BOOKS

E.B. White on Dogs

Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

Audio Program Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Around the City, Google’s LinkNYC kiosks stand as monolithic sentries along our major thoroughfares. They’re a place for free phone calls, wifi, and a cell phone battery top-up. They also have cameras installed and are, no doubt, mining our traffic patterns and more direct use of the kiosks for advertising insights. No such thing as a free lunch.

When idle, the machines have taken, lately, to posting pithy quotes about the city, its inhabitants and both of their incomprehensible customs. A recent winner by E.B. White from his magnum opus urbis urborum “Here is New York:”

New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did they would live elsewhere.

I could think of no finer way to honor White than to check out this book from the library system of this city. To my chagrin, and proving White’s maxim, there were no copies available.

However, while browsing, I found this collection of his work on dogs. Being a dog owner myself in the selfsame city, I checked it out.

Edited by his literary executor, Martha White, the books captures the pastoral, reflective voice found in the elder White’s childhood wonder, “Charlotte’s Web,” as expected. A number of the selections are set at White’s farm in Maine where he contends with critters, winter, bulbs, chickens, sails, and, of course, the dogs.

He describes, as “Charlotte’s Web” did, without sentimentality, but with great tenderness, the truth of the cycles on a self-sustaining farm: the butchery block behind the barn; the animals whom we husband unto their deaths, lest their death be claimed by some other predator or illness first; what men truly do while on raccoon hunts in the wee hours.

I also expected a collection of a dog owner’s reflections on their foibles and glories contextualized within this rule-heavy but enforcement-capricious city at the tip of the Hudson. The book heartily delivers in this department. White writes contesting a summons he was given for his dog walking muzzle-less (hard to believe this was ever commonplace!) with a wry, mischievous style that we’d expect of an editor at “The New Yorker.” Also in this same vein is a literary response to a complaint of taxes due to the State of Maine.

Surprising to me was that White used his dogs, particularly the cantankerous dachshund, Fred, and even Fred’s shade, as a foil device in some of his more serious works. I didn’t know it was a “famous” essay, but the collection includes work “Bedfellows,” wherein White reflects on state of the 1952 election while abed with a sickness, media about the candidates, and his imagined Fred.

White reflects here loosely, as sickness gives writers berth to do, about the nature and character of the candidates and of the country they seek to steer. It’s a beautiful, fundamentally American essay that I’m chagrined to find nowhere on the internet (surely the intellectual property rights ought expire on this). I’ve added a few highlights from “Bedfellows” below.

Due to a slight error when placing my hold, I wound up getting the audiobook format of this book. My enjoyment was in no way diminished by doing so (save for not being able to write notes on “Bedfellows” easily). To have White take one to the farms and forests as well as to the East Side of the 1950’s has been a welcome distraction during my daily commutes to Chelsea.

While the book is chiefly of interest to dog-owners, and, in particular, urbanite dog owners, White was, above all, an optimist and a lover of mankind, particularly mankind engaged in the righteous work of Yankee industry, commonweal and thrift.

Bedfellows

  • White, ill in bed, is reviewing : Truman, Adlai Stephenson, Dean Acheson (“A Democrat Looks at His Party”).
  • He was a zealot, [citing Brandeis]: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”
  • Truman…says the press sold out in 1948…to the special interests
  • An attractive half-truth in bed with a man can disturb him as deeply as a cracker crumb.
  • Distortion is inherent in [political writings] as it in in rallies
  • All writing slants the way the writer leans and no man is born perpendicular, though many men are born upright
  • White suggests that much of the slant is counteracted by multiple interests, angles, and special interests contorting against one another. This, suggests White, requires the citizen to sort out the twists so as to approximate his own truth. I suppose this is accurate, but if media becomes a monopoly or oligopoly, this inherent self-correction would be nullified.
  • “Democrats do a lot of bellyaching about the press being preponderantly Republican (which it is) but they don’t do the one thing that could correct the situation: they don’t go into the publishing business” – How funny, the Republicans took that same complaint, bellyache and all and went into the business big time in the Fox news era.
  • Democrats say they haven’t got that type of money; but I’m afraid they haven’t got that type of temperament or, perhaps, nerve.
  • Stephenson takes a view of criticism almost opposite to Harry Truman’s: …in many minds…‘criticism’ has become an ugly word…it suggests nonconformity and nonconformity suggests disloyalty and disloyalty suggests treason…this process has all but identified the critic with the saboteur and turned political criticism into an unamerican activity instead of democracy’s greatest safeguard.
  • Security declines and security machinery expands (in agreement with Acheson)
  • The machinery calls for a secret police at first this device is used solely to protect us….then it broadens rapidly…it is in the portfolios of the secret police that nonconformity makes the subtle change into disloyalty….[it] unsettles, then desiccates, then calcifies.
  • The loyalty…investigation [by the Eastland subcommittee]…disquieting event. It assumed the right for congress the right to poke about in newspaper offices and instruct the management as to which employees were OK and which were not…Under extreme conditions it can destroy the free press.
  • The matter of faith…has been in the press…Eisenhower has come out for prayer and has emphasized that most Americans are motivated by religious faith…[implying that] religious faith is a precondition for the democratic life. This is just wrong.
  • I don’t think a president should advertise prayer. That is a different thing.
  • Democracy…is… a society in which an unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half-a-dozen unbelievers in America, their well-being would be a test of our democracy, their tranquility, its proof. The repeated suggestion…that…religious faith is a precondition of the American way of life is disturbing to me…The persons who felt fidgety or disquieted by the matter..lest they appear…unamerican.
  • I doubt that they should advocate faith…if only because such advocacy renders a few people uncomfortable
  • I hope that belief is never made to appear mandatory.
  • I distrust the slightest hint of a standard for political rectitude.
  • Democracy is, itself, a religious faith…when I see the first faint shadow of orthodoxy…I tremble all over.