For the past few weeks, I have been reading E. B. White. I began with Stuart Little, and this post is about what a brave, aspiring, flawed little mouse has to say about international law. It’s also about Justice William O. Douglas, talking animals, literary style, the composer Marvin Hamlisch, and the State of Maine. (Actually, given all those subjects, this will be a series of posts, which I’ll later collect together into a single text.)
I should begin by letting on that a great deal has happened around my house recently, at least from one point of view, and it’s created a framework of preoccupation for my reading. It all started with the peas. Each spring, my wife and I plant a vegetable garden from seed, and this year the alternating rain and heat we’ve experienced in Connecticut has meant that things are shaping up nicely in the photosynthesis department. After an early sprout, our peas twisted rapidly up the dry branches we use as climbing poles, and now scores of delicate tendrils are waving in the breeze, seeking an upward purchase amidst a profusion of purple flowers and waxy yellow pods. In the meantime, our salad greens are leaning every which way in a carpet of teal, apple and lime; our long, crinkly kale is the most flavorful we’ve ever grown; our cucumbers seem ready to leap up from their mounds; and our tomatoes are beginning to give off a spicy aroma, at least if you push your nose in close and inhale.
We try to take things more slowly during the summer.
It was in this spirit that I’ve been reading the stories and essays of “White, Elwyn Brooks. 1899-1985. American writer, b. Mount Vernon, NY.” A copy of Strunk and White has been beside my desk ever since college (for foreign readers, that’s E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr.’s classic text on English prose, The Elements of Style)—but I hadn’t read Stuart Little since childhood. And I was surprised at what I found.
In chapter twelve, “The Schoolroom,” Stuart has run away from his Manhattan home to search for his beloved Margalo, a beautiful bird who briefly takes up residence with the Little family. In the story, Margalo introduces herself “softly, in a musical voice” with the following words, which are repeated at the end of the book: “I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle.”
In pursuit of Margalo, Stuart drives north in a suitably small car, borrowed from the dentist Dr. Carey. After driving all night up the Saw Mill River Parkway, he sees a man sitting dejectedly at the side of a road. He is the Superintendent of Schools for his town, and he complains to Stuart that the teacher for Number Seven school, Miss Gunderson, has called in sick. Gamely, Stuart offers to serve as a substitute.
“Really?” asks the Superintendent of schools, looking up.
“Certainly,” says Stuart. “Glad to”—and emerges a few minutes later from some bushes dressed in a “pepper-and-salt jacket, old striped trousers, a Windsor tie, and spectacles.”
When Stuart meets his young charges, he proposes that “instead of taking up any special subject this morning,” they “just talk about something.”
The suggestions come in swiftly: “Could we talk about the way it feels to hold a snake in your hand and then it winds itself around your wrist?” asks Arthur Greenlaw. “Could we talk about sin and vice?” pleads Lydia Lacey. “Could we talk about the fat woman at the circus and she had hair all over her chin?” begs Isidor Feinberg.
“No,” says Stuart. “I’ll tell you, let’s talk about the King of the World”—a theme he quickly revises as “Chairman of the World.” “The world gets into a lot of trouble because it has no chairman,” he declares.
The first thing a chairman needs, begins Stuart, is to know “what’s important.” How many of the students know what the important things are? All hands rise.
Stuart: “Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what is important.”
Henry: “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.”
Stuart: “Correct. Those are the important things”—except, as Mary Bendix points out, “he forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it” (“Exactly,” notes the mouse, “Ice cream is important”).
After this lesson in fundamentals, the students and their teacher begin to talk about law. “Can anybody,” asks Stuart Little, “suggest any good laws for the world?” And that’s where things get interesting—and lead out into facets of the author of The Elements of Style of which I hadn’t been aware.
[To be continued tomorrow—it’s time to water the garden.]