Why is it significant that Stuart Little is a mouse—I mean, why is it significant from the perspective of American legal history? What does Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court have to do with Wilbur, the “radiant” and “humble” pig of Charlotte’s Web? What links a barnyard in North Brooklin, Maine and the Federation Council in the television series “Star Trek”? These are some of the questions I’d like to think about in this fifth post in a continuing thread about E. B. White and international law—or, to put it another way, about the popular liberal legal imagination at midcentury.
To my mind, the opening line of Charlotte’s Web is a model of how to begin a story: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’” Where Papa is going, to the distress of young Fern, is to kill the runt of a new litter of pigs. The line is potent mixture of action, threat, and conflicted loyalty, and it came to White only after many revisions. One of his earliest drafts begins this way: “A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door—but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about. I am very glad to say that Mr. Zuckerman’s barn had a pig in it, and therefore I feel free to talk about it as much as I want to.” Compare the two sentences and you have a lesson in great editing.
What the first sentence also does is instantly establish empathy with animals. In this case, the reader’s heart goes out to the pig which—whom—Fern soon calls Wilbur. Much of White’s writing gives animals an unassuming, gentle subjectivity. The first chapter of Charlotte’s Web ends with Fern naming Wilbur; the final chapter concludes with Wilbur naming Charlotte’s children (Joy, Aranea, and Nellie). One aspect of White’s literary brilliance was to be able to create this subjectivity without being at all patronizing. Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton (the rat), the geese, all become our moral equals without fuss. Stuart is an ordinary member of the Little family—part of the pleasure of the tale derives from how everyone takes for granted that he’s a mouse.
White grew up taking care of farm animals at his family’s home in Mount Vernon, New York. He spent time amidst them each summer when his family retreated to Maine. And he surrounded himself with them—sheep, chickens, pigs, geese—when he and his wife, Katharine, purchased a house and barn near North Brooklin (the barn was the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web). Not surprisingly, then, animals populated his prose, for both children and adults. Here’s a characteristic passage of his writing, from the introduction to One Man’s Meat:
“Quite a good deal has happened since the last entry in the book. The storm windows are down and the screens are up. The ice has left the pond and the frogs have begun their song of songs, deep in the heart of wetness. Sugaring is over with and the trees plugged. Eel traps have been set and have been entered by eels. The field behind the barn has been top-dressed and the upper piece across the road sowed to grass. Each afternoon three patrol planes go over and are mistaken for hawks by the young chickens. … Smelts are running in the brooks, martins are nesting in their house on the pole, and the dogs have killed a skunk under the old shed behind the icehouse.”
It’s beautiful. But what’s equally striking to me is how often animals enter into White’s essays about world government. They are central to how he imagines international law. Sovereignty, he explains in the second essay of The Wild Flag, citing the work of Emery Reves, is “a dead cat” (the date is May 1, 1943). If humanity fails to create a world government, he asserts in his final essay (June 1, 1946), humans ought to “retire from the field” and lie down with “the heath hen” (a bird extinct as of 1932, see right).
On May 5, 1945, two days before the German surrender, White expressed a wish that Secretary of State Stettinius would have opened the San Francisco conference that was to draw up the United Nations Charter with this passage from Walden:
“One night in beginning of winter, before the pond froze over, about nine o’clock, I was startled by the loud honking of a goose, and, stepping to the door, heard the sound of their wings like a tempest in the woods as they flew low over my house. They passed over the pond towards Fair Haven, seemingly deterred from settling by my light, their commodore honking all the while with a regular beat. Suddenly an unmistakable cat-owl from very near me, with the most harsh and tremendous voice I ever heard from any inhabitant of the woods, responded at regular intervals to the goose, as if determined to expose and disgrace this intruder from Hudson’s Bay by exhibiting a greater compass and volume of voice. … It was one of the most thrilling discords I ever heard. And yet, if you had a discriminating ear, there were in it the elements of a concord such as these plains never saw nor heard.” An animal metaphor for The Anatomy of Peace.
The very title The Wild Flag highlights the deep interweaving in White’s mind of an international legal order and the natural world (illustrated in “The Schoolroom” chapter of Stuart Little as well). The title comes from his description, on Christmas 1943, of “the dream we had, asleep in our chair.” My library copy of the book is beautifully marred by the acidic trace of an old, impromptu bookmark left there decades ago to mark the page.
The dream is that, “after the third war was over,” the delegates of the remaining eighty-three countries on earth gathered together to forge “a lasting peace.” Each delegate brings a flag from his homeland, except for the Chinese representative. He explains that “an ancient and very wise man” advised him that China should no longer have a cloth flag. Instead, it ought to be represented by the iris—a wild flag.
“In China we have decided to adopt this flag,” remarks the delegate, “since it is a convenient and universal device and very beautiful and grows everywhere in the moist places of the earth for all to observe and wonder at. I propose all countries adopt it, so that it will be impossible for us to insult each other’s flag.” “Can it be waved?” asks the American delegate in response, while wearing “a troubled expression and a Taft button.” The reply: “It can be waved, yes. But it is more interesting in repose or as the breeze stirs in it.”
What going on here? For one, the idea that the Chinese possess special, ageless wisdom about affairs of state was a common at the time—Reves opens A Democratic Manifesto with a long passage from the Analects of Confucius.
But more important, White’s depiction of the natural world, as well as the subjectivity he gives to animals, invites readers to imagine a humanity that transcends the particularity of nationalism. The “moist places of the earth,” the smelts running in the book, the identification we feel with a pig—“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”—all ask us to see the world and its peoples with a larger view. They create a subtle imaginative displacement, a movement away from our usual perspective toward a global vision.
They’re similar in this respect, for White, to the imaginative significance of the atomic bomb and humanity’s new-found ability to destroy the planet. The greatest thing for world federalism, he once wrote, would be “if another planet should turn up as a rival for stratospheric power.”
Imaginative displacement of this kind is a venerable literary device among political visionaries and humane dreamers—think of Volney’s 1791 Ruins of Empire. Or consider an American television series of more recent vintage. Through his depiction of animals and the natural world, White invited readers to gain a new perspective on humanity and thereby recognize the need for “constitutional world law … government on a planetary level.” In “Star Trek,” Gene Roddenberry achieved similar, if less subtle ends by sending humanity into outer space to encounter the ultimate barnyard of creatures. The imaginative result was not just world government but government on an inter-planetary level: the Federation. Pace the 1945 United Nations conference, the Federation’s legislative arm is based in San Francisco.
I think I’ll close here for the day, with more tomorrow about why E. B. White and Justice William O. Douglas are cut from the same cloth—why Justice Douglas’s advocacy for environmental standing is the intellectual cousin of Charlotte’s writing in her web. After that, I’ll turn to the connection between White’s prose style and his liberal, internationalist legal vision, and then bring this thread to a close.
In the meantime, watch out for those beautiful hens, geese, and pigs. And thanks in the meantime for all your comments, posted or sent via email.