The Children’s Stories of E. B. White

SDG
No one can write a sentence like White. — James Thurber

Just as no writer or editor can do without a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, so no child’s library is complete without one or more of the latter writer’s beloved trilogy of children’s books: Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Trumpet of the Swan (1970).

In these books, E. B. White practices what he preaches in The Elements of Style, turning out graceful, crisp prose as pleasurable for adult readers as for children, and doing so with considerable charm and power.

Even without the winsome illustrations of Garth Williams (for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web) and Edward Frascino (for Trumpet of the Swan; newer editions feature the art of Fred Marcellino), White’s vivid descriptions create indelible pictures in their own right: mouselike little Stuart on the end of a string searching the bathtub drain for Mrs. Little’s lost ring; Wilbur the pig trying to spin a web by leaping off the manure pile with a string tied to his tail; the magic notes of "There’s a Small Hotel" hanging in the air as Louis the swan plays his trumpet for spellbound passers-by in the Ritz lobby.

The books are also educational. It was from White that I first learned the nautical terms "jib" and "yaw," and that some spiders "balloon" or fly through the air using strands of silk as a kite, and that a male swan is called a cob and a baby swan a cygnet.

Due to a combination of factors, including the 1973 animated film, Charlotte’s Web has perhaps always been the best-known of the three — at least until 1999, when Columbia’s big-budget Stuart Little made its mark, leading to this year’s sequel. An uninspired 2001 animated take on Trumpet of the Swan did little, alas, to elevate the standing of White’s third, least-known tale.

It’s ironic that Hollywood has lavished its most elaborate efforts on the first and least interesting of White’s trilogy, while performing decently on the middle work and finally disappointing on White’s third, best story. At least, that’s how I see it: I find that White got better over time, so that Charlotte’s Web was a substantial improvement over Stuart Little, while The Trumpet of the Swan is by far the best of the three.

Stuart Little (1945)

To tell the truth, I don’t even like the book Stuart Little. I never have. I first read it when I was in fourth grade, I guess, and didn’t like it even then. I’ve read it a couple of times as an adult (once a few years ago when my eldest daughter was reading White’s later two children’s books, and once more recently preparing to review the two Columbia pictures). I still don’t like it. Fortunately, the 1999 picture and its new sequel are freely revisionistic and don’t at all suffer from the book’s weaknesses.

My problems with White’s book start with his protagonist. It’s not the ambiguity about exactly what Stuart is, or where he comes from, that bothers me. I can accept that Stuart is an anthropomorphic rodent, or a rodentomorphic human, or whatever; and that, however it came about, he is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Little, and the younger brother of George Little. It’s not this premise that bothers me, but what White does with it - or rather doesn’t do.

To begin with, Stuart forms no meaningful attachments to any of his family members. Unlike Wilbur with Fern or Louis with his parents in the later books, Stuart doesn’t seem to need his family members in any significant way. He arrives in his family quite self-sufficient, both emotionally and physically.

Naturally, due to his crushingly small stature, he benefits from various accomodations offered by his parents (e.g., a tiny wooden mallet to turn the bathroom sink on and off) — just as would be the case with any physically challenged individual.

But he doesn’t need their nurture or support; he has nothing to learn from them; he doesn’t grow or mature as a person under their care. And when, roughly halfway through the book, he strikes out on his own, he does so without telling a soul, or even sparing a single backward glance or tear.

In fact, prior to his short-lived relationship with the bird Margalo, Stuart develops no meaningful attachments of any kind with anyone or anything. He hardly even has motivations for his actions. For example, after the episode in which Stuart goes down the drain after his mother’s earring, White tells us that everyone "thought he had been awfully good about the whole thing," but we never learn what Stuart himself thought, or why he did it. We only know that he was willing to go after his father proposed it. It wasn’t even like he proposed the idea himself, either for his mother’s sake or for sheer curiosity.

Later, in the beginning of the chapter that contains the memorable model-boat race, we read that Stuart wants to take a bus to 78th Street, but are not told why. It’s simply presented as an exercise in logistics. When he gets to the park, he sees a boat he likes (the Wasp), approaches the owner, and asks for work. (White explains parenthetically that Stuart loved the feel of the wind in his face and the deck beneath his feet, though as far as we’ve seen this is Stuart’s first time away from home.)

When the owner of the Wasp points out another boat on the lake (the Lillian B. Womrath) and tells Stuart that he hates that boat, Stuart at once exclaims, "Then so do I!" — though he has no reason to hate her. Later, returning home after the race, Stuart says nothing of his adventures to anyone ("Knocking around town" is his answer when asked where he’s been).

At this point, Stuart is simply drifting through life rather like the antihero of Camus’ The Stranger, devoid of attachments, passions, or motivations, acting as if for sheer lack of reason to do otherwise. There’s nothing to connect to here in any moral way, except perhaps pluck in overcoming obstacles.

But then Stuart finds something to care about: Margalo. Stuart is positively smitten with the bird. Shortly, however, Margalo gets an anonymous tip that her life is in danger, and flees without telling anyone where or why, leaving Stuart heartbroken.

The rest of the book, in one way or another, concerns Stuart’s longings for Margalo. It’s to search for the bird that Stuart leaves his family without a word, just as Margalo left him; and after he leaves home there is no mention whatsoever of his family.

Stuart’s longing for Margalo is also perhaps behind a devastating climactic episode in which he meets a girl named Harriet Ames, who is of his own small proportions but human in appearance. Their abortive date goes awry partly through caprice and partly through Stuart’s own immaturity, petulance, and refusal to roll with life’s punches (not that the book seeks to eke any lesson out of the event).

The end of the book finds Stuart alone, driving randomly north with no particular hope of finding his beloved bird, who by this time seems more a symbol of something or other than a figure in the story. Evoking the desperate philosophy that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive," White concludes optimistically that Stuart felt sure he was going in the "right" direction (not necessarily to find Margalo, but in some vaguer sense). The narrative simply trails off, with no true climax or dramatic resolution.

What’s the driving vision here? That life is full of disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, but you have to go on anyway? Perhaps, but what about Stuart’s almost unbroken emotional isolation, his self-sufficiency, his lack of any need to learn or grow? One might almost think the story a tragedy of a doomed outsider, if it weren’t so whimsical and didn’t end with such an optimistic sentiment.

Call me crazy — tell me to lighten up and remember that it’s just a children’s book — but I find Stuart Little depressingly anti-humanistic. What’s more, I think my fourth-grade dislike for the book was rooted in essentially the same factors (though of course I wouldn’t have been able to diagram them as I have here).

Not that the book is devoid of redeeming merit. Stuart’s adventures are often entertaining to read, and readers may find value in the theme of the "little guy" overcoming obstacles. Literarily, too, Stuart Little is far superior to much popular children’s literature; it can certainly be recommended as an exemplar of fine writing. Still, this is that rare case in which the movie (directed by The Lion King’s Rob Minkoff) is more enjoyable than the book — and the sequel is more enjoyable than the original.

Charlotte’s Web (1952)

Not surprisingly, I like White’s Charlotte’s Web quite a bit better than Stuart Little. In fact, Wilbur the pig is in some ways the polar opposite of Stuart: on the runtish side, to be sure, but entirely lacking in Stuart’s emotional inaccessibility and self-sufficiency.

Wilbur arrives on the scene a proper baby, needing care and nurture, and, when the time comes for his mistress Fern to leave him at the Zuckerman farm, he misses her terribly and is desperately lonely, until he meets Charlotte the spider.

Wilbur and Charlotte have a much more satisfying relationship than poor Stuart and Margalo, and Charlotte is certainly a true friend, as well as a good writer. Birth, death, friendship, sacrifice, grieving, growing up, the thirst for life, and the necessity of taking life (spiders eating insects, humans eating farm animals) are all thoughtfully explored in Charlotte’s Web. There’s something earthy and practical and wise about this book.

Yet there are also weaknesses. For one thing, if Stuart lacked motivations for his actions, Wilbur has the opposite problem: He has definite motivations, but doesn’t do anything about them. Instead, he depends entirely on others — Fern, Charlotte, even Templeton the rat — to do what needs doing. As a protagonist, Wilbur comes off rather weak, passive, and, alas, uninteresting, right to the end. Charlotte celebrates his supposed virtues in her web, but the only one that rings remotely true is "humble." The others are pure PR spin.

Secondly, even though Wilbur cares about Fern and Charlotte, his driving motives are entirely self-consumed. Essentially, he wants two things: not to die, and not to be lonely. The drama of Wilbur’s life is entirely taken up with these two desires; other people’s needs and desires never enter into the equation. Wilbur is thus never given the chance to rise to nobility or selflessness — to sacrifice for those who have sacrificed for him.

This weakness is nowhere more glaring than in a climactic scene at the county fair, in which Charlotte has successfully saved Wilbur’s life by weaving one final word into her web in Wilbur’s temporary pen. Then comes the revelation that Charlotte, after spending all night on her magnum opus, her egg sac, is dying and won’t be returning to the barn with Wilbur.

Frantic with worry, Wilbur is spurred to the single decisive act of his life: He bribes Templeton the rat to retrieve Charlotte’s egg sac from the stall and carry it to his crate, so Charlotte’s babies will hatch back at the Zuckerman farm.

And why does Wilbur do this? Because the eggs are in danger? Because (let us say) the fair is closing and the enclosures might be disassembled or cleaned, and all 514 of Charlotte’s babies could die, all because Charlotte agreed to come to the fair for Wilbur’s sake? It would have been easy for White to gloss the event thus, so that Wilbur could have a single moment of selfless generosity with which to repay Charlotte for her kindness to him.

But no: There’s no hint that Charlotte’s babies might be at any risk at the fairgrounds (indeed, there is some danger of Templeton harming them in transit). Rather, Wilbur wants them to hatch in the barn solely for his own sake, so that he won’t be lonely after Charlotte dies.

Wilbur’s passiveness and self-absorption suffer not only in contrast to the much more admirable hero of White’s third book, The Trumpet of the Swan, but also in contrast to another porcine protagonist who aspires to be more than bacon: Babe, the hero of Dick King-Smith’s novel The Sheep-Pig and the celebrated 1995 film Babe. Plucky, concerned about others, and above all an active player on Hoggett Farm, Babe is everything that passive, histrionic Wilbur isn’t. Babe faces challenges, makes friends with everyone on the farm without accepting their mutual prejudices, and even helps bring about a kind of rapprochement between sheep and sheep-dog. Along the way, he learns a life skill, and even takes on a pack of rustling sheep-dogs (at least in the movie).

Next to Babe, Wilbur looks like a whiner who just happened to make friends with a smart spider. Wilbur is the protagonist of Charlotte’s Web, but the real hero is the title character.

Yet, like Stuart Little, Charlotte is a hero with no needs and only one real attachment, in this case Wilbur. Even her relationship with Wilbur is all one way: She gives, and he takes. That may make her more admirable than Wilbur, but it doesn’t make her any more accessible than Stuart.

White’s story is respectably and faithfully adapted in the 1973 cartoon, directed by Charles A. Nichols and Iwao Takamoto; which means that both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book apply to the film.

The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)

Like Stuart and Wilbur, the hero of White’s final children’s book starts out life challenged: Louis is a Trumpeter swan who can’t trumpet. This handicap, which will prevent Louis from wooing a mate, so distresses his loving parents that Louis’s father flies to a nearby town, raids a music store, and steals a trumpet for his son. When Louis realizes that his father has sacrificed his honor to provide Louis with a voice, he goes out into the world and works as a musician until he has earned enough to work off the debt.

In this deceptively simple storyline is more of humanity and life and virtue than in the two earlier books combined. In fact, Louis goes through the same stages of life that most of us do: carefree childhood dependent upon one’s parents; education (Louis goes to school to learn to read and write, something neither Stuart nor Charlotte needed to do); gradually increasing responsibility (each of Louis’s jobs pays better than the previous one, though it also tends to be less enjoyable) leading to increased independence; courtship, marriage, parenthood.

Because of this structure, the story is suffused with such themes as parental sacrifice for offspring and filial gratitude toward parents, honesty and honor, pluck and initiative, delayed gratification, hard work and reward, learning to face obstacles and overcome handicaps, and, above all, love and the pursuit of love.

Other themes include friendship (Louis is befriended by a young boy named Sam who helps the swan as Charlotte helped Wilbur, yet without doing everything for him); beauty and art (Louis’s trumpet, like Charlotte’s web, is his self-expression as well as his livelihood); and valor in the face of danger (Louis risks his life to save a boy from drowning, and later takes on a pair of zookeepers to protect his beloved Serena, and his father risks life and limb more than once).

Louis is the only one of White’s heroes who has a real family life with parents and siblings. His father, the old cob, with his excessively flowery language and flair for the melodramatic, may seem rather ridiculous next to Louis’s sensible, insightful, down-to-earth mother — yet he’s also genuinely brave and involved, to the genuine admiration of his mate ("What a swan!" she thinks at one point).

Louis is the also the only one of White’s heroes who faces the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood. Stuart is no more a responsible adult than carefree Mole or Rat of The Wind in the Willows (though he has more angst); and Wilbur remains in a sort of perpetual adolescence. Louis sets realistic but fulfilling goals and takes action to bring them about, in contrast to Wilbur (who sat around letting other people solve his problems) and Stuart (whose impossible quest had no real hope of success).

The Trumpet of the Swan is also practical about money. Readers follow Louis’s earnings as he works off his father’s debt, but we also see his expenditures. For example, in his final job at a Philadelphia jazz club, Louis makes $500 a week, but has to pay his agent 10 percent. At the end of the story, White tallies up all of Louis’s earnings and all his expenditures, providing a full accounting of the final contents of the money bag.

White sets up this theme of cost-gain economics with an amusing classroom scene that recalls the chapter in Stuart Little in which Stuart acts as a substitute teacher for a day. Yet whereas the scene in the earlier book was merely silly and didn’t connect with anything else in the story, Sam’s math-class scene illustrates the necessity of accounting for real-world conditions (e.g., a man who walks three miles in an hour isn’t necessarily going to walk 12 miles in four hours, for any number of reasons).

One of the book’s few weaknesses is the thinness of Serena as a character, which requires us to accept Louis’s devotion to her on faith. Despite this flaw, White’s treatment of Louis’s feelings for Serena is genuinely romantic, and the climactic scene in which he finally woos her is magnificent — as triumphantly successful as Stuart’s abortive date with Harriet Ames was disastrous.

Some children may be confused by a plot device late in the story, in which Louis, who clearly values his own freedom, makes a deal that involves having some of his future progeny raised in captivity. This development is best explained to children by minimizing the anthropomorphism of White’s birds: Louis and Serena are wild swans and want to remain free, but Louis’s future cygnets will be born at the zoo, so their remaining there would be just like any other zoo animals born into captivity.

The theft of the trumpet is also obviously a moral sticking point. Of course Louis makes up the debt, but that doesn’t entirely resolve the difficulty. Here once again it may be convenient to fall back on the fact that Louis’s father is after all a swan and not a human being, since animals can’t be guilty of wrongdoing! However, a drawback to this is that the cob expressly describes his actions in moral terms.

Still another potentially problematic point concerns Louis’s human friend Sam, a private boy who doesn’t tell his father about his adventures at the swan lake. If Sam’s secrecy never quite becomes a full-blooded lie, it comes awfully close. All of these are points that parents may want to discuss with their children.

Still, the book’s virtues more than compensate for its drawbacks. Writing almost 20 years after the completion of Charlotte’s Web, White was at the peak of his literary powers, and The Trumpet of the Swan rings with lyric beauty and and romantic feeling. Few children’s books of this sort are as rich and as much fun to read as this one.

An old rabbinic tradition proposes that King Solomon wrote Song of Songs in the ardor of youth, Proverbs in practical maturity, and Ecclesiastes in the despair of old age. A countervailing Christian tradition finds different significance in another sequence: According to this tradition, Solomon wrote Proverbs to instruct the young in elementary principles, Ecclesiastes to challenge the mature to contemplate deeper issues, and Song of Songs to express the highest truths known to the most advanced souls.

E. B. White published Start Little in his mid-forties, Charlotte’s Web in his fifties, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his seventies. Like Solomon in the Christian tradition, White ended his trilogy with the most exalted and suffused by love, The Trumpet of the Swan. (Stuart Little, with its aimless structure, caprice, and empty final quest, is most reminiscent of Ecclesiastes; while Charlotte’s Web, with its practical title character and attention to the ordinary stuff of life, is closest in spirit to Proverbs.)

It’s a great pity that this wonderful children’s book was so shortchanged by the banal 2001 cartoon, directed by Terry L. Noss and Richard Rich (who were also responsible for the equally mediocre The Swan Princess, which at least had elegant swans). Perhaps someday a better production will do The Trumpet of the Swan better justice.

Related

REVIEW

Charlotte’s Web (2006)

Competently directed by Gary Winick (13 Going on 30), the film basically sticks to the plot of the book, and the story’s essential charm is echoed in the film. At the same time, the film also dumbs down White with excursions into gimmicky broad humor and bestiary slapstick — something the makers of Babe found unnecessary to do.

REVIEW

Stuart Little 2 (2002)

Remarkably, Stuart Little 2 manages to be both more satisfying for adults and more kid-friendly than the original. Older viewers will appreciate the sequel’s stronger story and witty script; and even little kids who might have found the original film’s menacing Central Park gangster cats too intense may be able to watch this film’s villainous falcon without fear of bad dreams.