Mark S. Weiner

Charlotte the Spider, Supreme Court Justice

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Animals, Corporations, Environment, Law and literature, Rule of law, Supreme Court, United Nations on June 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Very soon, my wife and I will be spending a few days in Maine. We’re going there for a wedding, and rather than spend money on a hotel, we’re going to camp. We’re looking forward to putting on our formal wear beneath the pine trees. And I’m looking forward to visiting the state again after a long absence. The last time I was in Maine, I was in college:

Isn’t that some lobster? I believe we cooked that lobster right where we stood, on the beach, in a tin bucket.

Our impending trip makes me feel especially close to E. B. White, whose views about world government I’ve been considering in a recent thread. They also put me in mind of Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t think that the two ever met—at least, there are no letters between them in the E. B. White Collection at Cornell or the Justice Douglas papers at the Library of Congress. But they share a great deal in common.

Most obviously, they share a love of Maine. White spent much of his life there, at his farm in North Brooklin, and some of his greatest essays, such as “Once More to the Lake,” evoke the beauties of its distinctive, unspoiled landscape. I especially like the collection The Points of My Compass, which also contains some of White’s writings on international law. As for Justice Douglas, as I noted in an October post, he was a nature writer of real skill—and one of his greatest sources of inspiration was Mount Katahdin. That’s the highest peak in Maine and, for hikers traveling north, the end of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (which Justice Douglas also completed).

“Katahdin has been like a haunting melody since the day in the late twenties when I first saw it against a buttermilk sky,” he wrote in My Wilderness. “For some years I explored the dark woods and marshy lakes at its feet, and climbed its rough points. Then came a long period of absence. But the pull of Katahdin, like that of an old love, was always strong. The memories of it were especially bright every May, when the ice went out and the squaretails started jumping—every June, when the salmon-fly hatch was on. Fiddlehead ferns—partridgeberries—alpine azalea with tiny cerise flowers … all of these—and more—were Katahdin.”

I love how the flyleaf of My Wilderness (1961) and title page of The Points of My Compass (1962) feature design elements­—symbols of a sense of place:


White POC

Tellingly, White and Justice Douglas also share an important literary connection, Rachel Carson. At the New Yorker, it was White who “gently suggested that she investigate pesticides” for the magazine’s behalf. The result was Silent Spring (1962), one of the founding works of the modern environmental movement—a book whose popularity was greatly assisted by Justice Douglas’s endorsement of it for The Book-of-the-Month Club:

Carson’s work, wrote Justice Douglas, brought home that “man’s power of destruction is now so great that, some coming spring, the birds and the bees may be extinct, and there be no fish to cause a swirl in the smooth waters of our lakes.” His words, in effect, were an endorsement of the book by the Kennedy administration.

They also were close to the sentiment that animated White’s post-war writings about international law: the sense of impending global destruction. “The only condition more appalling, less practical, than world government,” White asserted, “is the lack of it in this atomic age. … Nationalism and the split atom cannot coexist in the planet.” Both men deployed descriptions of the natural world in all its particulars to foster a larger sense of perspective: one that transcended human particulars.

This correspondence highlights the most important thing that White and Justice Douglas have in common. They share an underlying structure to their legal imagination. Both were advocates of world legal institutions who were also passionate environmentalists—indeed, their thinking about international law was inextricable from their views about nature. Their liberal, internationalist legal rhetoric was inflected with an environmentalist accent.

As I noted in October, Justice Douglas argued that “the pre-eminent problem of this age is the invention of new institutions, new political methods for aligning the people of the world in a true crusade for freedom.” Like Wendell Willkie, he brought this message home to his readers through colorful accounts of his worldwide travels, such as Beyond the High Himalayas, which are filled with evocative descriptions of nature.

My WildernessAt the same time, he also argued that there ought to be a “Bill of Rights” for the wilderness—a cause for which Maine’s Mount Katahdin would serve as “the symbol of our struggle.” At the heart of this Bill of Rights, implicitly, was the principle that inanimate objects ought to have “standing” in federal court, so that suit could be brought on behalf of “the pileated woodpecker,” “the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams,” just as suits are now brought by corporations as juridical persons.

In his advocacy for environmental standing, Justice Douglas resembles no character in White’s work so much as Charlotte, the spider of Charlotte’s Web—who is, among other things, a symbol of the author and his commitment to craft. Charlotte’s role in the story is to use words to save Wilbur by showing farmer Zuckerman that he owns “some pig,” one who is “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble.” She provides Wilbur with a subjectivity that the child Fern perceives right from the start, just as White provides subjectivity to all the creatures of Charlotte’s Web, and to Stuart Little, and to all the animals of his stories and essays. It is the imaginative parallel to Justice Douglas’s views on standing in Sierra Club v. Morton, which implicitly underlie his internationalism as an outdoorsman who advanced the cause of world government through his travel writing.

Both White and Justice Douglas share a common understanding of the significance of their literary and judicial craft. They share a view of the legal power of rhetoric characteristic of midcentury legal liberalism. And they put the literary techniques associated with that vision into the service of world government.

Impractical? Dangerous? I’ll leave those questions for another time. But here is how White responded to such questions in 1940—in an essay tellingly called “Compost.”

The essay begins with his joining a society called Friends of the Land. By the end of the essay, he is discussing the need to create an international army that will enforce global legal standards—the kind of military force that the United Nations has never truly possessed (and for which one might have hoped in recent months). The army he imagines, writes White, “will rush to the aid of every country whose land is being invaded and whose homes are being destroyed and whose people are being murdered. If it were in existence to-day my army would be in Europe, helping to stop the German tide.”

A voice of skepticism interrupts his reverie:

Voice: We tried that once.

Answer: You mean we tried it once after waiting three years. My army doesn’t wait. It is a swashbuckling organization, dealing with a foreign tyrant as brilliantly as with a domestic train robber. It would have started fighting Hitler years ago when he was just beginning to be a nuisance.


Voice: But your army would get us in trouble.

Answer: Where do you think we are now, pal?

* * *

That’s all for today. Next week, I’ll complete this thread by discussing how White’s liberal internationalist vision is implicated in The Elements of Style.

And as for that picture of me and the lobster, all I’ll say is that the parents of the young woman at my left were very patient and accepting. The lobster—it sure tasted great, cooked in that tin bucket.

See you soon, Maine.

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