As I was saying in yesterday’s post, when I read “The Schoolroom” chapter E. B. White’s Stuart Little I was surprised—and I learned something about the author I hadn’t known: he had a passionate interest in international law.
The pivotal exchange of the chapter begins when Stuart, having clarified “what’s important,” asks his students to suggest “good laws for the world.” In a madcap exchange, the students make five suggestions, of which Stuart approves of only two:
1) Albert Fernstrom begins by suggesting the following: “Don’t eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools.” Stuart describes this as “very good advice,” but he counsels that “advice and law are not the same.” Law, explains Stuart, is “extremely solemn.”
2) John Podowski is next: “Nix on swiping anything,” intones John—solemnly. “Very good,” replies Stuart. “Good law.”
3) Anthony Brendisi (I love all these names, this ethnic jumble) proposes: “Never poison anything but rats.” Stuart objects: “That’s no good. It’s unfair to rats. A law has to be fair to everybody.” Although rats are objectionable, and though Stuart is himself a mouse, he explains that, as Chairman of the World, he “has to see all sides to a problem.”
4) Agnes Beretska raises her hand to recommend that “there ought to be a law against fighting.” Stuart dismisses this as impractical, because “men like to fight,” but he observes “you’re getting warm.”
5) Mildred Hoffenstein makes the final suggestion: “absolutely no being mean.” Although Stuart isn’t sure whether the law will work—as Herbert Prendergast notes, “some people are just naturally mean”—he declares “it’s a good law, and we’ll give it a try.”
And try they do. An experiment follows.
Stuart orders Harry Jamieson to “do something mean” to Katharine Stableford. Katharine is holding a small scented sachet of the kind which used to be common in Adirondack gift shops. It’s embroidered with the words “For you I pine, for you I balsam.” Foreign readers, that’s a pun: for you I pine (as in, the aromatic tree and the feeling of longing), for you I balsam (as in a flat-needled pine and “bawl some,” or cry a bit); the pillow is meant to conjure up memories of someone or some place far away, typically someone met during a summer vacation, when such pillows would be purchased.
Harry does as Stuart orders and steals the pillow. Stuart then consults the laws of the world:
“Here we are. Page 492. ‘Absolutely no being mean. Page 560. ‘Nix on swiping anything.’”
Harry, he declares, has broken two laws, and he orders the students to take action. The students jump from their seats, race down the isle, and surround their classmate, who looks frightened, and Stuart demands that he return the pillow, which he does.
“There,” Stuart declares, “it worked pretty well. No being mean is a perfectly good law.”
At first, I was tempted to read this exchange in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland, which uses nonsense and zany stories to explore the nature of all sorts of rules, including legal procedures. And there’s no doubt something to this. White loved nonsense, and already in 1938, seven years before he wrote Stuart Little, he was singling out Dr. Seuss among all children’s authors for praise. Yet on further reflection, there seemed to be something programmatic, and just slightly didactic, in Stuart’s schoolroom adventure.
After all, by the terms of the story, for Stuart laws for the world ought to be:
- based on “what’s important”—that is, on shared, common beliefs about fundamental things (these include not only the goods I mentioned in my previous post, but also, as Stuart explains at the end of the chapter, “summertime”);
- “solemn”—meaning, to use a contemporary legal distinction, that laws should be based on hard rules rather than ambiguous standards;
- “fair to everybody,” treating all people, or all nations, equally, including rats;
- “practical,” addressing only problems that can actually be solved; and
- enforceable—that is, law truly exists only when there are institutions that can apply force to vindicate it, just as the class was able to force Harry to give back Katharine’s pillow.
It turns out that White wasn’t pulling these ideas out of thin air. He wrote the bulk of Stuart Little in the winter of 1944-45, and throughout that time, he was thinking ceaselessly about the international order that would keep the peace in the wake of World War II. Here’s his description of how he finished his famous children’s book—and what, tellingly, he did immediately upon completing it:
“My editor … had been urging me to finish the narrative, and I determined to put it off no longer. Mornings I sat at a top-floor window looking out into West 11th Street and there I completed the story. I turned it in to Harper and then took a train to San Francisco, to join Stettinius, Molotov, Lawrence, Spivak, and that crowd, for the formation of the U.N.”
The very next year, White published a collection of essays called The Wild Flag, which forcefully makes the case for “world government”—the kind of thing his brave mouse discussed while pretending to be Chairman of the World.
White’s international legal philosophy (with which, I should say, I disagree) was derived largely from the now largely forgotten writings of Emery Reves, an intellectual leader of the world federalist movement. White greatly admired his books A Democratic Manifesto and The Anatomy of Peace …
… but on that admiration—and on White’s liberal, anti-communist internationalism—and on the literary war he waged against the concept of national sovereignty—and why it’s so important that Stuart Little is a mouse, more next time.
For now, I’m called to remember that summers are important.