Posts Tagged 'E.B. White'

“And they called it puppy love…”

Eddie at 5 weeks old

In the month since we adopted Eddie, I’ve been reliving the elation and exhaustion of being a new mother. It’s been seventeen summers since I brought my youngest child home, but the feelings are so familiar that I’m constantly having to remind myself that my new baby is… a dog. Some people dress up their pets; I prefer to think of Eddie as a small boy dressed in a dog suit. I half expect to find a zipper when he rolls over for a belly rub. I imagine these are the same emotions that Stuart Little’s mother experienced when she noticed her second son “looked very much like a mouse in every way.”

In the lexicon of technology innovation, Eddie is what’s called a “disruptor.” Like a Fortune 500 company in a mature market, my family has had to rethink the way we do business and to adapt following Eddie’s arrival, starting with a few facility changes: guests will notice the absence of rugs and the addition of some rather unsightly plastic barriers blocking off part of the living room and the stairway. We’ve all had to become more nimble, dodging Eddie’s razor-toothed assaults on our shoes and pant legs and clearing the floor and low surfaces of objects that might attract his rapacious jaws. I’ve had to adjust my daily routine to accommodate his need for frequent walks and close supervision, and stock my pockets with dog treats and bio-bags. During this time of transition, the old (feline) technology has retreated upstairs to sulk and plot their re-launch strategy.

And yet, despite the disruption and the considerable time-sink that housetraining a puppy poses, I am utterly smitten. Puppy love: I’ve got it bad. Continue reading ‘“And they called it puppy love…”’

Writing as Social Enterprise

Attending the 11th annual Social Enterprise Conference (SECON) last weekend at Harvard, I was surprised when one of the guest speakers quoted E.B. White. I doubt White is often (ever?) cited in lectures at Harvard Business School, and I wondered if the international students, a significant portion of the audience, even recognized the name.

Jointly organized by students at the Business School and the Kennedy School, SECON 2011 drew about 1,200 students and professionals seeking inspiration and ideas on how to “sustain impact and live change.” Sunday’s keynote speaker, Robert S. Harrison (CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative) reminisced about how, as an idealistic young law school grad, he was advised to defer pursuing a career in public service until he had some real world experience under his belt. After two decades on Wall Street, first as a corporate attorney and later as an investment banker (at Goldman Sachs…), he finally found his way into the public sector when former President Bill Clinton recruited him to lead the CGI, a high-profile offshoot of the Clinton Foundation. Alluding to the professional calculus many of the ambitious and idealistic audience members were doubtless making, he displayed a slide with a quotation he attributed to E.B. White:

“I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.”

Warning bells rang in my head. The phrasing and the sentiment simply did not sound like White.

Social Enterprise Conference 2011 at Harvard Business School

Continue reading ‘Writing as Social Enterprise’

Charlotte’s Web Tops List of Best-Ever Kids’ Books

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at the top of his list of best-ever children’s books (7/4/09). Though I wholeheartedly agree with his #1 choice, Nick’s one-line summary kind of misses the point: “The story of the spider who saves her friend, the pig, is the kindest representation of an arthropod in literary history.” Yes, the book is named for Charlotte, but it is really Wilbur’s story. In my view Charlotte’s Web is the story of a pig who transcends his destiny (the dinner table) with the help of his friends, most notably a spider.

Charlotte is the book’s heroine in a narrow sense; more aptly, she is a clever saleswoman, who by weaving superlatives into her web she changes people’s perceptions of Wilbur, from ham to celebrity. Successful (and sincere) pitch woman that she is, Charlotte doesn’t risk anything to achieve these heroic deeds. When her job is done she dies quietly of natural causes, leaving numerous offspring to tend to Wilbur’s celebrity (a legion of arthropod PR agents).

Readers young and old identify with Wilbur. He is our naive inner child who can’t see beyond the pleasures of his food trough to the certain fate that awaits him, and us.  Charlotte is the mother figure, whose love, wisdom and competence help her weave a solution for what appears to be a hopeless situation. (And isn’t it appropriate that a mother needs eight legs!) As readers/children we cannot help but grieve when Charlotte/our mother dies, yet we are mostly relieved that our stand-in Wilbur is spared the ax.

Did Wilbur survive another season? We’ll never know for sure, but EBW could bank on young readers being optimists, so we’ll have to suppose Wilbur’s contract was renewed for as many episodes as a pig’s natural lifespan promises.

As to that lifespan, having just read the immensely enjoyable story of a real-life Wilbur (The Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery), I can say Wilbur might have looked forward to a 14-season run, give or take. He also might eventually have tipped the scales at 750 pounds and been unable to right himself when he toppled over sideways on a hillside. The very entertaining book depicts the joys and frustrations of raising a pet that weighs as much as a refrigerator and eats as much in a day as one can hold!

Once More to the Pond

E. B. White wrote Once More to the Lake (August 1941) about returning with his young son to the pristine Maine lake where he spent every childhood August. Before arriving, he fears that this “holy spot” will have been spoiled and won’t measure up to his idyllic memories. He is relieved that, apart from the unwelcome noise of outboard motors, little else has changed. Continue reading ‘Once More to the Pond’

The Living Language

On a recent visit to Bryn Mawr Book Store, my neighborhood’s pre-owned book shop (may it never lose its lease or its charmingly fusty decor!), I came across a gently worn hardcover edition of E. B. White’s Writings from The New Yorker (1927-1976).

It only took me a few flips through its pages to land on piece called “The Living Language,” published in the February 23, 1957, issue of the magazine, which recounts the era’s heated debate over standards for usage and cites the ungrammatical Winston ad (mentioned in my last post) as evidence of Madison Avenue’s marketing ploy to butcher the language to bring home the bacon. (I doubt such a strategy would raise any eyebrows today, the standards of popular usage having fallen so far and so low.)

EBW describes the thin line he and his fellow editors must walk to keep peace between a handful of sober grammarians” and “an army of high-spirited writers” and states that he seen firsthand “the nasty chop that is kicked up when the tide of established usage runs against the winds of creation.” Toeing the editorial party line he writes,

Through the turmoil and the whirling waters we have reached a couple of opinions of our own about the language. One is that a school child should be taught grammar — for the same reason a medical student should be taught anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and write any damn way he pleases.

Continue reading ‘The Living Language’

In Defense of Standards

I had not read anything by David Foster Wallace until, following his premature death by suicide late last year, I could not open a paper or magazine without encountering another of the dozens of anguished and adulatory tributes calling him the greatest writer of his (my) generation. My curiosity piqued (the more so after learning that, like me, DFW had been a competitive tennis player), I bought his 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest and a slimmer collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. (A three-pound paperback edition of the former waits patiently in my bedside stack until someone invents a contraption that will suspend and hold it open so that I can read it in bed without injuring myself. I recommend the essays to DFW novices — those who can countenance never eating lobster again and the withering criticism of Tracy Austin’s vapidness in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.”)
Continue reading ‘In Defense of Standards’

Ode to a Spider

My friend Jeff recently called my attention to a segment that aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on August 4, 2008.

Entitled “Charlotte A. Cavatica: Bloodthirsty, Wise and True” and reported by Melissa Block, the segment discusses the character of Charlotte and includes clips of E. B. White reading from Charlotte’s Web. Like his readers, young and old, he always struggled to read the ending without crying (spoiler alert: Charlotte dies). The show also includes speculation by Martha White (EBW’s granddaughter and editor of his collected letters) that Charlotte was modeled on her grandmother, Katharine White. Lending credence to the theory, NPR’s Block notes that EBW penned an arachnid love poem when he and Katharine were newlyweds, some 25 years before the publication of Charlotte’s Web:
Continue reading ‘Ode to a Spider’

In Appreciation of John Updike

In hearing the sad news of John Updike’s passing this week I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that E. B. and Katharine White were among his earliest fans and that, likewise, Updike was an admirer of EBW’s.

In a January 1962 letter to Updike, EBW wrote:

I would rather read an unwritten novel by you than a written one by almost anyone else. The piece in this issue is wonderfully moving, moved me wonderfully, is almost unbelievably good, except I believe it….I keep trying to discover what it is (what mysterious thing) that elevates writing to the level where combustion takes place, and I guess it it is simply that in writing there has to be an escape of gases or vapors from the center — Core Gas, that is. And even this explanation is unreliable, because God knows there was always a lot of gas escaping from Hemingway but a lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse.

Continue reading ‘In Appreciation of John Updike’

The Fox at the Door

“One of the most time consuming things to have is an enemy.”

I plucked this plainspoken truth from E. B. White’s “A Report in January,” posted from his Maine farm on January 30, 1958.

EBW’s immediate enemy was the fox terrorizing his hens. Even as he types,
he is on the watch, a loaded shotgun at the ready.

He wants to destroy my form of society–a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problems of supremacy….When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off ‘the enemy,’ I am appalled.

EBW’s marauding fox was, of course, the least of the “red” enemies in the Cold War era. Earlier that month the Evil Empire’s eye in the sky, Sputnik 1, had tumbled from its orbit, and the day after this essay was posted, the U.S. would launch its own entrant in the Space Race (Explorer 1). With the threat of spy satellites and long-range nuclear missiles, neither Superpower could afford to take its mind off the enemy. Time consuming (and costly), indeed, to have an enemy. Then, as now.
Continue reading ‘The Fox at the Door’

Bedfellows, Canine and Political

E. B. White’s purports to have penned his February 1956 essay “Bedfellows” from his “sick bay” at home in New York. The sickbed is a clever conceit that gives him license to muse somewhat feverishly on the political and canine bedfellows, comparing Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson and President Eisenhower to his late dachshund Fred.

He sets the stage with grudgingly fond memories of Fred, whom he calls “the Cecil B. deMille of dogs,” “a zealot” and “an opportunist.”

The word “faithful” is an adjective I simply never thought of in connection with Fred. He differed from most dogs in that he tended to knock down, rather than build up, the master’s ego….Fred devoted his life to deflating me and succeeded admirably.

Continue reading ‘Bedfellows, Canine and Political’

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