December 15, 2017
E. B. White's "Hymn to the Barn"
On this day in 1952, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web was published. Among children's books, it continues to hold its place at or near the top of most 'best of' lists, and so to give a chuckle when placed against White's pre-publication hunch that most kids "would like it better if my barn cellar were loaded into a space ship and exploded in the general direction of Mars." Doubts and self-deprecations were basic elements of White's winning style, but other comments in his letters express the same expectation that his "hymn to the barn" would be too low-key for mid-century tastes. His contract said so, too: thinking that royalties in excess of $7,500/year were an "extravagant dream," he casually agreed to place anything more in a tax shelter with his publisher -- and then, twenty-five years later, received a check for half-a-million dollars.
If White was cautious about the farm book, he was captivated by the farm life, especially as compared to his other, New York-New Yorker one. By the time of Charlotte's Web he was fifteen years in North Brooklin, Maine, on his "salt farm" along the coast. He kept up a steady trickle of magazine pieces and books, but his letters explain this as paying-the-bills, and a necessary unheeding of his fundamental belief: "A writer is like a beanplant -- he has his little day, and then gets stringy." And while White's letters can report a New York party with "the kind of goings on that made you feel that the door would presently open and in would walk Scott and Zelda," it is always clear what he'd rather be doing:
The salt farm was not quite Walden Pond. From the very start there was a support system of hired hands, cooks, secretaries, nannies and, at the end, nurses. Nor was White a Thoreau, trying to hill-up his personal choice into a prescription for all -- though White could also get huckleberry-prickly. Sometimes this reached the level of culture-damning -- topics include modern travel, modern manners, modern literature -- but mostly White voiced small, clear grievances. Those which concerned Charlotte's Web were characteristic, and of a piece. To the editors who wanted him to change the book's ending, softening Charlotte's lonely death: No. To the movie director whose screenplay tended to moralize and anthropomorphize: "My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney's. He made them dance to his tune and came up with some great creations, like Donald Duck. I preferred to dance to their tune and came up with Charlotte and Wilbur." To a neighbor who wanted to know how he liked the finished movie: "The story is interrupted every few minutes so that somebody can sing a jolly song. I don't care much for jolly songs. The Blue Hill Fair, which I tried to report faithfully in the book, has become a Disney world, with 76 trombones." To the audio company that wanted a movie-star narration rather than, as White wanted, a plain reading by his neighbor: "I think a book is better read the way my father used to read books to me -- without drama. He just read the words, beginning with the seductive phrase "Chapter One...."
- "I'm up about six every morning, and immediately after breakfast I take a mild sedative to keep from getting too damn stirred up over the events of the day, the heady rhythm of earth, the intoxicating wine-dark sea which laps my pasture, the thousand and one exciting little necessities which spring from a 12-room steam-heated house standing all alone in the big world."
- "Practically the most satisfying thing on earth (specially after fifteen years of trying to put English sentences together against time) is to be able to square off a board of dry white pine, saw to the line (allowing for the thickness of the pencil point) and have the thing fit perfectly."
- "I am surrounded by hundreds of bottles of new crabapple jelly, and pears in jars, and ripening cranberries, and turkeys on the hoof, and ducks in the cove, and deer in the alders, and my own mackerel shining in air-tight glory. I wouldn't know what to do with a dollar even if I could remember which pants it was in."
White lived on his farm for almost fifty years, and recorded Charlotte's Web himself.