Mark S. Weiner

Posts Tagged ‘Stuart Little’

From Charlotte’s Web to Star Trek: Animals and Midcentury Legal Internationalism

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Animals, Environment, International law, Law and film, Law and literature, United Nations on June 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

340px-EB_croppedWhy 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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Stuart Little and World Federalism: Part III

In Animals, International law, Law and literature, United Nations on June 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Not many people today have heard of Emery Reves. In the 1940s, however, he was well known as an intellectual leader in the movement for global government. One of the few traces of his past fame in the United States can be found in Dallas. In 1948, the Hungarian-born Reves took up with socialite and fashion model Wendy Russell, a Texan, whom he eventually married. She encouraged her husband’s art collecting, and today the Dallas Museum of Art houses the outstanding Wendy and Emery Reves Collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting and European decorative arts. Here’s a photo of the couple that I especially like, drawn from the DMA website (call the image “high and low”?). It’s followed by a picture of Reves in about 1945, when he was at the height of his influence on advocates for world federalism—including the author of Stuart Little, about whom I wrote in yesterday’s post.

In the United States, its sympathizers included Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, who after a stint as a global ambassador for the Roosevelt administration authored the bestselling book One World (1943). One can easily understand the movement’s appeal, especially at the time. Millions of people had just perished on the altar of nationalism, and in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nations began to stockpile weapons capable of reducing most of human life to radioactive ash. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story Continues: Stuart Little & International Law

In Animals, International law, Law and literature, United Nations on June 6, 2013 at 5:09 pm

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

Stuart Little and International Law

In Animals, Environment, International law, Law and literature, Rule of law, United Nations on June 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

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.)

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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. Read the rest of this entry »