic orifice after another, despite the fact that these excursions cause him to sweat, grow deaf, catch cold, and almost vomit. Tellingly, though, "the thing that worrie[s] Mr. Little most" about Stuart's future with the family is that he might venture into the mousehole in the pantry: nevertheless, "nothing had been done about stopping it up" (11).
Spruce, trim, and constantly concerned with hygiene, Stuart himself never expresses the slightest interest in exploring the secret spaces that so fascinate Mr. Little. Rather, as Garth Williams's brilliantly conceived illustrations indicate, it is the other members of the family who want to see him go "down the mousehole" and out into the world (20, 23). Underlying the Littles' desire to drive Stuart out of the house is an unspoken horror of the mysterious process by which Mrs. Little's womb could produce such a "mouselike" baby (110). Thus, although the first sentence of the narrative glosses over the circumstances of Stuart's birth, the story keeps returning to the scene of the birth canal.4 Similarly, though the first paragraph finds White casually collapsing the boundary between man and mouse, species trouble persists throughout the story. White nonchalantly explains, "Before [Stuart] was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too—wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane" (2). But this calm conflation of animal and human characteristics cannot conceal the fact that Stuart's hybrid identity clearly unsettles the Littles. To borrow Kristeva's definition of the abject, Stuart embodies "the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite"; and his family shifts back and forth between embracing him as a cherished child and treating him like an unwelcome household pest (4).
Chronicling the various ingenious ways that the Little family manages to incorporate Stuart into the house, White describes how they make him "a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box," and provide him with a small hammer that enables him to turn on the faucet to brush his teeth (2). But even this whimsical description of how the family adapts to their unusual son's presence subtly foreshadows their eventual need to get rid of him; explaining that Stuart's mother weighs him using "a scale which was really meant for . . . letters," White adds that, "At birth Stuart could have been sent by first class mail for three cents, but his parents preferred to keep him rather than send him away" (2-3). Hoping to prevent Stuart from identifying with doomed creatures like the "Three Blind Mice," Mr. and Mrs. Little carefully expunge all references to mice from their conversation (and home library). Yet immediately after choosing this course of action, Mr. Little insists on associating Stuart with rodents; musing about the mousehole, he remarks to his wife, "'After all, [Stuart] does look a good deal like a mouse . . . And I've never seen a mouse yet that didn't like to go into a hole'" (11).
As this episode suggests, even as the Littles strive to assimilate their unusual son into the household, Stuart's indeterminate species causes them to identify him with indeterminate spaces, with apertures that mark the boundary between inside and outside space. Literally as well as metaphorically, in other words, Stuart Little dramatizes the condition of being betwixt-and-between. Hovering at the margins of the household, Stuart's liminal position evokes the frightening yet exhilarating predicament of an adolescent poised at the outer limit of the family, almost ready to make the leap into the outside world. Reading Stuart Little this way helps explain the Littles' ambivalent attitude toward their progeny; stormy relations are virtually de rigueur for parents and teenagers in fiction, if not in life. Or, to put it another way, the Littles' oscillations constitute an exaggerated form of the kind of fluctuation that adults attached to adolescents routinely perform, when they switch back and forth between offering a supportive home environment and encouraging their offspring to achieve greater independence.
Just as the Little family alternates between helping Stuart fit into the family and insistently urging him out of it, the narrative seesaws between portraying Stuart as an ablebodied, tough-minded gentleman who can master all sorts of tricky situations, and a vulnerable little fellow who is not quite ready to take care of himself.5 For example, in a testosterone-infused confrontation, Stuart brags to the Littles' cat, Snowbell, "'I bet my stomach muscles are firmer than yours . . . [Mine are] like iron bands'" (18). To prove his strength, Stuart grabs hold of the ring at the end of a window-shade cord and swings on it, calling out, "'You can't do this'" (19). But when the shade unexpectedly snaps up, Stuart finds himself "frightened and bruised inside the rolled-up shade . . . crying and hurt and unable to get out" (20). This painful imprisonment is then itself juxtaposed with the liberating adventures chronicled in the next chapter, when Stuart is hired to sail a toy boat in Central Park. Triumphantly sailing the schooner Wasp to victory, Stuart declares himself to be "'happier than I have ever been before in all my life'" (37). This exciting voyage represents Stuart's first solo venture into the outside world, and gives our hero a taste for the pleasures of freedom and self-reliance. Thus, when his family inquires "where he had been all day," Stuart cagily replies, "'Oh, knocking around town'" (46).
In the sense that it simultaneously celebrates the glory of independence and autonomy and underscores the woe of powerlessness and vulnerability, Stuart Little can be read as a quintessentially adolescent narrative.6 Of course, the popular notion that miniature figures represent children can explain these sharp shifts, too; the humiliations our hero suffers attest to the fact that, "Like the child/reader, Stuart is in many ways helpless," while his triumphs—moments of genuine self-sufficiency—can be read as wish fulfillment, mere fantasies of potency (Hunt 118). This type of interpretation helps clarify why children have engaged with the text so eagerly, but it does not account for the most disturbing aspect of the story: namely, the fact that life in the Little household proves hazardous enough to put Stuart on the endangered species list. The dire domestic perils Stuart encounters problematize any attempt to construe him as a young boy, since child-centered narratives generally tend to portray home as a space of safety, and the outside world as overwhelming and dangerous. But Stuart Little makes exactly the opposite move; although both arenas have their hazards, home proves to be a far more toxic environment than the public domain. Indeed, White's narrative requires Stuart to leave the domestic realm behind and forge his own way in the world, thus providing support for the theory that Stuart's predicament parallels that of an adolescent teetering on the brink of adulthood.
Virtually all of Stuart's transcendent moments take place outside the Little abode, as when he triumphantly pilots the Wasp to victory, or demonstrates stunning self-assurance during his first day as a substitute teacher. Tellingly, parallel events at home result in far less positive outcomes. Dunked overboard while sailing the Wasp, for example, Stuart emerges "quite unharmed," but tumbling into a saucer of icy prune juice at home results in a bad case of bronchitis, necessitating two weeks of bed rest and an intimate acquaintance with gargle, nose drops, and Kleenex (40, 51). At home, Stuart reluctantly acquiesces to the family's desire to place him in abject positions, but at school he steadfastly refuses to allow his students to steer the conversation around to gross topics like snakes, "sin and vice," and "the fat woman at the circus [who] had hair all over her chin" (91). Instead, he successfully leads a discussion on "important" topics like justice, beauty, and equal rights for rats (92). Depending on whether he is at home or abroad, people address Stuart very differently; watching our hero confidently handle all sorts of mishaps onboard the Wasp, an admiring audience cheers his bravery, calling out, "'Atta mouse, Stuart! Atta mouse!'" (40). In contrast, domestic disasters invariably occasion strings of infantilizing endearments, as when Mrs. Little laments, "'My poor dear little son!'" and "'Oh, my brave little son'" (21, 6).
Ultimately, as these phrases indicate, living with the Littles proves to be a profoundly belittling experience for Stuart. Besides getting rolled up in the window shade and sent "under [the] hot radiator," he finds himself trapped in the refrigerator (where he falls into the prune juice), and finally tossed out with the trash, "buried two feet deep in wet slippery garbage. All around him was garbage, smelling strong. Under him, over him, on all four sides of him—garbage" (7, 58). Given the family's earlier attempts to send Stuart down the drain, as well as their fantasy—thinly disguised as a fear—that Stuart will go "down the mousehole," it is no coincidence that Stuart gets caught up in the systematic attempt to clear residential space from refuse (20). Stuart's immersion in garbage occurs as a direct result of Mr. Little's desire to see him engage in dangerous adventures outdoors; even as Stuart lies ill in bed, recovering from bronchitis, Mr. Little presents him with a pair of ice skates, a gift guaranteed to propel Stuart out of the house and into danger. Such a gesture belies the claim that Mr. Little lives "in constant fear of losing [Stuart] and never finding him again" (47). After all, anyone familiar with Stuart's plucky character could predict that as soon as he recovers, he will set out in search of a frozen pond. Donning a pair of ski pants, he does just that, and, as a result, finds himself facing a dirty death at the hands of the Department of Sanitation.
Driving the action of Stuart Little, then, is an underground extermination narrative, which becomes explicit when an Angora pal of Snowbell's plots to hunt down and eat the Little's avian houseguest, Margalo, who gets wind of the plan and flies away without telling anyone. This incident highlights how White portrays the family as both lethal and lifegiving; first, the Littles nurse Margalo back from death when they discover her passed out on their windowsill, but then her life is threatened by remaining with them, and she must leave the nest to survive. Because Margalo serves as a double for Stuart, her arrival stirs up species trouble, too; resorting to the hyphenated "hen-bird" to describe his heroine, the narrator notes that the Littles could not agree "on what kind of bird she was," a "wall-eyed vireo" or a "young wren" (50). Just as Margalo's sojourn in the family's Boston fern very nearly proves deadly—Snowbell attacks her himself, as well as by proxy—Stuart's stint in the Little household likewise reveals that families can be fatal, a feeling commonly attributed to adolescents. Within this context, leaving home is portrayed as a necessary and exhilarating step; deeply in love with Margalo, Stuart departs without a word to anyone and never looks back. Given the traumas that home life has visited upon him, running away seems not wrongheaded but eminently sensible; unlike many children's books which depict the runaway's experience as a foolish or disastrous choice quickly remedied by a repentant return, Stuart's travels are represented as liberating and sublime.
According to Kristeva, "The abject is edged with the sublime," and this proposition perfectly describes Stuart's experience (11). However fraught with filth the trial of exiting the house is for Stuart, it nonetheless suggests to him the possible thrill of achieving adult independence. Even the disgusting trip he takes out to sea on the garbage scow introduces him to the beauty of "the ocean, and the gray waves curling with white crests, and the gulls in the sky, and the channel buoys and the ships" (66). Like Stuart's inspiring jaunt to Central Park, this "narrow escape" serves as a test flight for his final departure (57). Hitting the road at the end of the story, Stuart keys into a fulfilling, deeply masculine mode of self-sufficient existence, telling a solicitous shopkeeper,
I'm not much of a society man these days. Too much on the move. I never stay long anywhere—I blow into a town and blow right out again, here today, gone tomorrow, a will o' the wisp. The highways and byways are where you'll find me, always looking for Margalo.
Because White's narrative focuses specifically on male adolescence, we see Stuart trying out different kinds of masculinity throughout the story. Thus, although he prides himself at first on exhibiting the suave urbanity of a city mouse, here he decides to embrace the cowboy's creed—"Don't Fence Me In."
However, as this passage suggests, the final section of Stuart Little elaborates on a theme calculated to appeal to adolescents of both genders: namely, the fantasy of not needing a home, of transcending the trouble of relating to one's immediate family. Needless to say, this is an atypical message for a story aimed at young children, as demonstrated by the fact that the 1999 movie version of Stuart Little recasts the ending completely. Rather than chronicling how Stuart leaves home, the film shows Stuart successfully struggling to return home after being kidnapped away against his will. The famously idyllic final section of the book, in contrast, seems to offer Stuart instant, unproblematic autonomy. Hardly ever homesick, Stuart makes a clean break with his family, never even bidding them goodbye before he goes. Decked out in his new clothes, driving his new car, it seems Stuart has divorced himself from the humiliations of adolescent abjection and achieved what children's booksellers flatteringly refer to as "Young Adult" status.
Ultimately, however, White insists on depicting the fantasy of transcending the dirty work of adolescence as just that—a fantasy, an impossibility. For this reason, the radical reversals of status Stuart undergoes during the early chapters of the narrative continue throughout the final section. For example, our hero confidently assures a friend that handling his new car will "certainly" not be a problem; then, almost immediately, he crashes it (78). Likewise, when the shopkeeper offers to introduce him to a girl "just his size," Stuart insolently inquires, "'What's she like? Fair, fat and forty?'" (104). But when he actually sees Harriet Ames, "all his boldness" leaves him, and he finds himself betrayed by his body and his lack of control over circumstances generally (107). Their disastrous date provides some of the strongest proof that Stuart, despite his newfound independence and maturity, cannot completely escape the humiliating depths of adolescent abjection. Seeing Harriet from afar causes him "to tremble from excitement," and as he waits for her to arrive, "He would no sooner get a clean shirt on than he would discover that it was wet under the arms, from nervous perspiration, and he would have to change it for a dry one" (117-18). To top it off, some big boys damage the canoe Stuart has carefully outfitted for their ride, causing him to become so furious and upset that he cannot continue the date.
The "adolescent poignancy" of this painful scene suggests that when White sends Stuart sauntering off into the sunrise at the end of the story, our hero has not yet transcended the growing pains that have plagued him throughout the narrative (Neumeyer, "Stuart Little " 600). Rather, since this is a narrative about the halting, erratic process of maturation, Stuart's confident exit can be viewed as a bold step forward that will probably be followed by a slide backward. In keeping with the idea that Stuart's status remains shaky, the species trouble from which he has suffered remains unresolved to the end. After all, a mouse mating with a bird? This coupling seems just as unlikely to work out as Stuart's disastrous date with Harriet Ames. As the juxtaposition of these two options indicates, Stuart continues to vacillate between the human and the animal realm, as well as between the world of childhood and that of adulthood. White's pointedly inconclusive conclusion reflects his hero's status as a creature at the crossroads; pausing at a fork in the road, Stuart opts to travel north, and White reports that, "As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction" (131). "Heading North" here provides a metaphor for growing up, but as the preceding chapters have already demonstrated, progress on this front can be capricious, exhilaratingly speedy one minute and glacially slow the next.
This focus on what another New Yorker writer once referred to as "the adolescent mode—the mode of exploration, becoming, growth, and pain" links Stuart Little to White's two other full-length fictions, Charlotte's Web (1952) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) [qtd. in Spacks 3]. To borrow a phrase from Peter F. Neumeyer, all three of these narratives showcase the author's preoccupation with "growing up—or older—within time, within the circle of nature's seasons" ("E. B. White" 349). White's keen attentiveness to these issues is evident from the opening scene of The Trumpet of the Swan, when eleven-year-old Sam Beaver decides not "to tell his father what he had seen" during his first solo foray into the area around their Canadian campsite (1). Sam has discovered a nest full of Trumpeter Swans, and as the narrative continues, it chronicles the parallel development of Sam and Louis, a baby swan born without the ability to trumpet like others of his species. Louis's first flight comes soon after Sam's initial exploratory trip through the swamp, and the two attend school together, find their first jobs at the same summer camp, and even begin noticing the opposite sex around the same time; Louis succumbs to his infatuation with Serena, "the swan of his desiring," just after Sam reaches the age where he begins blushing at the mention of love (151). By novel's end, both have discovered their true vocation in life. The aptly named Louis, having learned to play the trumpet to counteract his speechlessness, conquers the music business before turning his attention to raising a family, while Sam takes a job at the Philadelphia Zoo "just as soon as he was old enough to go to work" (204).
As Dr. Dorian comments in Charlotte's Web, "It's amazing how children change from year to year" (111). Like Sam, Fern Arable alters considerably during the course of the narrative, growing out of her fascination with animals and into her first crush on the unpromisingly named Henry Fussy. And like Stuart, Louis, and Sam, she too longs to enjoy some freedom from her family; when her parents finally allow her to explore the County Fair on her own, she and her brother Avery tear off "toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure . . . into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard them and guide them, and where they could be happy and free and do as they pleased" (131). By definition, a midway is the area of a fair or carnival where amusements such as rides and side shows are located. But White's phrase "the wonderful midway" also evokes the blissful aspects of early adolescence, so evident in Fern's description of her first date with Henry, which she calls "'the best time I have ever had anywhere or anytime in all of my whole life'" (143). White ingeniously sets this momentous event on the Ferris wheel, thereby linking this strand of the story to the one that chronicles the seasonal cycles of growth, development, and death that govern life on the farm.7 Like Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web leaves its young protagonist "Heading North," as an amazed Mrs. Arable watches "her little daughter sitting with Henry Fussy and going higher and higher into the air" (139).
But while Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan portray human (and animal) development as a natural process that rolls forward like an exciting ride, Stuart Little concentrates less on the experience of moving from phase to phase than on the uncomfortable predicament of being caught between phases. Rather than representing adolescence as "the wonderful midway," Stuart Little portrays life in the middle primarily as a messy, dangerous experience. Not only do recurring references to holes, drains, sewage, and trash highlight the frightening fragility of the boundary between inside and outside space, the whole movement (or lack thereof) of the plot follows the trajectory of abjection, an operation Kristeva characterizes as triggered by the disintegration of boundaries. According to her formulation, abjection occurs when the border between inside and outside, self and other, blurs or breaks down. Such terrifying porousness leads to a violent refusal of that which is "opposed to I"; in other words, the act of abjection constitutes an attempt to reassert the boundary between "me" and "not-me" (1). We can chart how this ceaseless confrontation with—and attempt to cleanse oneself of—otherness pervades the plot of Stuart Little in two separate ways: through the actions of Mr. and Mrs. Little and their son George, and through those of Stuart himself.
I have already documented the many ways in which the Littles' need to expel Stuart manifests itself during the course of the narrative. As a living symbol of the animal demands camouflaged by civilized human behavior, Stuart is ceaselessly if unconsciously pushed away from the family body. For this reason, his presence is associated not just with trash but with bodily wastes such as sweat, snot, vomit, and dung. A particularly bald example of this linkage occurs when White chronicles Stuart's trip on the garbage truck: "When the truck arrived at the East River, [. . .] the driver drove out onto the pier, backed up to a garbage scow, and dumped his load. Stuart went crashing and slithering along with everything else and hit his head so hard he fainted and lay quite still, as though dead" (60). Here, White associates Stuart not only with excrement, but also with the corpse, which Kristeva characterizes as "the most sickening of wastes," the ultimate abject object (3-4). According to Kristeva, the revulsion that causes us to recoil from such objects represents "the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection"; by disassociating ourselves from them—by naming them "Not me"—we constitute ourselves as subjects (2).8 The Littles enact this exercise in denial by pushing Stuart away from the human and toward the animal realm. But since he is indisputably "a member of the family"—just as bodily processes like excretion are an inalienable part of our physical life—they can never fully commit to the act of exclusion (68). Alternately attempting to incorporate Stuart into the household and to urge him out it, their actions mirror the endless, uneasy operation of abjection, described by Kristeva as "an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion" (1).
As for Stuart, he too struggles to distance himself from relentless commands of corporeality. Not only does he engage in constant cleansing during the course of the narrative, he experiences nausea, the paradigmatic expression of abjection. Twice during his immersion in garbage, he worries that he is "'going to . . . get sick at my stomach before I get out of this'" (59, 63). Furthermore, he is continually changing clothes, taking baths, or sprinkling himself with violet water. In fact, White spends an entire chapter chronicling Stuart's interest in and eventual proficiency at "Washing Up." Our hero's personal style likewise reflects his preoccupation with hygiene; his preference for suits and accoutrements like a gray felt hat, handkerchief, and cane demonstrates his desire to mask his mouse side, as does his decision to don an English accent during his date with Harriet, presumably in order to compensate for "my only drawback . . . my somewhat mouselike appearance" (109-110). Even his final departure into the animal kingdom to find Margalo does not signal a new acceptance of corporeality, demonstrating as it does a total disregard for physical fact.
But perhaps the most effective way to demonstrate how pervasively the act of abjection dominates the action of Stuart Little is to compare White's treatment of Stuart with his portrayal of Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web. Both rodents are associated with refuse, but while Stuart views getting covered with garbage as "'about the worst thing that could happen to anybody,'" Templeton luxuriously revels in his excursions to the dump and the fairgrounds (61). In a line that serves as a negative precursor to the rapturous lists of leftovers that White uses to define the fair as "a rat's paradise," Stuart complains, "'I wish I didn't have to die with egg on my pants and butter on my cap and gravy on my shirt and orange pulp in my ear and banana peel wrapped around my middle'" (Charlotte's Web 122; Stuart Little 61). Because Stuart Little portrays the breaking down of boundaries as a profoundly threatening event, Stuart's encounter with the excluded proves not only disgusting but nearly fatal. In contrast, Charlotte's Web depicts the dump not as a grave, but as a life-sustaining playground for "feasting and carousing"; beside providing Templeton with many "rich" meals, this area yields up the scraps of advertising copy that contain the words that save Wilbur's life (148). White further validates Templeton's taste for trash by showing that Wilbur, a much more endearing character, shares the rat's love of leftovers. Cataloguing the contents of one of the pig's slops, White writes,
It was a delicious meal—skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a ginger snap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello.
These conflicting attitudes toward garbage suggest that while the action of Stuart Little revolves around the practice of phobic exclusion, the plot of Charlotte's Web depends on a doctrine of all-encompassing incorporation. White himself once described the story of Charlotte and Wilbur as "a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung," and the many references to manure and other traditionally shunned substances in Charlotte's Web certainly support this claim (Letters 614). Early on in the narrative, White lovingly describes how a mixture of hay, dung, the sweat of horses, and the "wonderful sweet breath" of cows gives the barn "a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world" (13). Then too, Wilbur makes a "delightfully soft" bed out of cow manure, and Charlotte serenades him with a lullaby beginning, "Sleep, sleep, my love, my only, / Deep, deep, in the dung and the dark" (101, 104). Even "the awful smell" of a rotten goose egg proves invaluable in the grand scheme of things; while attempting to capture Charlotte, Avery accidentally breaks the ancient egg, and the terrible odor "save[s] Charlotte's life" by driving the boy away "just in time" (73). As Perry Nodelman observes, "Charlotte's Web is a book about the acceptance and celebration of all aspects of existence, the good along with the bad; in its own phrase, it celebrates 'the glory of everything'" ("Text as Teacher" 116).
Thus, although Templeton has "no morals . . . no decency, no milk of rodent kindness," he nevertheless emerges as a crucial member of the barn community (46). Indeed, it could be argued that Templeton, not Charlotte, plays the largest role in securing Wilbur's salvation. Not only does he find the words that Charlotte weaves into the web, he hoards the goose egg that saves her life. Furthermore, when Wilbur faints before he can receive the special prize that will ensure his safety, Templeton bites his tail and revives him. And finally, when Charlotte lacks the strength to carry herself and her unborn children back to the Zuckermans' farm after the Fair, Templeton climbs up and fetches the egg sac for Wilbur, thereby making the pig happy "all the rest of his days" (167, 183). "He saved everything," explains the narrator, referring to the rat's habit of stockpiling junk; but of course this remark encourages readers to notice that a creature despised for his greedy omnivorousness does in fact save the day (45). Illustrating the incident when Wilbur, with the help of Charlotte and Templeton, attempts to spin a web, Garth Williams provides pictorial proof of the rat's key role (59). By placing the flying pig halfway between his two allies, Williams suggests that a collaboration between high and low forces—the airborne Charlotte and the earthbound Templeton—propels Wilbur to fame and a happy future on the farm.9
For just as Templeton refuses to engage in any kind of abjection—"'I never throw anything away,'" he boasts—White's story insists on embracing even the most abject of objects and creatures (74). The central plot of Charlotte's Web, after all, concerns the glorification of a pig, as performed by a spider and a rat. Yet White never glosses over Wilbur's hogginess, Templeton's meanness, or Charlotte's "bloodthirsty" ways (39). "Drooling" and "grunt[ing]," as well as "gulp[ing]" and "suck[ing]" his food, Wilbur is indisputably "the smelliest creature in the [barn]," while "everybody kn[ows]" that Templeton aids others only out of self-interest, and that he would kill a gosling if he got the chance (74-75, 61). Maintaining that Templeton "starts as a rat and he ends as a rat—the perfect opportunist and a great gourmand," White warned the director of an animated film version of Charlotte's Web not to "elevate Templeton to sainthood"; similarly, he stressed of Charlotte that "essentially she is just a trapper" (Letters 613). Although she looks after Wilbur so lovingly, Charlotte also exhibits a "brutal, scheming" side, capturing and eating bugs in order to survive (41). When Wilbur, shocked that his new friend seems to embody "everything I don't like," nevertheless pursues a relationship with her, he models the practice of acceptance and incorporation everywhere promoted by the narrative. Charlotte's Web recognizes certain kinds of beings and behavior as alien and repellant and insists on embracing them anyway (41).
Compared to Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little emerges as a distinctly phobic narrative. To begin with, it introduces troublesome topics—Stuart's strange birth, his indeterminate species, his problematic relationship with his family—only to exclude or ignore them. While Charlotte's Web unflinchingly deals with tough subjects like death, loneliness, and ennui, Stuart Little specializes in repression; for example, though both narratives entertain the idea that caring parent figures can have a cruel side, the former addresses this issue head on, while the latter suppresses it. Confronted with Charlotte's frightening characteristics during their first meeting, Wilbur gradually grows accustomed to her fierce ways. In contrast, Stuart never encounters a single open expression of hostility, even though in his case, parental aggression is aimed directly at him (rather than at bug bystanders). Appropriately enough, however, the relentlessly candid Charlotte's Web manages to blurt out a succinct summary of the unacknowledged drama of Stuart Little. Enraged that her father plans to kill the runty Wilbur because he is "no bigger than a white rat," Fern demands, "'If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?'" (5, 3).
But Stuart Little never admits to entertaining this dark theme; as White's New Yorker colleague Edmund Wilson complained, the Kafkaesque elements of the narrative remain unacknowledged and underdeveloped.10 Rather than recognizing and attempting to improve or resolve his distressing situation at home, for example, Stuart flees; and the narrative follows through on this act of denial by refusing to recognize his departure as a flight, presenting it instead as a glorious quest into the great unknown. Following White's lead, critics have described Stuart's exodus as a journey, a "romance-quest," and an idealistic search for "what is perfect and unattainable" (Agosta 47, Letters 406). Such an interpretation glosses over the fact that Stuart's departure, like Margalo's, also represents a phobic retreat from the home front, another in a series of "narrow escape[s]." Acknowledging this aspect of Stuart's trip instantly transforms the narrative into a more coherent whole. For if Stuart's domestic troubles do not serve as a motivating factor for his journey, the critics who take issue with the disjointed nature of White's narrative have a point; Edward C. Sampson's argument that "White simply dropped the earlier part of the story" (99) in order to chronicle the quest seems valid, as does Malcolm Cowley's claim that "the parts of Stuart Little are greater than the whole" (68). Recognizing that Stuart's trip can be read both as a "quest for" and as a "flight from" illuminates the ties that bind the two halves of the story together, indicating that we should not simply accept White's description of Stuart Little as "my innocent tale of the quest for beauty" (["The Librarian Said It Was Bad for Children" ] 19).
Giving voice to the dynamic of suppression that governs the narrative, Snowbell complains to the Angora, "'I sometimes think I've got too much self-control for my own good. I've been terribly nervous and upset lately, and I think it's because I'm always holding myself in'" (69). Adolescence can be counted as yet another topic that Stuart Little represses or "hold[s] in"; not only does species trouble stand in for and cover up this concern, the decision to employ a miniature hero instantly minimizes the possibility that the narrative will be recognized as a variation on the maturation theme. Shrinking his hero down to a small size allows White to explore the issue of adolescent angst and alienation while avoiding the actual adolescent body. In other words, Stuart Little abjects pubescent corporeality through its use of an alluringly diminutive main character. But although this uncomfortable subject is distanced, driven away, and diminished, it never fully disappears; as in the Borrowers series, the embattled embodiment of adolescence gets transposed onto the unsettled house that the miniature hero inhabits.
In other words, not only does Stuart himself emerge as an adolescent figure, the oversized house he occupies at the beginning of the story can be read as a metaphor for the adolescent body. The home unsettled by an undersized subject evokes the upheavals of puberty, of inhabiting a body in flux. In particular, all the activity focused around domestic apertures hints at the internal unrest, the physical and emotional turmoil that often characterizes adolescence. Even before the garbage removal incident characterizes the house as a body that must eliminate its waste, the mousehole and the drain suggest bodily orifices, and the uncontrollable seepage associated with these spots evokes the ungovernable outbursts and outbreaks of adolescence, from acne to sulky fits to nocturnal emissions (or menstruation). Therefore, just as he must keep changing his sweaty shirt before his date, Stuart must constantly don fresh clothes after his domestic misadventures, which coat him with slime of various sorts, including perspiration. Just as his voice and body "tremble" when he confronts Harriet Ames, Stuart "shiver[s], and his teeth chatte[r] together" when he finds himself trapped in the refrigerator (106, 48). Such moments link Stuart's "Home Problems" to typical adolescent predicaments.
Norton's Borrowers books provide a female example of a miniature character whose home problems correspond to her body issues. Thus, the climactic scene of The Borrowers Afloat finds fourteen-year-old Arietty Clock rolling an egg down a "slim[y]" drain, an act that symbolically evokes the onset of menstruation and adult sexuality (99).11 As their shared focus on threatening, tunnel-like spaces suggests, both Norton and White portray puberty as a perilous passage. Arietty's ongoing struggle to settle into various human homes symbolizes her efforts to accustom herself to her developing body. Similarly, Stuart's embattled existence at home bespeaks a deep sense of alienation from (and anxiety about) the gross characteristics of the mature adult body, represented not only by the big house—a threatening and uncontrollable environment—but also by the big people who surround him and press him to assume abject positions.
I have argued that the final section of Stuart Little elaborates on the fantasy of not needing a home, and by this I mean not only breaking away from one's family, but also escaping the body, transcending physicality in favor of an "unattainable . . . ideal of beauty and goodness"—White's own words for what the missing Margalo represents (Letters 406, 652). For Stuart, fleeing the humans' house constitutes an attempt to leave the body behind, to break away from all its importunate and disgusting commands. But the action of Stuart Little ultimately suggests that leaving "home" in this fashion—the place, the community, and the body—is a much more problematic endeavor than Stuart himself perceives. Just after leaving the Littles' house, Stuart decides to consult a "surgeon-dentist" friend for advice on his forthcoming trip. The resulting scene, in which Dr. Carey advises Stuart while pulling out a patient's tooth, strongly evokes the agony of enforced extraction, rather than reinforcing Stuart's nonchalance about his plans for independence.
"Well, what's on your mind, Stuart?" asked Dr. Carey, seizing hold of the man's tooth with a pair of pincers and giving a strong pull.
"I ran away from home this morning," explained Stuart. "I am going out into the world to seek my fortune and to look for a lost bird. Which direction do you think I should start out in?"
Dr. Carey twisted the tooth a bit and racked it back and forth. "What color is the bird?" he asked.
The whimsical humor White employs to pass this scene off as amusing rather than traumatic cannot wholly prevent us from wincing, or from recognizing that this moment dramatizes the intractable difficulty of separating oneself from one's "roots," a key adolescent concern.
The topic of adolescence has itself been abjected in critical responses to Stuart Little. For example, Agosta acknowledges that "Stuart is a child and an adult simultaneously, a being who captures at once what children are and the adulthood toward which they are tending" (32). Nevertheless, he insists that "The work is not a maturation story" (32). Similarly, Scott Elledge maintains, "In some episodes [Stuart] seems to be a boy, in others a young adolescent. But this is not a story about growing up" (225). True, Stuart does not successfully complete his quest to find and fully inhabit an adult identity, but this lack of resolution hardly suggests that his story is not intimately concerned with the process of coming of age. Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely because Stuart Little is so exclusively about the ongoing operation of growing up that readers fail to recognize adolescence as an explicit theme; critics shrink from viewing it as a maturation story because it does not follow the traditional Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonist's development invariably culminates in adulthood. But as Roberta Seelinger Trites points out, fiction focused on adolescence often takes the form of an Entwicklungsroman rather than a Bildungsroman. Unlike Bildungsromane, Entwicklungsromane do not "allow for adolescents to overcome the condition of adolescence" (19). Rather, they chronicle the main character's growth and development without allowing him (or her) to reach adulthood.
Tellingly, criticism of the Borrowers series likewise tends to acknowledge the main protagonist's teenage qualities while refusing to accept adolescence itself as a central theme. For example, in her fascinating article "The Body-in-Writing: Miniatures in Mary Norton's Borrowers," Patricia Pace compares Arietty's development to the "puberty" of Anne Frank, discusses the connection between anorexia and the miniature body, and describes how the series records "a young girl's coming-of-age, a bildungsroman, and a body story" (281). Yet she repeatedly turns to the notion of childhood to explain away these provocative insights; despite the fact that Norton's novels chronicle Arietty's development from age 13 to 17, including her desire to marry a young borrower named Spiller, Pace persists in referring to Arietty as "the innocent child at the dawn of puberty" (281).12 Perhaps this odd brand of critical resistance to the idea that stories like Stuart Little and The Borrowers concentrate specifically on surviving one's teens testifies to our own desire as critics of "children's literature" to dwell on the childlike and keep it clear from the untidy, somewhat unsavory category of adolescence. But the fact that a book qualifies as children's fiction should not prevent its critics from noticing that it might also address older readers' concerns. The following letter, in which White responds to one of his many fans, attests to this point. White writes,
Dear Mr. Moulthrop:
Thanks for your letter. I'm very glad to know that Stuart and Charlotte can take some of the pressure off an adolescent. I haven't been an adolescent for a number of years but I can remember that the pressure was fierce.
Sincerely, E. B. White
Special thanks to Elissa Bell, Peter Betjemann, Holly Blackford, Mike Cadden, Diana Fuss, Kieran Setiya, and especially Karen Coats for help with the early versions of this piece. I am also extremely grateful to Don Gray, Susan Gubar, U. C. Knoepflmacher, Jeff Nunokawa, Jessica Richard, and Louisa Smith for their aid and encouragement. Finally, thanks to Kieran Seitz and Kieran Setiya for seeing the Stuart Little movies with me.
1. This essay follows Patricia Meyer Spacks's lead in understanding adolescence more in terms of how this problematic period has been "perceived, remembered, [and] imagined" than in terms of the actual feelings and behavior of young people (13). Spacks's analysis of twentieth-century narratives of adolescence, both fictional and sociological, provides a historical context for this reading of Stuart Little, since White's story exhibits many of the traits she associates with modern interpretations of adolescence.
2. Susan Stewart also elaborates on the connection between childhood and narratives featuring miniaturization in her study On Longing.
3. Similarly, Caroline C. Hunt argues that "Stuart's rapid maturation enables White to skip over any sort of 'childhood' and present him at once as a more or less grown character."
4. The first line of the first edition of Stuart Little reads, "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse." But as Peter F. Neumeyer recounts, the furor occasioned by this "matter-of-fact" description of a most unusual event prompted White to replace the word "born" with the word "arrived" in subsequent editions ("Stuart Little: The Manuscripts" 595).
5. Critics have not failed to notice these sharp shifts in perspective; in particular, Agosta ingeniously details the ways in which White's text and Williams's illustration together present an "ambivalent, bifocal view of Stuart" (32), thereby allowing readers—in Marion Glastonbury's words—"to identify simultaneously with underdog and top dog" (6).
6. For an extended discussion of the tradition of linking adolescence to mood swings, see Spacks's chapter on American psychologist G. Stanley Hall's influential study, Adolescence (1904).
7. In "Magic in the Web: Time, Pigs and E. B. White," Helene Solheim offers up a version of this view, as does Lucien L. Agosta.
8. For a study of hygiene and defilement that influenced Kristeva, see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.
9. Agosta offers a similar analysis of this illustration.
10. For a description of this conversation, see White's essay, "The Librarian Said It Was Bad for Children." Although the Kafkaesque elements of White's narrative may not be intentional or immediately evident, numerous parallels may be drawn between The Metamorphosis (1915) and Stuart Little: the hostility of family members toward the "monstrous vermin" (Kafka 3) in their midst, the close encounters with garbage that almost kill Stuart and Gregor Samsa, and their ultimate expulsion from the domestic sphere. For an essay that explores the abject aspects of Kafka's story, thus bringing the connections between the two texts into sharp focus, see Eric Santner's "Kafka's Metamorphosis."
11. Analyzing and revising the work of Kristeva and Douglas, Elizabeth Grosz convincingly argues that "in the West, in our time, the female body has been constructed . . . as a leaking, uncontrollable, seeping liquid; as a formless flow" that threatens to entrap or engulf all that it touches (203). Encouragingly enough, however, neither White nor Norton specifically associates the horrors of corporeality with the feminine. Indeed, White chooses a female figure—Margalo—to represent transcendence of bodily form and function; and he never implies that Stuart's mother bears any more responsibility for engulfing or entrapping Stuart than his brother and father do. As for Norton, her series makes a concerted effort to rewrite the fluid as an exalted—rather than an abject—matrix. For example, Arietty and her family first experience the damp drain as a frightening, disgusting place, but after getting doused in an influx of sandalwood-scented bathwater, they recognize that the slime is actually soap, a cleansing—not a defiling—flow that leaves them feeling "gloriously clean" (118).
12. For an account of Norton's series that more openly acknowledges the topic of adolescence, see Lois R. Kuznets's essay, "Mary Norton's The Borrowers."
Agosta, Lucien L. E. B. White: The Children's Books. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction. New York: William Morrow, 1975.
Cowley, Malcolm. "Stuart Little: Or New York through the Eyes of a Mouse." Critical Essays on E. B. White. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. 67-68.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1996.
Elledge, Scott. E. B. White: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984.
Glastonbury, Marion. "E. B. White's Unexpected Items of Enchantment." Children's Literature in Education 11 (May 1973): 3-12.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Hunt, Caroline C. "Dwarf, Small World, Shrinking Child: Three Versions of Miniature." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 115-36.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1996.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Kuznets, Lois R. "Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Diaspora in Miniature." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Vol. 1. West Lafayette: ChLA Publishers, 1985. 198-203.
Neumeyer, Peter F. "E. B. White." American Writers for Children, 1900-1960. Ed. John Cech. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1983.
——. "Stuart Little: The Manuscripts." The Horn Book Magazine 64 (Sep./Oct. 1988): 593-600.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. New York: Longman, 1991.
——. "Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature 13 (1985): 109-27.
Norton, Mary. The Borrowers Afloat. Illus. Beth and Joe Krush. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1959.
Pace, Patricia. "The Body-in-Writing: Miniatures in Mary Norton's Borrowers." Text and Performance Quarterly 11.4 (Oct. 1991): 279-90.
Sampson, Edward C. E. B. White. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Santner, Eric. "Kafka's Metamorphosis and the Writing of Abjection." The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: Norton Critical Edtion, 1996. 95-210.
Solheim, Helene. "Magic in the Web: Time, Pigs, and E. B. White." Critical Essays on E. B. White. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. 144-57.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Sterngold, James. "At the Movies." New York Times 6 Feb. 1998, late ed.: E1.
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Stuart Little. Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan and Greg Brooker. Dir. Rob Minkoff. Perf. Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie, and Jonathan Lipnicki, with the voices of Michael J. Fox and Nathan Lane. Columbia Pictures, 1999.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000.
White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. Ill. Garth Williams. New York: Harper Trophy, 1952.
——. Letters of E. B. White. Coll. and ed. Dorothy Lobrano Guth. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
——. "The Librarian Said It Was Bad for Children." New York Times 6 Mar. 1966: X19.
——. Stuart Little. Ill. Garth Williams. New York: Harper Trophy, 1945.
——. The Trumpet of the Swan. Ills. Edward Frascino. New York: Harper Trophy, 1970.
CHARLOTTE'S WEB (1952)
Mary Gould Davis (review date 15 November 1952)
SOURCE: Davis, Mary Gould. Review of Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams. Saturday Review 35 (15 November 1952): 50.
There are unique characters in this story [Charlotte's Web ]—a story that will have for grownups as well as for the children a curious fascination. The principal members of the cast are Charlotte, a wise and unselfish spider; Wilbur, a kindly but rather stupid young pig; Fern Arable, a little girl who loves and understands animals, and Templeton, a stable rat who is hard-boiled, greedy, and vulgar, but intensely interesting. Wilbur was the "runt" of the litter, destined to be killed, but Fern saves him and brings him up by hand. As he grows older—and fatter—the farmer who has bought him from Fern begins to think of pork chops and bacon. Then Charlotte comes in. It is Charlotte's web that saves Wilbur in a fantasy that has the beauty and delicacy of the web itself. It has, too, a robust and irresistible humor. Templeton's remarks are almost classic in their wording. There is a stuttering gander that will delight the children when the story is read aloud. It is Templeton who helps preserve the sac that holds the coming generations of spiders. Then, her mission accomplished, Charlotte dies. Will the children grieve at her death? Certainly they will; but it is a grief that will do them no harm.
The black-and-white drawings by Garth Williams and the cover-jacket in color are all that we who have a deep feeling of admiration and affection for the characters in the story could ask.
Perry Nodelman (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Nodelman, Perry. "Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature 13 (1985): 109-27.
[In the following essay, Nodelman suggests that the ability to understand and relate to traditional narrative structures is an instinctive ability, a theory he examines through a detailed analysis of the opening chapters of Charlotte's Web.]
Most recent narrative theories assume that the ability to understand fiction depends upon a reader's prior knowledge of the codes and conventions that any narrative inevitably evokes and depends on. The assumption seems justified; consider how incomplete and pointless unadulterated versions of North American folk tales appear when approached in terms of our usual European ideas about what makes a story a story. In fact, even the simplest of stories imply and seem to demand prior knowledge. Jonathan Culler speaks of the presuppositions of the beginnings of stories—the way they imply a context:
Logically the opening sentence with the fewest presuppositions would be something like Once upon a time the king had a daughter. Poor in logical presuppositions, this sentence is extremely rich in literary and pragmatic presuppositions. It relates the story to a series of other stories, identifies it with the conventions of a genre, asks us to take certain attitudes towards it (guaranteeing, or at least strongly implying, that the story will have a point to it, a moral which will govern the organization of detail and incident.) The presuppositionless sentence is a powerful intertextual operator.
Such sentences inevitably evoke the vast body of literature they are a part of—perhaps, even, the vast body of all literature. What seems simple is in fact ineffably complex—not a discrete entity, but the small twig of a vast tree. In order to properly comprehend that small twig, we must know something of the vast tree.
But even very young children understand and enjoy stories, and many four- or five- or six-year-olds take much pleasure from the longer and more complex novels their parents or teachers read to them. One such novel is E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, a favorite choice of many adults as a first extended narrative to read to young children. How is that possible, when their previous literary experience is likely to have consisted only of television cartoons and the simple stories in picture books?
One possible answer is that the skills required to understand narrative structures are inherent, preexisting in all human beings. In his influential study of the patterns of Russian folk tales, Vladimir Propp implies that they might be; he says that "fairy tales possess a quite particular structure which is immediately felt and which determines their category even though we may not be aware of it" (6). But it seems likely that Propp had such feelings because of his own involvement with the culture these stories emerged from; other cultures have produced quite different bodies of stories with quite different systems of narrative structuring, and, as Seymour Chatman suggests, "What constitutes 'reality' or 'likelihood' is a strictly cultural phenomenon. . . . The 'natural' changes from one society to another" (49). That we have the sort of "feelings" about narrative structures Propp describes only because we learn them is indicated even in the introduction to the English translation of Propp's study, in which Alan Dundes asks, "And how precisely is fairy tale structure learned? Does the child unconsciously extrapolate fairy tale structure from hearing many individual fairy tales . . . ? This kind of question must be investigated by field and laboratory experiments" (x).
As it happens, such investigations have been carried out in recent years—not by folklorists or even by child psychologists, but by specialists in children's literature. While their conclusions are still vague, they almost always confirm that children must learn how to understand stories. In a recent article in Children's Literature in Education, for instance, Robert Protherough concludes that "children learn from experience the kinds of reading they have to give to different texts" (14).
But while Protherough says that happens, he doesn't describe how it happens. Narrative theorists don't provide much explanation either. They usually just assume that such knowledge does already exist, in anyone capable of understanding narratives. "Narrative evokes a world," says Seymour Chatman, "and since it is no more than an evocation, we are left free to enrich it with whatever real or fictive experience we acquire" (120); but he offers no explanation of how we acquire that experience. Similarly, Louise Rosenblatt insists that "the reader of any text must actively draw upon past experience" (22), "on the resources of his own fund of experiences" (43); in regard to verbal symbols in the text, "these the reader has presumably assimilated in past experiences with language in life situations and in reading" (53). Jonathan Culler agrees: "One's notions of how to read and what is involved in interpretation are acquired in commerce with others" (55).
There can be little doubt that the mere act of living teaches us the societal conventions we need to understand literature—at least the literature of our own time and place. It may even teach us something about language. But many of the conventions by means of which literature communicates, such as the patterns of narrative structure, are exclusive to literature, not learnable from other linguistic experience. Furthermore, communication with other people is different from our involvement with language in literature in at least one important way; Wolfgang Iser says in his discussion of "Interaction between Text and Reader" that a text cannot adapt itself to each reader with whom it comes into contact. Since a text never addresses any one of us specifically, never responds to us, never clarifies matters for us in terms of our own particular problems with it, learning to read and understand a text is quite different from nonliterary forms of linguistic experience. Experience may well be the best teacher; but experience of life cannot teach us how to understand literature to the extent that literature is different from life.
As well as calling upon linguistic experience in general, Culler also suggests that we learn to interpret literature from our specific experiences with literature. "Learning to read is an interpersonal activity: one sees how others respond, grasps intuitively or through explicit demonstration what kinds of questions and operations they deploy" (124). That may well be true of students in university classrooms and of literary theorists; but children with no previous experience of extended narrative can "read"—that is, understand—Charlotte's Web as they have it read to them, and few parents or teachers accompany the reading with a running commentary on the "kinds of questions and operations they deploy." The fact is, children usually learn to handle such narratives, not by being told how to handle them, but unconsciously, and in the process of handling them.
The significance of their doing so becomes especially apparent in terms of Walter Ong's analysis of the distance between orality and literature. While Ong is interested in how cultures based on oral communication vary from those which have printed texts, we should not forget that the young listeners who respond so positively to Charlotte's Web, a print-based text, are themselves in the process of emerging from the oral culture of childhood. And as Ong says,
Little has thus far been done . . . to understand reader response in terms of what is now known of the evolution of noetic processes from primary orality to high literacy. Readers whose norms and expectancies for formal discourse are governed by a residual oral mindset relate to a text quite differently from readers whose sense of style is radically textual.
The process by which children have oral access to written texts is obviously a part of this evolution.
While Ong doesn't explain how the transition occurs, his analysis implies that such an evolution must take place in the life of every child in a literate culture.
Furthermore, it is something like that transition from orality to literacy that causes literary theorists to make distinctions between naive readers and sophisticated ones. Karlheinz Stierle suggests that "every fictional text is open to a naive reading—an elementary form of reception that has been learned in everyday communication" (85). Stierle describes such reading as the matter of identifying with or becoming immersed in what one reads, an accurate description of the reading not only of many children but also of too many adults. Not surprisingly, Ong suggests that one of the distinctive qualities of oral stories is the demand they make that listeners immerse themselves in them; they are "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced" (45), and listeners ideally identify with the characters they hear about. But sophisticated reading requires distance; we perceive the satisfying completeness of a narrative structure only when we do not involve ourselves in it. Presumably, Stierle's naive readers are treating literary texts as if they were oral stories—novels as if they were folk tales. While Stierle also offers no explanation of how one makes the transition from naive reading to literate reading, from identification to maintaining a proper distance from a text, his distinction does make one thing clear: if adults can be naive readers, then ceasing to be a naive reader is not natural and inevitable.
But that merely restates the problem: one must learn how to read stories, but one cannot learn it from anything but stories, for stories are significantly different from the rest of life. Once cannot understand stories without understanding the codes and conventions that underly them; and one cannot learn those codes and conventions except by experiencing the stories that contain them and presumably require prior knowledge of them. Apparently, we need to know what we have to learn before we can have access to the thing that will teach it to us.
Fortunately, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget takes something like that as the central issue in his discussion of structuralism: how can we learn the structures necessary for explaining our world to ourselves if we don't know them already? His answer is that we don't know them already; we construct them, make them up ourselves in response to experience. But even though the structures we construct are different, each an individual response to individual experience, the process by which we construct them is not individual; Piaget insists that "this construction is governed by special laws" (10). The laws remain the same, even though the structures are different. Consequently,
Whereas other animals cannot alter themselves except by changing their species, man can transform himself by transforming the world and can structure himself by constructing structures; and these structures are his own, for they are not eternally predestined either from within or without.
For Piaget, the basic law of construction is assimilation—the process by which one changes the structures one has already created in response to less complex situations, in order to comprehend new complexities. Cognitive psychologists use the metaphor of mapping to describe this process; we comprehend new, uncharted experience by using our old experiences as a map, noticing what does not fit the map, and then composing a new map, a more complex structure of explanation. This process by which the old experience becomes the structure of the new experience is of great importance in understanding how it is that young children who know only simple stories can understand certain complex literary narratives.
Unfortunately, too many educators distort the findings of developmental and cognitive psychologists by assuming that the movement from simpler structures to more complex ones is automatic and inevitable, a magic transformation that should not be meddled with. This sort of misunderstanding leads parents or teachers first to deprive children of books that are at the wrong "level," and then to be surprised when the children reach the "right" level and cannot cope with those books. As Stanley Fish asserts in discussing how sophisticated readers move from one interpretation of a text to another, "The change from one structure of understanding to another is not a rupture but a modification of the interests and concerns that are already in place" (316). If we acknowledge that no such rupture occurs, that there are no discrete levels and no magical jumps between them, but only a constant process of transformations to ever more intricate structuring of experience, then we might be more willing to help children to make such transformations—or to choose texts that will help them to make them. Transformations aren't likely to happen if we simply assume that they will.
We always start with one way of understanding, one structure of assumption—a cognitive map. Even young children must possess such structures, for as Fish so acutely points out in his discussion of how adults read literature, "There is never a moment when one believes nothing, when consciousness is innocent of any and all categories of thought, and whatever categories of thought are operative at a given moment will serve as an undoubted ground" (319). Or in Iser's words, again in a description of the reading of adults, "The acquisition of experience is not a matter of adding on—it is a restructuring of what we already possess" (The Act of Reading, 132). We bring our expectations of stories to any given story; then the way the story diverges from our expectations alters our expectations. Presumably, then, children first respond to all the stories they hear with the expectations created by their actual lived experience and then respond to more complex stories by means of the expectations created by their experience of simple stories.
If that happens every time children hear another story, then it must happen in the complex novels that young children enjoy. In fact, it must happen in such novels in an extreme form, for such novels do not merely introduce readers to a form of reading experience different from but equal to the one they already possess; rather, they allow, to use Piaget's term, a genuine act of assimilation to take place. They must be constructed so as to allow those young readers who know only simple fictions to comprehend their greater complexity. I believe that Charlotte's Web does that. How it does so is the subject of the rest of this essay.
According to Louise Rosenblatt,
As one decodes the opening lines or sentences and pages of a text, one begins to develop a tentative sense of a framework within which to place what will follow. . . . One evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the kind of text that will be forthcoming.
But the opening pages of Charlotte's Web do not seem to have much to do with the novel that follows them. After reading only the first two chapters, someone with no prior knowledge from other people or from the cover could only be surprised that the book deals with the friendship of a pig and a spider who can talk to each other. There is no spider at all in those two chapters, and the pig in them doesn't talk. He likes being picked up and doesn't like cold water; but those are human feelings of the sort we often attribute to pets, without necessarily implying that they have the personalities of human beings. The most likely novel to follow this quite naturalistic description of how a young girl saves a runt pig and then plays with it would be a naturalistic description of how she continues to play with it—and, perhaps, gets into trouble with her friends or family because of it. There is no suggestion of the fantasy to follow. If the opening of a book has the purpose of allowing readers to develop a set of expectations that will help them come to grips with the book that follows, then White seems to be creating the wrong expectations here.
Furthermore, the book contains a passage that seems to be a far more appropriate opening; and it occurs just after the first two—apparently inappropriate—chapters. The justly famous description that opens chapter 3 poetically evokes the setting of the rest of the novel:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could ever happen again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope.
And so on, for another whole page. Not only does this passage set the scene for the rest of the novel; it also introduces its central images, its central structural patterns, and its central themes.
White has said that he wanted to write "a paean of life, a hymn to the barn" (quoted in Neumeyer, 493). He has done both, the barn being a symbol of the larger life outside it. Charlotte's Web is a book about the acceptance and celebration of all aspects of existence, the good along with the bad; in its own phrase, it celebrates "the glory of everything" (183). Such an acceptance depends upon an acknowledgment that the good and the bad are inextricably intertwined, that creatures or events we think of as bad often allow good things to happen, and that, given the impermanence that makes life beautifully various, good often turns to bad. Consequently, when Wilbur first meets his friend Charlotte, he is disturbed that she is so blood-thirsty and that she kills for a living; but not only does she turn out to be a loyal friend, this death-dealing creature saves his life. She does so by using her web, an instrument of death that can keep both Charlotte and, as it turns out, Wilbur alive. Furthermore, while Wilbur can be saved, Charlotte herself must die. Wilbur's life can be saved only because Templeton, the rat, acts like a rat, and because people are stupidly gullible. Good ends always emerge from bad qualities. At one point, Wilbur points out that "it was that rotten goose egg that saved Charlotte's life" (73); at every point, White insists on the ambivalence of life as it is, and the glory of its ambivalence.
The basic structural pattern of Charlotte's Web is the list. The book is full of lists, lists that suggest both the glorious multitudinousness and the glorious variety of everything. After he meets her, Wilbur lists Charlotte's qualities; later, Charlotte provides him with a list of the parts of a spider's leg. Templeton, who lists his activities as "eating, gnawing, spying and hiding" (29), later says to Wilbur, "I don't want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummelled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed" (125). When it rains, White lists all the things the rain falls on; when Charlotte kills flies, he lists all the creatures who dislike flies, and when people come to see the word in her web, he lists the different kinds of cars they come in. White even provides a list of the "astonishing pile" (97) of things one can find at the garbage dump. He lists the sounds made by birds in early summer and all the people who hear the cricket's song in autumn. He provides Charlotte with a list of things that will happen in spring: "Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again" (164). Above all, there are lists of what various creatures eat, from Charlotte's "flies, bugs, grasshoppers, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets" (39) to what Templeton will find at the fair: "a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops" (123). There are no less than three lists that exult over the disgusting contents of Wilbur's food trough.
Even the action of Charlotte's Web often proceeds by means of lists—lists of activities. The first part of chapter 4 is a list of the boring events of Wilbur's day. White's description of the rope swing in the barn lists the sequence of events that constitute swinging on it. At one point, Charlotte calls the roll of the animals in the barn, and at another she lists the actions she performed while writing in the web.
The lists of Charlotte's Web often end with a phrase that sums them up. Charlotte's list of her food supply ends with "anything that is careless enough to get caught in my web," and her list of the events of spring with the phrase "all these sights and sounds and smells." The list of the contents of the garbage dump ends with "useless junk of all kinds, including a wrong-sized crank for a broken ice-cream freezer." The old sheep's list of the food a rat can find at a fair ends with "enough disgusting leftover food to satisfy a whole army of rats" (123). These summary phrases reinforce the idea that "all" or "everything" is glorious simply because it is so various.
The description of the barn that begins chapter 3 is itself a list, first of the smells of a barn, and then of "all sorts of things that you find in barns" (14). It too ends with a statement that sums it up: "And the whole thing was owned by Fern's uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman" (14). In the second-last paragraph of the last chapter, there is a final list. This one again evokes the barn, but it also acts as a summary of all the other lists that have occurred throughout the novel; and it ends with the phrase that sums it up, sums up all the previous lists, and sums up the novel in its entirety:
It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
Both the events of the novel and the lists that suggest their significance are suspended between these two passages, which not only evoke the qualities of barns but also imply the glorious wholeness of existence. They are paeans to life, hymns to the barn.
But the first two chapters, which are not set in the barn, contain only two short lists. White tells us that the kitchen smells of "coffee, bacon, damp plaster, and woodsmoke from the stove" (3), and that Wilbur likes mud that is "warm and moist and delightfully sticky and oozy" (11). These evocations of sensuous detail don't draw attention to themselves as lists until one has read the rest of the novel; if the book is indeed "a paean of life, a hymn to the barn," it doesn't start being that until the third chapter. The opening seems inappropriate not just because it contains no fantasy, but also because it does not share the structure or the imagery of the rest of the novel.
In his discussion of the drafts of Charlotte's Web, now housed at Cornell University, Peter Neumeyer reports that White had trouble with the beginning of Charlotte's Web ; White said he "had as much difficulty getting off the ground as did the Wright brothers" (491). Neumeyer describes twelve different attempts at openings that represent five quite different ways of getting off the ground:
Introducing the main character Charlotte; introducing the main character Wilbur; beginning with a song of praise to the barn; beginning with John Arable pulling on his boots to go out in the night to find the new piglet; and—finally—beginning dramatically in media res with the originally quite incidental little girl Fern, who asks where her father is going with that ax.
While not quite totally incidental in the finished novel, Fern does cease to be of any real significance after Wilbur moves to the barn; after the first two chapters, she merely sits and watches the animals, and while she can understand them, she never talks with them or takes part in their plans. Then, toward the end, she deserts Wilbur for the human boy, Henry Fussy, an aspect of the book that disconcerts many readers. White uses this incident to suggest one more version of the glorious intertwining of everything; Fern could not grow up if she did not stop being childlike. But the fact that White so cleverly makes use of this eventually insignificant character doesn't explain why he felt called upon to introduce her at all, or to focus so much attention on her at the beginning.
Furthermore, and most significant, eight of the twelve openings that Neumeyer reports finding in the drafts are versions of the barn passage. White clearly knew that this was the real beginning of the novel he wanted to write; and he just as clearly knew that it was the wrong way to begin, for he fussed over it endlessly and eventually added those two apparently inappropriate chapters. Why?
A closer look at the first two chapters shows that they do have one curious thing in common with the book that follows; in many ways, the story they tell is a shorter but nevertheless complete version of the story the rest of the book tells. Both in the first two chapters and in the rest of the novel, a pig is saved from death by a female of a different species with whom he actually has nothing in common. She saves him because his death is unjust. She saves him by using words and by appealing to theoretically undesirable qualities in human beings. Those qualities are undesirable because they get in the way of practical considerations. As well as saving the pig, the female also mothers him; the mother-child relationship is satisfying to both and offers them both comfort. It is threatened by an aggressive, warlike male, a real rat. But not seriously; for the real threat is time itself, which eventually changes both the female and the pig enough to separate them from each other. In both versions of this story, the pig is Wilbur; but the female of another species is first Fern and then Charlotte, and the aggressive rat is first Avery and then Templeton.
There are large differences between the two stories. Templeton is a real rat, Avery only a metaphorical one. The first two chapters tell of these events naturalistically, without recourse to fantasy; the rest of the novel is a fantasy story involving animals that act like humans rather than humans that sometimes act like animals. A second important difference is the absence of those thematically significant lists; the meaning of the naturalistic story of the first two chapters is much less subtle, much less complex, much less ambiguous than the meaning of the rest of the novel.
The major difference is signalled by the different means by which Fern and Charlotte keep Wilbur alive. Charlotte, who knows the way of the world, saves Wilbur by using her knowledge; Fern saves Wilbur because she has no knowledge of the world, and because her father wants to keep her that way. She tells Mr. Arable that the pig's death is unjust; creatures ought not to die just because they are weak and in need of protection. Mr. Arable knows that such "injustice" is indeed the way of the world, on pig farms and elsewhere; but it is not the way of the world for small children, for Mr. Arable also knows that he protects his own weak, vulnerable daughter from that world, and does so because she is vulnerable enough to need protecting—as she proves by her innocence about pigs. Knowing that, and loving her for her innocence, he sentimentally defers the end of that innocence by not killing the pig. Fern not only gets what she wants; she is also able to keep on believing that the world is a place where one does get what one wants.
Mr. Arable says that Fern is trying "to rid the world of injustice," and magically, she does: she saves the pig. Fern then thinks "what a blissful world it was" (7). The world of the first two chapters is indeed blissful; despite the absence of fantasy in these two chapters, the story they tell has the wish-fulfilling qualities of the most widely known fairy tales—the tales most young children become familiar with at very young ages. Like Cinderella or Snow-White or Sleeping Beauty, Fern is rewarded for being weak, vulnerable, and in need of protection. She need do nothing but appeal to a strong male's admiration for her weakness, and she triumphs not by becoming strong or by being wise, but because she is charmingly weak and ignorant.
Mr. Arable twice tells Fern about things she must learn in order to be more mature; in the first two chapters she learns neither of them. He first tells her, "You will have to learn to control yourself" (2) and then responds to her lack of control by controlling things for her. After he gives her the pig, he says, "Then you'll see what trouble a pig can be" (3). But she doesn't. In the first two chapters, her relationship with Wilbur continues to be blissful and to be described in superlatives: "Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful" (11). Until Wilbur leaves for the barn, there is no trouble. The first two chapters describe a prelapsarian world, a paradise of innocence.
In this perfect world of no trouble, the troublesome facts of life are not troublesome because they have been turned into games. Ferns plays at being a mother, Wilbur plays at being a human baby, and Avery, who is "heavily armed," plays with the weapons of war. Transformed into games, motherhood and violence not only lose their potential for troublesomeness, they come to seem a little silly. White's phrasing suggests that he wants us to laugh at Avery's toy weapons. He points out the silliness of Fern's adoration for Wilbur when he has her call the capital of Pennsylvania "Wilbur," and the silliness of Wilbur acting like a human baby when he describes Wilbur in a doll carriage beside a doll. Later, Wilbur will become a pig with a human personality; now he is just a pig ridiculously aping human behavior.
But readers need not be disturbed by that, for they do not yet have the later Wilbur with which to compare this one. Eventually, the novel makes the inadequacies of Avery's and Fern's play versions of adult behavior clear by placing them beside more genuine versions of the same thing. But at the start, readers can enjoy these descriptions of play for the same reason that Fern and Avery enjoy playing: the pleasure of the real thing without any of the dangers or difficulties. Avery can shoot without danger of being shot at. Fern can mother without having to deal with colic or worry about her child's future. Even Wilbur can have the pleasure of being adored without, apparently, feeling suffocated by it. This is not "the glory of everything"; it is the glory of one side of things that ignores the other side altogether.
For young readers, I suspect, all of this is both easily understandable and very enjoyable. It is enjoyable because it describes a pleasurable fulfillment of common wishes: to have a real live doll to play with, to get your own way with your parents and feel the satisfaction of saving another creature's life in the bargain, always to be happy. It is understandable, not just because it describes play, a recognizable activity described in an easily recognizable way, but also because it demands a minimal literary competence from young readers. The descriptions of play and its pleasures could be understood by young readers in terms of their own actual experience; the wish-fulfillment patterns and the simple moral statements about injustice could be understood by anyone familiar with a few fairy tales. Furthermore, wish-fulfillment, the description of how a character in a story gets what one would like to have oneself, demands identification. One must see oneself in the characters whose wishes are fulfilled in order to feel fulfilled oneself. As I suggested earlier, identification is a habit of naive readers. So the first two chapters of Charlotte's Web should involve young readers on two paradoxical counts: they describe a familiar and recognizably real world, and they do so in unrealistic terms that young children are both likely to understand and likely to be familiar with.
According to Iser, in more sophisticated texts, a reader
is given a role to which he must then adapt and so "modify" himself, if the meaning is to be conditioned by the text and not by his own disposition. Ultimately, the whole purpose of the text is to exert a modifying influence upon that disposition and so clearly, the text cannot and will not reproduce it.
[The Act of Reading, 53]
Beginning with chapter 3, the text of Charlotte's Web cannot and will not reproduce the reader's own disposition. Significantly, the self-indulgent, trouble-free, wish-fulfilling paradise of the first two chapters comes to an end when Wilbur moves to the barn—White's symbol of the complex variety of life.
White's description of the barn is a signal that a different attitude will be required. The many details in it prevent self-indulgence; absorbing them requires that we keep some distance from the events described. In fairy tales and other wish-fulfillments—and for that matter, in the first two chapter of Charlotte's Web —setting is vague enough to allow us to imagine our own details and, therefore, to become more immediately involved; in more realistic fiction, greater detail forces us to acknowledge a place different from the one we might have imagined for ourselves and therefore controls our self-indulgence.
Yet it is in this densely evoked and quite realistic setting that Wilbur suddenly stops being a piglike pig who is merely treated like a human and develops a real human personality and the human ability to communicate with other creatures by means of speech. Children who have had even limited access to children's literature are not likely to be surprised by the idea of talking animals. But the strangeness of Wilbur talking after two chapters in which he is merely a conversationless pig is unsettling enough to distance readers. Even more distancing is the paradoxical fact of Wilbur's new existence as a real animal in a real barn. Children who could identify with Fern turning Wilbur into a living doll will have trouble identifying with that doll when it turns into a real pig. They might be inclined to do what Lewis Carroll's Alice did when a baby turned into a pig—drop it altogether.
But White doesn't allow that. He quickly establishes a new involvement, this time with Wilbur in terms of the human personality he now reveals. Because he is a pig, readers will be bound to keep some distance from him; in fact, it seems obvious that children's writers often write about animals who act like people so that they can tell children things about people that their parents or teachers would not let them hear if the characters those things happened to were not disguised as animals—how many young children would be allowed to read about Wilbur's death problem if he were a human being? Yet his problems are in fact those of human beings and are presented in human terms: and for that reason, young readers will certainly feel some sympathy for him.
Ironically, the first thing Wilbur learns after it is revealed that he can talk and think is that he is bored—bored by a barn that White has just finished describing as a blissful paradise. Once Wilbur develops consciousness, he becomes conscious of the constraints and limitations that he did nothing but enjoy in his troublefree days with Fern. In a sense, then, chapter 3 repeats the events we have just read about, the life of a protected creature; but now we see their dark underside. Protected from harm and provided with all the food a pig could want, Wilbur begins to think of paradise as a prison.
In Wilbur's wish to escape the barn almost as soon as he enters it, White shows that the world is not as purely "blissful" as the innocent Fern thought it was in the first two chapters. Wilbur thinks he wants to go out into "the big world" outside his pen; but despite his longing, he is forced to realize that he is "really too young to go out into the world alone." The world is not simple, and one's feelings about it are bound to be mixed up.
Fern never realized that—or at least White never told us that she did. But White has transferred the focus of our attention from Fern to Wilbur, which allows him to consider numerous aspects of the world's complexity. The new friend Wilbur makes is not as purely adorable as Fern found Wilbur to be; Charlotte has bad qualities as well as good ones, and she makes demands of Wilbur as well as offering him solace. Furthermore, Wilbur also has to put up with Templeton and negotiate with him, as Fern did not have to do with Avery, whose access to pigs was simply prevented by Mr. Arable. All the games that were played earlier are no longer games. Templeton is really vicious, really dangerous, those characteristics which Avery merely played at earlier. For that matter, Avery himself turns out to be dangerous also, as he nearly captures Charlotte. Earlier, we could dismiss Avery's violence because we could share his point of view; he was just playing. But distanced from our usual human perspective and forced to take the point of view of animals and insects, we see the real violence of the presumed game. Similarly, Fern's game of motherhood now seems shallow in relation to the more complex relationship of Wilbur and Charlotte—instead of mere adoration, Charlotte yells at Wilbur when he is hysterical, and instead of merely being adorable, Wilbur is hard work for Charlotte; she spends most of her life saving his.
Earlier, Fern had treated Wilbur as a "pretend" human being, a doll; in the process, she ignored his piglike qualities. In the light of the new information White now provides, that comes to seem less cute than ingenuous. Wilbur has human feelings: he is a person, so it was silly indeed to treat him like a pretend person.
But the greatest import of the transference of our attention from Fern to Wilbur is that the problem of Wilbur's death takes on far more significance. In saving Wilbur, Fern's worries about herself as a vulnerable human being were deflected; she was able to keep on believing that the world was indeed a place in which such injustices did not need to happen and that one could be weak and vulnerable and still count on other, less weak people to protect oneself. Now that we see the situation from the victim's viewpoint, we must acknowledge our own involvement in the human condition: we too are vulnerable; more powerful people do not always protect those weaker than themselves; sometimes weaklings may have to look after themselves; the world may well be unjust. In all these ways, the pleasures of Charlotte's Web after the first two chapters point out the limitations of the pleasures offered by those chapters.
Understanding Charlotte's Web depends upon two things: a perception of its subtlety, of the complex intertwinings of good and bad, acceptable and controllable, in its reading of reality; and in order to perceive that, distance. Rather than the simple confirmation of previous expectations offered by wish-fulfillment, readers need enough distance from this novel to contemplate the unexpected relationships between its characters—and enough distance, also, to be conscious of how the novel's language informs one about those relationships. After the first two chapters, White achieves that distance by focussing our attention on descriptive passages, and by constantly making us conscious of the animal-like nature of his characters, of the ways in which they are not like us.
But the first two chapters are different. They do not demand distance. In them, White prepares readers for the complexities that follow by presenting a simpler, more easily identified with, more wish-fulfilling version of the same story. These chapters will satisfy the narrative competence of naive readers. But because they do tell of events similar to those that follow, they act as a cognitive map, a pattern to be changed and enriched by what follows. Without the first two chapters, I am sure young readers would find Charlotte's Web harder to understand. With them, even readers with the most primitive of narrative competences have the opportunity to make a transition and cope with the complexities of the rest of the novel. In telling his story twice, once from the viewpoint of innocence and in terms of naive literary skills, and then from the viewpoint of experience and in terms of sophisticated literary skills, White gives young readers the experience they need to transcend their own innocence as readers.
Many of the novels young children first experience have similar two-part structures. In A. A. Milne's Pooh books, the proportions are reversed; there are numerous episodes in which innocent creatures play at having adventures without ever acknowledging or experiencing real pain, and then one final chapter in which Christopher Robin, having experienced the real adventure of going to school, reveals that he has moved beyond mere blissfulness. Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows begins with Mole leaving home and finding the delightful life of the river bank; but after that, every time one of the animals leaves home, or is even tempted to leave, he must face the cruel implications of life in the real world. As in Charlotte's Web, the first sequence is paradisal, the later ones show the implications of life beyond paradise.
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the novels older children read themselves also have two-part structures, in which characters first innocently play at adventures and then must face real-life versions of what they first played at. Jim Hawkins has delightful dreams of pirates and treasure before he experiences the horror of the real thing. In L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Anne plays at romantic fantasies involving deep, painful emotions; but then she must face pain and death in her own real life, as her stepfather dies and she must give up her plans for the future. And in Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, Harriet spends more than half the book playing at being a spy and then must face the painful implications of her game.
There are two possible reasons why so many popular children's novels present the same events first in terms of innocence and then in terms of experience. The first is that children, being new in their fictional competences, need reassurance about them; having learned sophisticated reading techniques from books with two-part structures, they continue to find pleasure in similar books. The second is simply that a two-part structure of this sort is an established pattern of children's fiction, and children's novelists may be drawn to such structures from their conscious or unconscious knowledge of other children's novels. In either case, a two-part structure of this sort does allow readers the possibility of making the transition between two quite different ways of understanding stories; all these texts may act as teachers of narrative competences.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978.
Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982.
Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982.
Iser, Wolfgang. "Interaction between Text and Reader," The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978.
Neumeyer, Peter F. "The Creation of Charlotte's Web: From Drafts to Book," The Horn Book (Oct. 1982) 489-97 and (Dec. 1982) 617-25.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.
Piaget, Jean. Structuralism, trans. and ed. Chaninah Maschler. New York: Basic, 1970.
Protherough, Robert. "How Children Judge Stories," Children's Literature in Education 14 (Spring 1983): 3-13.
Propp, V. Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, rev. Louis A. Wagner. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1968.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1978.
Stierle, Karlheinz. "The Reading of Fictional Texts," The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.
White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. New York: Harper Trophy, 1952, 1973.
Sonia Landes (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Landes, Sonia. "E. B. White's Charlotte's Web: Caught in the Web." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 270-80. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.
[In the following essay, Landes argues that two levels of reality exist in Charlotte's Web—the fantastic world of talking animals and the parallel world of the "real" humans—and concludes that the various interactions between these realms appeals to the natural instincts of young readers.]
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Lucy Rollin (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Rollin, Lucy. "The Reproduction of Mothering in Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature 18 (1990): 42-52.
[In the following essay, Rollin evaluates the various ways in which stereotypical gender-based roles—particularly motherhood—are presented in Charlotte's Web.]
Nancy Chodorow's signal study The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), taking its cue from psychoanalytic object relations theory, argues that in our culture girls' relationships with their mothers are more intense, ambivalent, and lingering than those with their fathers. Because she is nurtured by a parent of the same sex, a daughter retains her mother as primary object throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This helps perpetuate the division of labor in our society: although theoretically both girls and boys are psychologically capable of mothering, both having after all been mothered, only girls in fact do it. Hence the "reproduction" of mothering—its continuation from mother to daughter. Chodorow carefully distinguishes psychological processes of reproduction from role training or intentional socialization:
In an industrial late capitalist society, "socialization" is a particularly psychological affair. . . . Whether or not men in particular or society at large—through media, income distribution, welfare policies, and schools—enforce women's mothering, and expect or require a woman to care for her child, they cannot require or force her to provide adequate parenting unless she, to some degree and on some unconscious or conscious level, has the capacity and sense of self as maternal to do so.
According to Chodorow, mothering in our culture is part of an economic system that contributes to sexual inequality and that relies above all on internalized gender distinctions.
Part of the fascination of Charlotte's Web comes from its insertion of a male into the chain of mothering among the book's females. The novel offers an innovative picture of mothering that seems to belie internalized gender distinctions and to suggest that males are indeed as capable of mothering as females. Moreover, whereas Chodorow seems to slight the importance of physiology, Charlotte's Web subtly allows physical mothering to share the focus with psychological mothering, enhancing the complexity of the depiction. Yet significant differences between male and female mothering, coupled with the pressure of gender stereotypes in the narrative, suggest a reading of the novel that supports Chodorow's assertions about mothering as a psychological activity of females. This reading also raises important questions about gender and mothering in our culture and about the influence of a work of literature—especially a work of children's literature—on our attitudes toward them.1
The first transmission of mothering appears in the opening pages of the book. Having saved the life of a runt piglet, whom she names Wilbur, Fern learns from her mother how to care for her new charge:
Mrs. Arable found a baby's nursing bottle and a rubber nipple. She poured warm milk into the bottle, fitted the nipple over the top, and handed it to Fern. "Give him his breakfast," she said.
A minute later, Fern was seated on the floor in the corner of the kitchen with her infant between her knees, teaching it to suck from the bottle.
There could hardly be a more graphic example of the reproduction of mothering than this. Here and in the following pages, Fern's relationship to Wilbur typifies the initial phase of the mutual involvement and identification between mother and child: they worship each other. Fern thinks it is a "blissful world" because she has "entire charge of a pig"; she gets up early in the morning to feed him and rushes home from school to fix another bottle for him, and when she watches him in the straw, "it relieved her mind to know that her baby would sleep covered up, and would stay warm" (9). For his part, Wilbur gazes at Fern "with adoring eyes" and follows her everywhere. Throughout this phase, feeding and touch are of the utmost importance in mothering. Both elements are essential for an infant's primary narcissism, which Wilbur experiences fully: "Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful" (11).
But mothering relationships are essentially asymmetrical. As Chodorow notes, a child's relationship to its mother is exclusive, whereas a mother's to her child is informed by many other concerns. Fern must go to school, leaving Wilbur behind each day, and eventually she must send Wilbur to the Zuckerman farm. This partial separation causes Wilbur his first anxiety: "He didn't feel like going to sleep, he didn't feel like digging, he was tired of standing still, tired of lying down. 'I'm less than two months old and I'm tired of living,' he said" (16). His loneliness overcomes him often, and he feels "friendless, dejected, and hungry" because his needs for touch and food are no longer so easily gratified.
Wilbur remains aware of Fern, knowing "she was sitting there, right outside his pen" (16). She has become his internalized object, associated with food and touch, the "first" mother that always exists somewhere in our unconscious. The shift in the narrative structure at this point in the book expresses this subtle relationship very well. Fern gradually disappears from Wilbur's conscious life to be replaced often by food, especially milk, but the blissful combination of food and touch exists for him now only in Mrs. Zuckerman's buttermilk baths. Fern's withdrawal causes him pain and may puzzle some readers (especially when at the end of the book she goes off with Henry Fussy), but it is psychologically essential both for Fern and for Wilbur.2 Fern must develop her own outside interests, just as her own mother has done, and though they frustrate the child's desire to recreate its first intimacy and sense of merging, they are essential if the child is to form a self—that is, an identity separate from the mother (Chodorow 70-71, 79-80).
As Fern recedes from mother figure to internalized object, Charlotte the spider takes over the mothering of Wilbur—a different form of mothering. Charlotte and Wilbur never touch each other, and Charlotte never feeds Wilbur. She accomplishes her mothering solely through language. She advises, scolds, compliments, sings lullabies, tells stories, and finally weaves words into her web—attentions Wilbur accepts passively at first. Indeed, the novel's references to Charlotte and Wilbur as "friends" probably results from the absence of touch and feeding in their relationship, but Charlotte is no less a mother object.
Their meeting begins pleasantly enough, with Wilbur thinking Charlotte "beautiful" and Charlotte agreeing. Soon, however, she is capturing and devouring a fly in her web and explaining her actions in detail to Wilbur, who watches "in horror." Describing her insect diet, she says she loves to "drink their blood." She adds, "My mother was a trapper before me. Her mother was a trapper before her," and notes further that "the first spider in the early days of the world" was female (39-40). Wilbur, after all this, finds her "fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty. . . . How can I learn to like her?" This new mother offers love and acceptance, but also danger and risk. Can he trust her as he has trusted Fern? Charlotte evokes the child's accession to ambivalence: "When a person's early experience tells him or her that only one unique person can provide emotional gratifications—a realistic expectation when they have been intensely and exclusively mothered—the desire to recreate that experience has to be ambivalent" (Chodorow 79). The text emphasizes Charlotte's indulgent fondness for Wilbur: she expresses affection for him, makes plans for his future, tells him she likes him best when he is "not a quitter," scolds his extravagant behavior, and tells him he is sensational. But the greatest threat a mother offers is abandonment. Like Fern, Charlotte gradually withdraws, becoming more interested in her egg sac and eventually more voice than physical presence. Here again, the text shows the asymmetry that marks our culture's form of mothering.
With Charlotte's death and Wilbur's acquisition of her egg sac, the reproduction of mothering shifts gender; now Wilbur mothers. Curiously, this moment also marks a shift in focus from postnatal to prenatal care. Wilbur rises to the demands of parenthood by sacrificing food to secure Templeton's help, protectively carrying the egg sac in his mouth (in imitation of gestation), scooping out a special place for it, guarding and warming it with his breath on cold nights.3 He takes much pride and pleasure in all this: "Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or hatch" (176). This must be one of the most appealing moments in the book for children, who try to imagine what their mothers were like before they were born, since these internalized images of pregnancy reinforce the importance of their own birth and protection.
The sac containing Charlotte's babies also becomes a representation of oedipal desire. Wilbur had commented with pride earlier to Templeton, "She is going to become a mother. For your information there are 514 eggs in that peachy little sac." Immediately after this, the text tells us that Charlotte and Wilbur were "glad to be rid of" Templeton when he went to sleep (149). Wilbur's hyperbolic 514 babies not only occasion pride and possessiveness but totally diffuse any sibling rivalries. Moreover, while Wilbur ensures Charlotte's survival in her children, through those (female) children who stay with him he ensures his own survival as well.
Allied to this oedipal fantasy is the fantasy of redemption from death. Although psychoanalytic theory has not often addressed the issue in detail, it assumes that the desire to give birth occurs in both boys and girls, finding this desire "historically older" than the phallic stage and marked especially in the male by a strong unconscious fear of death (Jacobson 144-45). The text astutely uses a pig to express this fear, since our culture keeps pigs solely to slaughter and eat them and thus justifies Wilbur's fear. More interestingly, the child's desire to give birth "even seems to reflect, at first, only the mother-child situation without involving fantasies about the relationship between the parents" (Jacobson 141). The fantasy reproduction in this text is asexual: Charlotte has no visible male partner. This is an infantile fantasy for both boys and girls, though Chodorow suggests it may be stronger and more complex in girls. "On a less conscious, object-relational level, having a child recreates the desired mother-child exclusivity for a woman, and interrupts it for a man. . . . These differences hold also on the level of sexual and biological fantasy and symbolism" (Chodorow 201).
Once the spiders hatch, Wilbur's mothering differs even further from that by the females. He does name the spiders as Fern named him, and he mothers with words, as Charlotte did. Fern and Charlotte, however, move on to other kinds of lives, Charlotte to reproduction and Fern to adolescence. Wilbur, by contrast, at the end of the book has returned to essentially the same state he was in at the beginning: basking in the daily care of the Zuckermans, the companionship of the other animals, and the completely undemanding "friendship" of the little female spiders. For him, life "was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be" (183). Moreover, although he loves Charlotte's children and grandchildren, none of them "ever quite took her place in his heart" (184). Wilbur's "mother," loving and dangerous, remains his dominant attachment.
Wilbur's mothering, then, differs from Mrs. Arable's, Fern's, and Charlotte's in the degree of its grounding in infantile fantasy. It represents unusually complicated wish fulfillment: oedipal desire for the mother, participation in pregnancy, asexual reproduction, exaggerated multiple birth, redemption from death, a continuing dependent and narcissistic state, assurance that such a state will never end, and finally the maintenance of the mother as primary love object. Mothering in females can also represent such wish fulfillment, but in this book Wilbur provides the focus for it. His condition at the end of the book reflects the fundamental asymmetry of daily reproduction: "Men are socially and psychologically reproduced by women, but women are reproduced (or not) largely by themselves" (Chodorow 36). The little spiders, all females, reproduce themselves generation after generation; Wilbur's life has been entirely reproduced by the females around him.
Chodorow emphasizes that mothering is only one role that females play in our culture, albeit a major one and one strongly encouraged by the culture. But the end of Charlotte's Web suggests that mothering is the only active role that Wilbur will ever play in life. Having re-created his exclusive primary attachment to his mother, he needs to do nothing further. This is certainly powerful fantasy material, for child and adult readers of both sexes, but if Wilbur's maleness was significant in his mothering duties, it must also be significant in this ending. The final image of him in the comfortable barn, childlike and happy, comes very close to the stereotype of the childlike, dependent husband. The difference is that Wilbur does not fear this state of dependency, as Chodorow suggests many men do (199).
The novel depicts other male stereotypes as well, and much less pleasant ones. The first three pages of the book equate maleness with violence: Mr. Arable is about to kill the pig with an ax, and Avery, Fern's ten-year-old brother, appears "heavily armed—an air rifle in one hand, a wooden dagger in the other" (4). Mr. Arable's reason for the slaughter is that "a weakling makes trouble." Though he seems "almost ready to cry" when Fern protests the killing, he says, "I'll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you'll see what trouble a pig can be" (3)—the implication being that babies and weaklings are equal in their potential to make trouble. Avery's mother says her son is perfectly normal because he "gets into poison ivy and gets stung by wasps and bees and brings frogs and snakes home and breaks everything he lays his hands on. He's fine" (111-12).
Templeton, the only other male character who appears with regularity, is a shifty, greedy male and Wilbur's rival for food.4 Dr. Dorian, who does allow the possibility of animal speech and thus speaks for the power of the imagination, nonetheless reinforces gender stereotypes with his patriarchal advice; his response to Mrs. Arable's complaint about Avery getting stung by wasps and bringing home snakes and breaking everything is a resounding and unequivocal "Good!" (112). The choice of the name Henry Fussy for the male who woos Fern seems calculated to make him less than attractive. It is also worth noting that Wilbur has no perceptible father.
By contrast, Charlotte's Web contains an unusual number of nurturing female characters. Some of them are as stereotyped as the men: the goose, Mrs. Arable, and Mrs. Zuckerman with her cleansing (and to Wilbur delicious) buttermilk baths all tend to express stereotypical attitudes and behavior. Even Fern's attitudes do not quite escape the stereotype, especially as she moves into adolescence. But the sheer number of different mothers, of varying species, and all circulating around Wilbur, suggests the complexity of the mother image itself: a biological, psychological, spiritual, economic, social, and cultural construct which eludes full description and for which Charlotte's web is the perfect emblem:
[Charlotte said,] "Not many creatures can spin webs. Even men aren't as good at it as spiders, although they think they're pretty good, and they'll try anything. Did you ever hear of the Queensborough Bridge?"
Wilbur shook his head. "Is it a web?"
"Sort of," replied Charlotte. "But do you know how long it took men to build it? Eight whole years. . . . I can make a web in a single evening."
"But what do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge—bugs?"
"They don't catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side . . . with men it's rush, rush, every minute. . . . I know a good thing when I see it, and my web is a good thing."
In Charlotte's eyes, a bridge is a bipolar thing allowing only two directions: back and forth. And while "men" may refer to human beings in general, Charlotte continually uses the masculine pronoun in a derogatory way here. A web, on the other hand, is a natural product allowing complex interactions in many directions; it represents the female Charlotte herself and her nurturing activities.
Drawing upon Chodorow's findings, Carol Gilligan has further explored the symbol of the web to represent women's notions of relationships; in her theory, women perceive relationships as a complex network of responsibility. They therefore often score poorly on psychological tests to elicit moral attitudes that are oriented toward a hierarchical image of relationships, for which an accurate image is the ladder. Each of these images—web and ladder—"distorts the other's representation. As the top of the hierarchy becomes the edge of the web and as the center of the network of connection becomes the middle of a hierarchical progression, each image marks as dangerous the place which the other defines as safe" (Gilligan 62). Males tend to fear being caught in a web of relationship and often respond to this possibility with fantasies of violence (39-42). Women, by contrast, fear being alone at the top of a hierarchy without the network of support which reproduces them (43-44).
Charlotte, however, knows no fear. As confident in the center of her web as she is at the top of the hierarchy of the barnyard animals, she escapes female stereotyping by combining masculine with feminine traits. Her scheming, trapping, bloodthirsty nature coexists with peaceful nurturance. The text describes her as "bold" and "cruel" (41), yet she draws support from her relationships with her female ancestors, her cousins, Wilbur, and the other animals. Language, in the dichotomy between nature and culture, is usually associated with culture and hence with maleness. Yet Charlotte is both "a good friend and a good writer" (184). Janice Alberghene has described the importance of writing in Charlotte's Web, noting that Charlotte teaches Wilbur about language and its use by weaving words as she weaves her web. Just as language is frequently tied to male culture, weaving allies itself with the female (see especially Rowe). But Charlotte breaks down these dichotomies, incorporating in one body, and in her web, the nurturing voice of the female and the cultural voice of the male. She becomes, virtually, the perfect parent.
This valorization of motherhood is one of the most appealing aspects of Charlotte's Web and encourages a reading in which gender distinctions are erased. However, just as Wilbur's maleness cannot be entirely ignored, so Charlotte's femaleness is stressed throughout the book and remains central to her nurturing. From this point of view, the novel supports Chodorow's contention that our culture socializes women to become mothers based on psychological as well as physical criteria—that is, by emphasizing internalized gender distinctions. In Charlotte's Web the reproduction of mothering, despite a male's temporary participation, remains the province of the female.
The phenomenal popularity of Charlotte's Web in this country was recently confirmed by a "Reading Is Fundamental" survey, which asked eighty "celebrities" and nearly 750,000 schoolchildren to name their favorite children's book. Charlotte's Web scored high among the children, and celebrities Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck (who "mother" thousands through the popular press) named it as their special favorite, as did numerous teachers, librarians, and parents who are RIF volunteers (Greenville News 2A). Such widespread popularity indicates that the depiction of motherhood in this book corresponds to the desires and fantasies of a large and varied population, who find in it much that is comforting. This comforting quality raises questions, though, about gender and nurturing in our culture today.
Wilbur's passivity at the end of the book certainly provides a comforting fantasy—especially for a child reader, since it implies that happiness and peace need not be associated solely with maturity and action or with the evolving gender distinctions that seem to accompany maturity. But it also implies the possibility of replicating the mother-child bond without involving a father and suggests that, while the female nurturing characters in the book must grow and change, the chief male one need not. Chodorow believes that such a fantasy would not be disturbing to girls, since girls do not define themselves by denying pre-oedipal relational modes (167). Boys, however, must relinquish those modes to achieve mature masculinity. What is the effect of such a literary fantasy, then, on boys? It would be interesting to discover if Charlotte's Web affects boys differently from girls.5
Charlotte's complexity and the valorization of motherhood through her and her web must certainly provide comfort and even inspiration to readers, especially, female ones. Moreover, this book focuses entirely on the domestic sphere, where the world of men gives way to women—to women's use of language and women's relationships. Furthermore, the main character, a male, is central to the web of the text because he is central to the web of female relationships that structure it. However, Chodorow reminds us of social realities in our culture: "Women's mothering determines women's primary location in the domestic sphere and creates a basis for the structural differentiation of domestic and public spheres. But these spheres operate hierarchically. Kinship rules organize claims of men on domestic units, and men dominate kinship. Culturally and politically, the public sphere dominates the domestic, and hence men dominate women" (10). The women seem dominant in this novel; yet their power reaches only a little beyond the domestic (to the county fair) and Mrs. Arable must turn to an unmistakably patriarchal figure, Dr. Dorian, for advice about her daughter's imagination. Thus, while the fantasy of the novel seems to valorize motherhood, it does so within a tightly controlled domain. Might this subtle aspect of such a popular novel not in some way contribute to keeping women in the domestic sphere?
Finally, the stereotypes in the book also offer both positive and negative comfort. Readers may smile at Avery's foolishness in acting like a pig, or at Mrs. Arable's narrow-minded equation of crocheting with web-spinning, or at her encouragement of Henry Fussy's attentions to Fern, recognizing that such behavior is only part of the truth. Indeed, these stereotypes emerge so clearly in Charlotte's Web because they are juxtaposed with the unstereotypical behavior of Wilbur and Charlotte. But even in as fine and complex a novel as this, stereotypes may feed fears. For example, do the characters of the "heavily armed" Avery, the ax-carrying Mr. Arable, and the devouring Templeton reflect women's fear of men's potential for violence? How might boys react to hearing such depictions read to them by their female teachers or mothers? If this novel suggests that men are indeed capable of mothering, might not such accompanying depictions, especially in a children's book, delay societal and personal changes? Given the remarkable dissemination of this novel across ages, races, and classes in this country, these are significant questions.
Charlotte's Web has the power to affect readers deeply on many issues. Relatively few people will read Nancy Chodorow, but Charlotte's Web anticipated her exploration of gender and motherhood with its complex interweaving of stereotype and innovation, depicting motherhood as both a biological and a psychological process that rests, in our culture, finally with the female. In so doing, it has provided various forms of comfort for countless readers. As our society tries to break down gender distinctions with regard to nurturing, however, the underlying gender distinctions that inform this novel take on even greater importance. They are not a mere relic of 1952, when the novel first appeared, but, as Chodorow shows, a sign of something deeply ingrained, unconscious, and thus all the more powerful in us. They cannot be overcome until they are recognized—especially in as fine and influential a book as Charlotte's Web.
1. In this essay, I treat Charlotte's Web as a text; addressing questions of psychobiography would entail a different psychoanalytic approach, but the authorship of this hymn to motherhood by a male, E. B. White, would provide the focus for an interesting study in itself.
2. Perry Nodelman describes this shift from "innocence" to "experience" as one from naturalism to fantasy (126). The two-part structure is not pure, though; later sections in the novel are in the "naturalistic" mode. Object relations theory helps us see both why Fern must be encouraged by her mother to develop a "normal" interest in boys (104-11) in naturalistic passages and how she remains an internalized mother for Wilbur at the point of transition to the fantastic.
3. From an anthropological point of view, such male activity is not unusual, of course. Many cultures practice various forms of couvade, and the rite is regarded as a useful, even essential element in the birth process. Until recently, modern Western culture denied men such rites and fantasies, reducing them to pacing in the hospital waiting room.
4. Young readers' enjoyment of Templeton may in part be explained psychoanalytically: while Wilbur remains generally in the oral stage, Templeton with his hoarding and overconsumption is a much more anal character. Wilbur eats, but Templeton devours. Young children are chronologically and psychologically much closer to their own anality than most adults and thus less likely to find it unattractive.
5. It would also be interesting to discover whether Charlotte's Web is more or less popular among boys than girls. In the RIF survey, the book was named by children as a favorite "along with other books." No male celebrity cited in the article named the book, but the "teachers, librarians, and parents" who are RIF volunteers named the book overwhelmingly as a favorite. That the "great majority" of these volunteers are female is confirmed by a phone conversation with RIF headquarters (June 27, 1989).
Alberghene, Janice. "Writing in Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature in Education (Spring 1985): 32-44.
"Celebrities Tell What They Liked to Read When They Were Young." AP wire service. Greenville [S.C.] News, 30 March 1987, 2A.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Jacobson, Edith. "Development of the Wish for a Child in Boys." The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 5 (1950): 139-52.
Nodelman, Perry. "Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature 13 (1985): 109-27.
Rowe, Karen E. "To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tale." In Fairy Tales and Society, ed. Ruth Bottigheimer, 53-74. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. 1952. Reprint. New York: Harper, 1980.
Matt Freeman (essay date August-September 2002)
SOURCE: Freeman, Matt. "The Glory of Everything." Reading Today 20, no. 1 (August-September 2002): 26.
[In the following essay, Freeman reflects on the enduring legacy of Charlotte's Web and asserts that "White respects his readers enough to tell them a story about life and death."]
It won the Newbery Medal as the most distinguished children's book published in 1952. It's still in print, and children still enjoy it. But nowadays, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes is just one book among many.
Another book published in 1952 was destined to eclipse Ginger Pye and just about every other children's book ever written. When it first appeared, Eudora Welty said in a New York Times book review that it was "just about perfect and just about magical." And despite being passed over for the Newbery Medal, it quickly began gamering honors.
Today, 50 years later, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web has a distinction that no medal or review can give. It has joined the pantheon of masterpieces that are honored by critics as much as they are loved by readers. And it has come to epitomize the power a few special books have to move their readers, to remain in their memories, to leave them feeling wiser, kinder, a little more human.
E. B. White is often described as a stylist, but unlike more idiosyncratic writers, his style was based on the most scrupulous economy, his work meticulously crafted not to draw attention to itself, but rather to let the subject shine through with the utmost clarity. From the book's first six compelling words—"Where's Papa going with that ax?"—White builds on strong, concrete images. The plot follows a basic, elemental conflict: The pig Wilbur is in ongoing danger of being butchered, and his friend Charlotte, a spider, resolves to save his life.
The story, certainly, is enough to keep us reading. But along the way are charmingly funny and movingly poetic descriptions of life on the farm, all built from White's minute observation of the concrete details of his subject: weathered boards, peeling paint, warm sun, the comfortably musty atmosphere of a barn, all mirrored and complemented by Garth Williams's famous line drawings.
The author uses the same depth of observation and clarity of expression to draw the animals' characters and emotions. Callow, histrionic, but warm and outgoing, Wilbur is lonely until he is befriended by Charlotte. Rational, articulate, strong-willed and clearminded, her personality dominates most of the rest of the book. But the other personalities are still present, revealed indirectly and with a gently satiric edge—the scatterbrained, gabbling geese, the dour sheep, the deliciously cynical rat Templeton.
But the book has a power beyond its plot, humor, charm, or poetry. White respects his readers enough to tell them a story about life and death. Because as richly as life and nature are portrayed in Charlotte's Web, its plot is driven by death, from the first line very nearly to its end.
The ax and the knife constantly menace Wilbur. Charlotte, the smallest and seemingly least powerful animal in the barn, has only her intelligence and writing ability with which to save him. In the end, of course, these are enough. But in the end, just as Wilbur's safety is secured, Charlotte dies.
It is the rare depiction of death in any book written for any age that has as much pathos or power. It happens at the county fair, after Wilbur wins the prize that will assure his survival. Charlotte, with her last strength, waves goodbye to him. Few people ever forget the passage that follows:
She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.
Sorrow and Renewal
Charlotte dies but the world goes on, oblivious and tawdry. In 93 words, White captures, as well as any of the great artists who have attempted the same thing, the echoing emptiness that is left when a loved one dies.
White is said to have choked with emotion at this point while recording a spoken version of Charlotte's Web, and no wonder; he clearly loved Charlotte. He wants his readers to love her too. But he tells them the truth: Nobody lives forever, not even imaginary spiders, and someday we will have to grieve for those we loved.
Wilbur returns to the farm and lives there happily, enjoying his comfortable life, although he is sad when he looks at his friend's tom, empty web. But he is sustained by the thought of her egg sac, which he rescued from the fairgrounds and brought back to the barn.
Winter passes, spring comes, and one day the young spiders are born. The pig is overjoyed to see them, but devastated anew when he sees them leaving for new homes, carried away on strands of silk extended into the breeze. Not all leave, however; three of them decide they like him and the barn, and make their homes near him. Wilbur's life is complete again, and White lists the things he finds beautiful and satisfying for all the rest of his days in a lyrical passage that ends with "the glory of everything."
Wilbur never forgets Charlotte, and he is hardly alone in that. "She was in a class by herself," White says at the book's close. "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
White, too, was in a class by himself. A superlative writer, he was a true friend to his readers as well. For 50 years now, his book has helped them understand that despite its inevitable pains, life is deeply beautiful and very much worth living. Only the truest of friends can do that.
THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN (1970)
Margaret A. Dorsey (review date July 1970)
SOURCE: Dorsey, Margaret A. Review of The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino. Library Journal 95, no. 13 (July 1970): 2537.
[The Trumpet of the Swan follows t]he eventful life of Louis, a voiceless trumpeter swan, from hatching to contented fatherhood. Most of the characters are immediately engaging—Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and takes him to school to learn to read and write; Louis's grandiloquent father, who sacrifices his honor to steal a trumpet so his son can communicate with other swans; Lucky Lucas, the agent who gets Louis a well-paying job in a Philadelphia nightclub; and Louis himself, who through perseverance (and natural musical talent) overcomes his speech defect, wins the love of the beautiful Serena, repays his father's debt, and courageously deals with the human world only to return to freedom in the wild. The easy acceptance of literate Louis by numberless human characters so necessary to this sort of fantasy nevertheless strains at the willing suspension of disbelief because the total publicity bath is missing. Louis is a public performer of some skill and can read and write as well, but he attracts no non-print media publicity—no film companies, record companies, broadcasting dates, not even a cover on Life Magazine. However, a good deal of interesting nature lore is an unobtrusive part of the story, humor abounds and beauty—of nature, of relationships, of time passing—shines through the simple, ultimately convincing narrative. Mr. White has written another story that will captivate children of all ages.
Lucien L. Agosta (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Agosta, Lucien L. "'To Solve His Problems with Music': The Trumpet of the Swan." In E. B. White: The Children's Books, pp. 122-27, 154-59. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
[In the following essay, Agosta explores the genesis of The Trumpet of the Swan and its ultimate critical reception, surveying the book's early reviewers who generally reacted positively to its charms as well as its present-day critics who tend to ignore the volume in favor of White's other efforts.]
The Genesis of the Novel
In his review for the New York Times Book Review, John Updike judged The Trumpet of the Swan "the most spacious and serene" of White's three novels for children, "the one most imbued with the author's sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature" (Updike, 4). The Trumpet of the Swan celebrates a nature uncircumscribed by human concerns or conveniences, an untamed wilderness to which the central characters repair after necessary sojourns in civilization. Their hearts are clearly in the Canadian wilds, to which they escape only after satisfying the demands of the human world.
This novel thus differs markedly from Stuart Little 's focus on the search for Margalo—by car—down roads frequented by humankind, and from Charlotte's Web 's celebration of domesticated nature on Zuckerman's idyllic farm. The Trumpet of the Swan holds up as an ideal those precious "days in the deep woods, far, far from everywhere—no automobiles, no roads, no people, no noise, no school, no homework, no problems"—except for the problem of getting lost in the vast Canadian wilds, which serve as initial setting for the novel and eventual point of return for the novel's two main characters—the boy Sam Beaver and his friend Louis the trumpeter swan.1 A second problem both characters face is deciding what they want to do in life that will ensure their frequent return to this rich untamed world.
Despite the book's "spacious and serene" celebration of nature and despite Updike's generous review, the novel represents a falling off from White's first two works for children. Even Updike noted that The Trumpet of the Swan was "not quite so sprightly as Stuart Little, and less rich in personalities and incident than Charlotte's Web " (4). Indeed, the general consensus among reviewers and critics has been that this third novel is the weakest of White's works for juveniles—a judgment with which White himself was in agreement. As Peter Neumeyer aptly indicated in his entry on White in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, The Trumpet of the Swan "would be a splendid accomplishment for a lesser writer," but it "is not usually thought to stand comparison with White's earlier two children's books" (1983a, 818).
Some of the book's weaknesses can be explained by its manner of composition and by White's reasons for undertaking the project in the first place. According to Scott Elledge, White's biographer, White undertook the project with the same urgency and for the same reasons that he began Stuart Little 23 years earlier—"the fear of dying and leaving Katharine inadequately provided for" (345). Suffering from osteoporosis and confined to a hospital bed, Katharine was attended at home by nurses round the clock. Her expenses, which the proceeds from this book were expected to allay, were considerable. White began work on the manuscript in 1968 and completed it in what was for him record time—November 1969.
Because he and his wife were then in such poor health, he sent it to his publisher without submitting it to the extensive rewriting and rethinking processes (White called these processes "regurgitating it and swallowing it again" [Letters of E. B. White, 583]) that had contributed so greatly to the artistic success of his first two books. According to Elledge, White "was dissatisfied with the book, and after he turned it in he wished he had held it a year and then rewritten it, as he had done with his other children's books" (345). Consequently, the book lacks the compression and succinctness of the earlier works. The plot sprawls geographically and episodically, lacking the keenness and tautness that White showed himself capable of in writing his first two books for children. To Garth Williams on 31 December 1969, White asserted that "I'm not entirely happy about the text of the book—I am old and wordy, and this book seems to show it" (Letters, 592).
White initiated the book with little background knowledge about some of his settings and about the nature and habits of trumpeter swans. "It is very unusual for me to attempt to write about something I don't know about at first hand," he confided to his old friend and fellow Cornellian Howard Cushman, "but this goddam little fictional character has got me into this, and I could break his arm. Or wing" (Letters, 568).
White asked Cushman, who then lived in Philadelphia, to send him photographs of the trumpeter swans in the Philadelphia Zoo; he also asked Cushman to provide him with background information about nightclub locations in Philadelphia, the layout of the zoo, and the dimensions and appearance of the zoo's Bird Lake. Writing of the book to James Wright on 29 August 1970, White confessed that it "took a lot of gall to write it, as I have never in my life laid eyes on a Trumpeter Swan, either in or out of captivity. But I'll tackle anything in a pinch, and I began to feel the pinch more than a year ago when I looked around and discovered that my house was full of day nurses and night nurses at $28 per day. Or night" (Letters, 605). White wrote to Robert Coates on 14 September 1969 that the book "will have to net me about half a million dollars, otherwise I won't be able to pay off all the registered and unregistered nurses that tend K. every day and every night" (Letters, 584). By way of explaining the defects in the book, White continuously referred to it as a mercantile venture. To Helen Thurber, White complained that "so far, the book has given me little joy and lots of headaches" (Letters, 593).
The qualified success of The Trumpet of the Swan and White's dissatisfaction with it thus resulted from the fiscal urgency under which it was written and the lack of an immediate knowledge of his characters and settings. Clearly, part of the success of Stuart Little derives from White's exact depiction of life lived in an apartment in New York City where he had sojourned for so many years, and the success of Charlotte's Web is due in large part to the immediacy of its hymn to the rural life to which he himself had retired so many years before.
Dorothy Lobrano Guth and Scott Elledge, however, maintain that there are repeated autobiographical elements throughout The Trumpet of the Swan that give it whatever sense of authenticity it has. Guth, the editor of White's letters, notes that when White worked as a counselor at Camp Otter in Ontario in the summers of 1920 and 1921, his eyes were opened to true wilderness, as opposed to the rural charm of the Belgrade Lakes of his childhood summers in Maine. "Almost fifty years later," she notes, White "drew on his memories of Camp Otter in his account of 'Camp Kookooskoos' in The Trumpet of the Swan " (Letters, 21). When White eventually became an investing partner in the camp he employed "a live Chippewa Indian" named Sam Beaver, who in The Trumpet of the Swan appears under a different guise and age but with the same name (Letters, 88, 94). The name for Camp Kookooskoos comes from a Milicete Indian word meaning "great horned owl."
Elledge argues for a considerably greater autobiographical influence in the novel than White's memories of the Canadian wilds transmuted into the novel's setting. According to Elledge, "the truth of the tale" derives from White's memories of being unable to speak in public and his inability to talk to girls, played out in the novel in Louis's muteness and his consequent inability to court Serena, "the swan of his desiring." In addition, Elledge notes a connection between Louis's father's breaking into the music store to steal a trumpet for Louis and White's own father's apparent extralegal relationship with his Horace Waters Piano Company partners, who eventually sued him for fraud. Elledge thus gives the novel a thorough biographical reading and concludes that one of the weaknesses of the story results from White's "dividing his (and his readers') interest between Louis and Sam, who both portray aspects of White's character and enact events based on White's memories" (347).
A further cause of disappointment in the book for White (and for most readers) was Garth Williams's unavailability to work on illustrations for the volume. In a 31 December 1969 letter to Williams, White lamented that "I had always hoped that Williams and White would be as indestructible as ham and eggs, Scotch and soda, Gilbert and Sullivan" and declared his great unhappiness "about being separated from you after all these many fine and rewarding years" (Letters, 591-92). Updike, too, registered disappointment in the change in illustrators: "At first glance, one's heart a little falls to see that wash drawings by Edward Frascino have replaced Garth Williams's finely furry pen-and-ink illustrations," though Updike later concedes that Frascino's looser line is congruent with White's plotting and narrative pace (4). Frascino's black and white and gray wash drawings are certainly expressive and more than merely serviceable, though one cannot help but wonder how much the book's effectiveness is compromised by its not being illustrated by Williams, clearly one of the great illustrators for children and an artist who had already proven a strongly empathetic interpreter of White's works.
Despite the novel's weaknesses and White's dissatisfactions with it, The Trumpet of the Swan amounts to much more than a mere potboiler and thus deserves a close reading. In the first place, its action-crammed plot rarely fails in holding reader interest. The novel focuses on Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His inability to produce the characteristic "Ko-Hoh" sound alienates him from others of his species and, more important, disqualifies him as a suitable mate since he cannot trumpet the necessary mating cry. Louis, thus disabled, enrolls in school with the help of his friend Sam Beaver, an 11-year-old boy whom he had met soon after hatching. In school Louis learns to read and write and acquires a chalk pencil and a slate which he ties around his neck and which allows him to communicate with people, though not with his fellow swans. To foster this communication with his own species, Louis's father helps Louis to overcome his handicap by crashing through the plate-glass window of a music store in Billings, Montana, and stealing a trumpet, on which Louis learns not only to make the distinctive trumpeter swan "Ko-Hoh" but also to play everything from taps to jazz.
Grateful to his father for his generous and ingenious act but at the same time conscious of his father's essential wrongdoing, Louis sets out to save his family honor by earning enough money to pay for the trumpet and for the store damages. His departure from home is made particularly difficult by his having to leave behind the young swan, Serena, with whom he has fallen in love. Louis holds down a succession of jobs: Sam Beaver recommends him for a summer job at Camp Kookooskoos playing reveille and taps, after which Louis flies to Boston to play trumpet for the entertainment of the passengers on the swan boats in the lagoon of the Public Garden. Next, Louis flies to Philadelphia, where he plays trumpet in a nightclub and offers free programs to zoo visitors on Sunday afternoons. Fortuitously, a sudden storm blows Serena all the way from Montana to the zoo's bird pond. Here Louis's wooing meets with a happy conclusion, and the pair fly happily back to their spring mating in Canada and winter sojourning in Montana, Louis giving his father more than enough money to reimburse the Billings music store owner.
White claimed that The Trumpet of the Swan was a love story, though Elledge is more accurate in his assessment of the work as "primarily an adventure story in which the hero's adolescent love is more a preoccupation than it is a motive for his actions" (347). More important than either the love story or adventure aspects of the novel, however, is its focus on the difficult experience of growing up. Updike calls the novel "a parable of growing" (4), and it is perhaps this aspect more than any other that makes the greatest claim for attention from the young reader. The book equates maturation with finding a voice with which to communicate one's needs, desires, and aspirations. Only when Louis can communicate, when he develops an expressive voice can he enter the world, claim a place in it, and live a satisfying and successful life.
This focus on maturation, on finding an empowering voice that grants love, security, and competence may help to explain the continuing popularity of the book among children and the adults who foster their reading. There are other rewards in reading the novel: it deals seriously with overcoming a handicap; it celebrates the survival in the wild of a beautiful but threatened species; it extolls the pleasures and benefits of music and art; it acknowledges the imperative to love and be loved and to find a mate; it explores the relationships between fathers and sons and the age-old tensions and affections between generations; and it acknowledges the fragile beauty of the planet and its wild, natural places. The novel's overall tone is engaging without ever being condescending: it is a respectful book—respectful of its subject, of its readers, and of the issues it addresses. Elledge is right in calling the book remarkable in being "a young book by an old author" (348).
Because of these elements and despite White's dissatisfaction, The Trumpet of the Swan was a great commercial success. In November 1970, soon after its publication, the work assumed first position on the New York Times best-seller list of children's books, displacing Charlotte's Web. The novel retained this position well into 1971, earning White a considerable income in royalties. The book was passed over for the Newbery Award, which was given instead to Betsy Byars's The Summer of the Swans. "How's that for a near miss?" quipped White; "I just got one word wrong!" (Letters, 615). In late 1971 White condensed the novel into approximately four typewritten pages for a presentation, with music especially written for it, by the Philadelphia Orchestra to benefit the orchestra and the Philadelphia Zoo. Thus, despite White's fears on sending the manuscript forth, The Trumpet of the Swan was in almost every way a public and commercial success. . . .
The Trumpet of the Swan was reviewed in almost every major periodical on its appearance in 1970, largely because of E. B. White's reputation in American letters and because of the enormous success, both critically and commercially, of his two previous works for children. But this third work by White has subsequently been ignored by most critics of children's literature, who generally judge it much as White did—as a definite falling off from the artistic achievement of its two predecessors. Usually deprecatory in referring to his work, White was exceptionally so about The Trumpet of the Swan, noting in his letters how unusual it was for him to be writing about something he did not know firsthand and about a setting with which he was completely unfamiliar (Letters, 568, 583). He also repeatedly judged the book too long and seemed to apologize for writing it by explaining that it was undertaken to earn the money needed to pay off Katharine's medical expenses (Letters, 602, 584, 605). He was also saddened by Garth Williams's inability to provide the book's illustrations. He further argued that the book was often misjudged because frequently given to children too young for it: "I am always distressed when I hear of a second grade teacher reading 'The Trumpet' to her class—it really belongs more in the fourth and fifth grade level" (Letters, 645).
White's reservations about the book were not reflected in the initial critical responses to it penned by reviewers or by its considerable success in the marketplace. White noted with irony in November 1970 that The Trumpet of the Swan, then number one on the children's best-seller list, had bumped Charlotte's Web down to fourth place: "So there I was," he wrote to Hamish Hamilton, "betraying my own best friend, in cold type" (Letters, 608). The book's early reviews must have been as gratifying to White as was the book's early success with the public.
In an early review Polly Goodwin noted that White had poured into the book "a blend of tenderness, humor, wisdom and imagination that should guarantee it a long life in children's hearts" and that the book, consequently, "will enchant any age."2 Zena Sutherland pronounced the plot of the book "diverting" and noted that "the half-tone illustrations reflect its humor," but, for her, "it is the style that makes the book a masterpiece."3
Perhaps the most important of the early reviews of The Trumpet of the Swan was that penned by John Updike in the 28 June 1970 New York Times Book Review. Updike, a former New Yorker colleague of White, asserted that this new book for children joins White's "two others on the shelf of classics" and, with them, shares an "inimitable tone," including "the simplicity that never condescends, the straight and earnest telling that happens upon, rather than veers into, comedy" (4). Updike noted an "accumulation of preposterous particulars" in the story of a mute trumpeter swan, and remarked on White's ability to keep the story buoyant, never once winking over the heads of his child audience and thereby turning the plot flimsy and causing it to tumble down. Updike further noted how White's eye and ear for the concrete particular "engenders textures of small surprise and delightful rightness" (5). Updike concluded by noting that the novel "glows with the primal ecstasies of space and flight, of night and day, of nurturing and maturing, of courtship and art" (24). White, according to his letter of response, was grateful for Updike's generous review.
Edmund Fuller, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted that The Trumpet of the Swan joins White's two previous books in passing "the unfailing test of a fine book for children," specifically that children "shall really love it and that adults whose spirits have not withered on the vine shall enjoy it also." Fuller notes White's use of "a great deal of solid fact about Trumpeter Swans" and his "sound nature writing as a grounding for the fantasy."4
Calling the book "a prizewinner" and "a quiet joy," the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor noted that The Trumpet of the Swan "is a work of poetry and humor, delicacy, and just sufficient echo of earth to be (however incredible) credible."5 In the Horn Book Paul Heins noted White's "characteristically understated style, which extracts the essential humor from the most unprepossessing of situations"; Heins was, however, the first of the early reviewers to note that this book was "not . . . the equal of Charlotte's Web. "6
Michele Murray in the National Observer summarized the novel as being about "the power of desire when it is linked to endurance and about the triumph over adversity of the bold and loving heart." She further noted, however, that "the novel is possibly too long to sustain the single tone of pastoral elegy in which it is written" and that it suffers in comparison to White's two previous books for children.7 The Instructor, however, noted that the novel "is a worthy companion for Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, " for which "there is no higher praise."8
A second major review, penned by Edward Weeks in the Atlantic Monthly, noted that The Trumpet of the Swan bears repeated reading because the situations recounted in it, like those in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, "are so preposterous yet so plausible that the imagination is not content with the first impression; it must go back to relive and cherish the details." Weeks noted White's "special kind of genius" that allowed him "to create the perfect blend of fantasy and belief" in the novel. In an idiosyncratic judgment, Weeks proclaimed Louis's mother, the tart-mouthed swan addicted to reality and to puncturing the pompous verbosity of her husband, "the real heroine of the book."9
Amy Kellman in Grade Teacher observed that the novel's "nature-fantasy plot is sometimes strained, leaning too hard on the long hand of coincidence," and further noted the minimal characterization afforded the human characters in preference for the depiction of the swans, which she termed "fully realized creatures."10 The reviewer for America read the novel from a different perspective, calling White's plot "a witty, credible, sophisticated story with remarkable swan dialogue."11
The most unabashedly positive review came from Jean Stafford, a friend of the Whites and a fellow contributor to the New Yorker, which published her review on 5 December 1970. Stafford called the publication of White's book "the big news of 1970" and termed the work "very nearly perfect." She predicted that Louis "is bound to be as dearly loved as Charlotte and Stuart Little."12 The reviewer for the New York Times Book Review urged caution as to a premature judgment of the book, arguing that only children could decide whether or not this novel would join its two predecessors in the ranks of modern classics. The reviewer acknowledged the work's "felicitous, graceful telling" and "its charming improbability that Mr. White makes seem possible."13 The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, however, dismissed the book with scant notice and faint praise, calling Louis "a sort of feathered Louis Armstrong" and observing coolly that "whether you care for this sort of thing or not depends on your sense of humour."14
Margot Hentoff, writing in the New York Review of Books, felt that the verdict was already in on the novel and that it was not as successful as either Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little. She also faulted the book for its lack of humor, noting that perhaps "the mutilation here is too serious, too possible; the swan flying through the air weighed down with trumpet and slate is too orthopedic an image to fuse easily with the freedom and beauty of a wild bird."15 Thus, the initial reviews of The Trumpet of the Swan were by and large strongly positive, though a number of these reviewers distinguished, early on, many of the factors that prevent White's third novel for juveniles from equaling in quality his first two.
The Trumpet of the Swan has occasioned little critical commentary beyond the initial reviews following its publication in 1970, and what commentary it has evoked is usually to be found in general critical assessments of White's career. For example, in his book on White, Edward C. Sampson accorded The Trumpet of the Swan a scant paragraph, albeit a perceptive one. Sampson observed that White's third book for children was "a curious combination" of his first two in that Louis's adventures in Boston and Philadelphia remind a reader of some of the adventures encountered by Stuart on his journey, and the relation between Louis the Swan and Sam Beaver, a boy maturing into the world of adults, is reminiscent of the relationship between Wilbur and Fern. Despite these similarities and the inclusion in The Trumpet of the Swan of many of White's usual themes, Sampson observed that "the book never reaches the level of the first two," that "there is something missing." Perhaps, he argued further, a swan's stealing a trumpet or playing jazz in a nightclub is harder to accept than Stuart's or Wilbur's fanciful adventures. He judged the book "a success," however, and recognized that "for another writer it might have been a triumph" (103-104).
Roger Sale in Fairy Tales and After did not even judge the novel a qualified success. He lumped The Trumpet of the Swan with Stuart Little in a single dismissive sentence, asserting that neither book "is even good enough to be called a distinguished or considerable failure" (Sale, 258). Most readers of either book would feel that this judgment is too harsh. Peter F. Neumeyer's judgment in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers (1983) was more tempered: he admitted that though the novel "would be a splendid accomplishment for a lesser writer," it "is not usually thought to stand comparison with White's earlier two children's books," perhaps because the "genial commerce between animals and human beings seems, in this book, a bit more labored, less inevitable, than in the first two." Whereas White violates the laws of nature "ambiguously only, and with the greatest of restraint" in Charlotte's Web, he "seems to throw down the gauntlet almost with bravado with his implausible musical swan" who reads and writes, plays trumpet, and "moves easily in a world of human beings" (Neumeyer 1983a, 818).
In his expanded discussion of The Trumpet of the Swan in the Dictionary of Literary Biography volume on American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, Neumeyer observed that the difference between "the plausible and the implausible is not an issue whatsoever in this story" and that many of the adventures, at least in the book's first half, "seem arbitrary." Despite its faults, according to Neumeyer, the book is "adventurous, imaginative," and at times "touching" (Neumeyer 1983b, 347-48). In a later article, however, Neumeyer quoted from a letter White wrote in 1972 to his friend Reginald Allen in which he painfully admitted "how terribly ashamed and humiliated" he was about the novel, which he claimed to have published without having "tried hard enough" to perfect. Neumeyer, after studying the manuscripts for the novel, concluded instead that White "tried terribly hard" and that if the book is not his most successful, it was not for lack of exertion. Indeed, White's notes, worksheets, and prodigious research indicate that he "tried too hard." "He was buried under his sources and his research," concluded Neumeyer: the problem with the novel "is that White did not personally, intimately, know a Louis, nor trumpeter swans, nor the Philadelphia Zoo, as he knew most profoundly his own pig, his own spider, and his own barn."16
By far the most significant discussion of the book is to be found in Scott Elledge's literary biography of White. Elledge challenged White's assertion that despite the novel's fantastic plot, nothing in it violates authentic swan behavior. Elledge objected that "the natural behavior of the trumpeter swan hardly shows in the plot" or in White's "anthropomorphic characterization of Louis" (346). Instead, Elledge argued, whatever truth the story contains is a reflection of White's own life experiences. Thus Elledge provided a biographical reading of the work, including tracing many of the novel's scenes to similar ones garnered during White's youthful trip across the country in his Model T and during his years working at Camp Otter in Ontario. According to Elledge, White's memories of the Horace Waters Piano Company colored his portrayal of the music store in Billings, and his recollections of his Victorian father are transmuted into his portrayal of the old cob.
But Elledge did more than provide autobiographical parallels with the novel. His judgment that this novel "is less moving than White's preceding children's stories because its humor has fewer serious undertones, its sense of life is less profound, and (most important) its characters are less convincing" has about it the ring of accuracy, as does Elledge's assertion that the book primarily concerns "the process of winning the independence of adulthood" (347). This serious theme, however, is treated more in the mode of "musical comedy" than in the manner of a thorough exploration of the maturation process. Elledge concluded that the book can be considered "an extraordinary children's story" primarily because of the treatment "of the relationship between father and son": "Louis's sense of responsibility for his father's honor, and Sam's love for a father from whom he must distance himself, are the truest and most convincing emotions we meet in The Trumpet of the Swan " (348).
Elledge concluded his perceptive discussion of the novel by noting that in it White speaks to young people "not just for an endangered species, but for an endangered civilization and an endangered planet" (348). The Trumpet of the Swan is White's clearest enunciation of the dangers that lie before human beings as one interdependent species among many and his clearest declaration of hope for the preservation and continuance of the beautiful world he dearly loved and always saw as steeped in wonder. This is the vision of all three of White's books for children, and it is, perhaps, articulated most clearly in this last one.
1. The Trumpet of the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 4; hereafter cited in text.
2. Polly Goodwin, "Ages 8 to 12," Chicago Sunday Tribune Children's Book World, 17 May 1970, 5.
3. Zena Sutherland, Saturday Review, 27 June 1970, 39.
4. Edmund Fuller, "E. B. White's Tale of Swans and Children Delights and Instructs," Wall Street Journal, 14 July 1970, 16.
5. "Another Louis Takes Up the Horn," Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 1970, 15.
6. Paul Heins, Horn Book (August 1970): 391.
7. Michele Murray, "Mr. White's Trumpet of the Swan Is an Elegiac If One-Key Pastorale," National Observer, 10 August 1970, 21.
8. Instructor 80 (August-September 1970): 173.
9. Edward Weeks, Atlantic Monthly, September 1970, 123-24.
10. Amy Kellman, Grade Teacher 88 (November 1970): 120.
11. America 123 (5 December 1970): 496.
12. Jean Stafford, New Yorker, 5 December 1970, 217-18.
13. New York Times Book Review, 6 December 1970, 58.
14. "Fish-Scales, Fur and Feathers," Times Literary Supplement, 11 December 1970, 1458.
15. Margot Hentoff, "Little Private Lives," New York Review of Books, 17 December 1970, 11.
16. Peter F. Neumeyer, "The Creation of E. B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan: The Manuscripts," Horn Book (January-February 1985): 28.
Chris Liska Carger, Sally Conklin, and Francine Falk-Ross (review date October-November 2002)
SOURCE: Carger, Chris Liska, Sally Conklin, and Francine Falk-Ross. Review of The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White, illustrated by Fred Marcellino. Book Links 12, no. 2 (October-November 2002): 53.
Gr. 2-4—[In The Trumpet of the Swan, ] Louis, a young male trumpeter swan, has no voice. Since trumpeter swans attract mates with their resonant voices, his parents worry about his future. But Louis determinedly makes his way in the world and finds strategies to overcome his disability. He even succeeds in courting his beloved Serena by playing a trumpet. Louis is a great example of perseverance and adaptation when facing a potentially disabling condition.
Epstein, Joseph. "E. B. White, Dark and Lite." Commentary 81, no. 4 (April 1986): 48-56.
Biographical essay focusing on White's personal history and approach to writing.
Alberghene, Janice M. "Writing in Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature in Education 16, no. 1 (spring 1985): 32-44.
Discusses the special attention White paid to language in Charlotte's Web.
Gose, Elliott. "Love, Life, and Death." In Mere Creatures: A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children, pp. 53-62. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
Examines Charlotte's Web as a modern fairy tale, emphasizing issues of death and Charlotte's role in the narrative.
Griffith, John. Charlotte's Web. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 116 p.
Book-length critical study of Charlotte's Web.
Guroian, Vigen. "Friends and Mentors: The Message of Children's Stories." Christian Century 115, no. 17 (3 June 1998): 574-78.
Explores parables of friendship and mentor relationships in several children's books, including Charlotte's Web.
Mills, Sophie. "Pig in the Middle." Children's Literature in Education 31, no. 2 (June 2000): 107-24.
Relates how the humanity of pigs allows them to serve as a figurative tool "for exploring themes relating to human transition" in several works of children's literature, including Charlotte's Web.
Misheff, Sue. "Beneath the Web and Over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 3 (September 1998): 131-41.
Reviews how the trauma of death is expressed in Katherine Patterson's Bridge to Terabithia and White's Charlotte's Web.
Neumeyer, Peter. "What Makes a Good Children's Book? The Texture of Charlotte's Web." In Critical Essays on E. B. White, edited by Robert L. Root, Jr., pp. 69-77. New York, N.Y.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.
Suggests that the spare, but suggestive writing style of Charlotte's Web has enabled it to become a classic work of children's literature.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "'The Miracle of the Web': Community, Desire, and Narrativity in Charlottle's Web." Lion and the Unicorn 15, no. 2 (December 1991): 35-60.
Compares Wilbur's acceptance into human culture in Charlottle's Web with Fern's awaking sexuality.
Additional coverage of White's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 62; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 21; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement ; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 116; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 16, 37; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 34, 39; Contemporary Popular Writers ; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 22; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors ; DISCovering Authors 3.0 ; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 5; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers ; Something about the Author, Vols. 2, 29, 44, 100; and Twayne's United States Authors.