Excerpt: 'E. B. White on Dogs' edited by Martha White
When E. B. White wrote an obituary for a Scottie dog, “an opinionated little bitch,” and published it in the New Yorker in early 1932, few readers blinked an eye. They were accustomed to reading about Daisy, her likes (the ice man) and dislikes (doormen and horses), and her run-ins with the law. They already knew that her vet wore spats and called her “Whitie” (she was jet black), they had felt her humiliation when she was kicked out of Scrafft’s, and they had sympathized when she was arrested. After Daisy was run down by a Yellow cab that had jumped the curb, White’s “Obituary” added his diagnosis of her “curious habit of holding people firmly by the ankle without actually biting them—a habit that gave her an immense personal advantage and won her many enemies.” As he understood it, “she suffered from a chronic perplexity, and it relieved her to take hold of something.”
My grandfather also suffered from a chronic perplexity, I believe, and he spent his career trying to take hold of it, not infrequently through the literary device of his dogs. Daisy had been the sole attendant at my grandparents’ wedding in 1929. “It was a very nice wedding—nobody threw anything, and there was a dog fight,” my grandfather later recalled. It was natural, then, that the same Scottie dog spoke for him, through a letter to his wife, when White wanted to tell her how happy he was that she was pregnant with his first child. He had “been stewing around for two days now” but was so “beside himself,” and “hoppy” that Daisy had decided to write to Katharine on his behalf.
Between E. B. White’s birth in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899, and his own obituary in October 1985, he owned over a dozen dogs of various breeds—collies, setters, lab retrievers, Scotties, terriers, dachshunds, and mongrel mixes. I was personally familiar with about half of them and I read about the others. Some appeared in his New Yorker “Talk of the Town” entries; Daisy and Fred (and also a goose) were interviewed on serious subjects of the day including space travel and Watergate; and many different breeds appeared in poems and sketches and even on the occasional Christmas card. In the early days of White’s comments for the New Yorker, the city dog shows were an annual topic for amusement and observations on changing styles and trends. In his “Turtle Bay Diary,” White wrote, “The Dog Show is the only place I know of where you can watch a lady go down on her knees in public to show off the good points of a dog, thus obliterating her own.”
Fred’s “fraudulent reports” from the country kept appearing long after that dachshund had died on New Year’s Eve, 1948 “of his excesses and after a drink of brandy.” He had been “possessed of the vital spark” for just thirteen years and four months, but his spark had a habit of rekindling whenever White was puzzling out some new perplexity. Fred’s “dissenting nature” and “corrosive grin” were brought to bear on Truman and Stevenson and Khruschev, and you can imagine that he had a lot to say, almost a decade posthumously, about the Russians sending a dog into space. Fred was the “dishonorable pallbearer staggering along in the rear” in the essay “Death of a Pig,” an “ignoble old vigilante” with a “quest for truth.” My grandfather often had to remind himself, “He was also a plain damned nuisance.”
Like my grandfather, Fred was “a window gazer and a bird-watcher,” peering from his vantage point on a high canopy bed on the second floor of the house in Maine. It was from that four-poster that Fred delivered his most memorable “fraudulent report” in the essay, “Bedfellows.”
“‘I just saw an eagle go by,’ he would say. ‘It was carrying a baby.’” My grandfather took care to explain, “This was not precisely a lie. Fred was like a child in many ways….”
I suspect these various dogs, in all their eccentricities, were part of what allowed my grandfather to observe and express his own childlike wonder at the natural world around him, whether in the city (“Dog around the block, sniff…”) or the country (“I knew that as soon as the puppy reached home and got his sea legs he would switch to the supplement du jour—a flake of well-rotted cow manure from my boot, a dead crocus bulb from the lawn, a shingle from the kindling box, a bloody feather from the execution block behind the barn…. I even introduced him to the tonic smell of coon.”). White also puzzled over dogs farther afield: “The Russians, we understand, are planning to send a dog into outer space. The reason is plain enough: The little moon is incomplete without a dog to bay at it.”
When I visited the Tilbury House, Publishers, in Gardiner, Maine, to discuss this book project, it quickly became apparent that we had made a happy match. Tilbury House had taken in One Man’s Meat some years ago, so they were already peddling “Dog Training” and “A Boston Terrier” and other essays with good results. Their publisher, Jennifer Bunting, had worked as my grandfather’s Sunday Help for a couple of years, so she had gotten to know a couple of his dogs, and her offices in Gardiner were a welcome place for canines, as well. My own young golden retriever had come along for the ride. It was not until Jennifer took me around Tilbury House to introduce me to the rest of the team, however—which, as it turned out, included a feisty young parrot-in-residence named Zimmy, lording it over a high filing cabinet—that the deal was sealed. As soon as I heard that parrot’s story, I thought, “Just wait until Fred gets wind of this.”
My grandfather had kept a bird when he lived in an apartment in New York City, but it was a smaller breed, a parakeet named Baby. Baby got into the New Yorker a couple of times, as he had opinions that required expression, but he was not a live wire like Fred or Zimmy. On the other hand, Fred and that parrot have a lot in common. Like Zimmy with his four-drawer files, Fred also “had a dossier on almost every living creature.” The Tilbury House files were topped with a thick towel to protect the contents therein from Zimmy’s over-zealous deposits, often spurred by just such an impromptu visit as my own. Fred would have been unlocking the secret smells in that file cabinet in an instant, sneering all the while.
“I just saw a parrot,” Fred might have reported. “He thinks he’s an eagle.”
I was warned not to extend a hand in greeting, lest the bird take it amiss. Zimmy’s owner shared her office with another woman, who told me it had taken her six months to receive so much as a kind glance from the bird, at which point he climbed into her lap as if they were old mates, while she sat frozen with uncertainty about his intentions. Her own “chronic perplexity” may have commenced that day, and I suspect she is still trying to take hold of it.
Fred, too, “saw in every bird, every squirrel, every housefly, every rat, every skunk, every porcupine, a security risk and a present danger to the republic.” Zimmy would have been no exception. I could almost hear Fred’s outcry: “That bird talks? Don’t expect me to listen.”
Fred, like Zimmy, was a zealot and an unbeliever. Zimmy’s owner had confided in me that her parrot could be a nuisance, and often acted like a two-year-old. That, too, sounded familiar.
“He’s a picky eater,” she explained. “I have to cook special meals for him.”
Fred was muttering in my ear; “See? We are nothing alike.” Fred was not a finicky eater; just the opposite, he would eat anything, the more bitter and repulsive the better. He liked to eat broken eggs off the cellar floor, facing trouble head-on and taking full advantage, curling his lips back even as he swallowed the raw yolks. He would sample the sudsy water from a pig’s enema bag, given enough scope on his tether. (Fred had to be kept on a rope because he kept trying to subdue porcupines.)
Both Fred and Zimmy shared the ability to “blow things up to proportions that satisfied [their] imagination and … love of adventure.” My grandfather had once described Fred as the Cecil B. Demille of dogs, ever flamboyant and dramatic. Zimmy, too, seemed to exhibit a vital spark born of the same fiery explosion as Fred. The Tilbury House parrot was not kept on a rope, but he was relegated to his cage for periods of time and while in transit. Neither Fred nor Zimmy were fond of car rides. His owner confessed, however, that if Zimmy felt he had been caged for too long, he would throw a tantrum.
“What does a parrot tantrum look like?” I had to know.
“Well, he lies on his back on the floor of the cage and kicks his feet in the air,” I was told. “Then he yells, ‘I love you! I love you! Let me out!’”
Zimmy’s owner added, a touch sadly I thought, that he never expressed his feelings for her except during one of these tantrums. Likewise, my grandfather was spared any outward affection from Fred. Zimmy’s mad protestations of love were calculated to free him from behind bars, and Fred, too, “tended to knock down, rather than build up, the master’s ego.” My grandmother insisted Fred was deeply devoted to his owner, as I suspect Zimmy is, as well, but my grandfather called it “the devotion of an opportunist,” guessing it was really the tumult of the farm that Fred liked. I won’t hazard a guess about the tumult at Tilbury House, but where there are dogs and birds and authors sharing quarters, you can be assured there is tumult.
The dogs that I knew personally all came after Fred. There was another dachshund, black like Minnie, and named August, who used to sit upright on his hind legs almost indefinitely (not easy for a dachshund) and beg for macadamia nuts. My grandfather wrote to his wife and described this puppy as “another Fred, I would say, but without such a heavy charge of original sin.” Augie, as we knew him, also perched under the Baby Grand piano in my grandfather’s office and howled when certain notes were played. Part of our holiday tradition involved the grandchildren begging for the tunes that would elicit Augie’s “singing” and then rewarding him with macadamias.
Later came Red, Maggie, Jones, and Susy, terriers all except for Maggie who was a mongrel mix of collie and beagle. My family eventually adopted Maggie. She was sweet-tempered but boisterous as a pup, and my grandmother by that time had skin ailments that couldn’t weather her habit of jumping up to express her affection.
Like my grandfather’s first dog, a collie named Mac, Maggie accompanied me on my own chores, and thus came to be surrogate mother to five Peking ducklings whose mother had been run over. (Mrs. Treacher, I called that white duck. The drake was named Arthur Treacher, because he resembled the portly English actor whom I knew from the Merv Griffin TV show of the late 1960s.) Her nest had been built in the tall grass next to a guardrail, on the roadside opposite our pond. When the female duck failed to avoid a speeding car, Arthur Treacher soon followed, because he kept crossing the road in search of her.
My grandfather had been following these events with interest, led by Maggie to view the roadside nest with its original clutch of fifteen eggs. Upon Mrs. Treacher’s untimely demise, he promptly delivered a broody hen from his farm down the road and we moved the nest into our old barn, candled the eggs to choose those most likely to succeed, and the hen finished the incubation. Maggie accompanied me daily to check on their progress, so it was no surprise that the ducklings imprinted on her. Once the ducklings were hardened off, we returned the borrowed hen, nearly featherless from her dedication and worry over these odd chicks who insisted on swimming. At that point, the ducklings began following the dog, all in a line and struggling to keep up, and one or two eventually learned to hitch a ride by grabbing the ruff at the back of Maggie’s neck for balance, flapping their wings to gain purchase, and then riding bareback like the young circus rider standing on horseback in White’s essay, “Circle of Time.” Maggie was just docile enough to allow it and she would dutifully head for the pond, where she knew they would disembark. My grandfather occasionally came over to enjoy the spectacle.
Red and Jones were alike in many ways and I mix them up, in memory; they were small, sometimes surly male terriers, each with a Napoleon complex, in my opinion. Jones “particularly distrusts women in trousers, drivers of panel trucks, small children, and stray dogs,” my grandfather had written. Men in trousers were fine and women in skirts were fine, but women in trousers or the UPS man were considered an insult and a threat to the Republic. Jones would have to be banished until the threat was gone.
Susy was the final dog, a West Highland White Terrier, much-photographed for her beautiful off-white coat and pretty face. “She is as open and outgiving as Jones is closed and reserved,” White wrote in 1974. “Everyone loves Susy. Everybody tries to like Jones.” Black Watch Daisy’s vet might have called her “Blackie,” but if Susy had opinions like the Scottie bitch, they were entirely positive. The iceman would have been her friend, had there still been one. She didn’t have a dissenting bone in her body, unlike Fred or Jones or Red who rarely had an assenting one.
White had once written about a housekeeper in their employ, saying that Josephine “was the only person he knew who, when a dog got sick on the floor and she had to clean up the mess, felt sorry for the dog.” In truth, though, E. B. White’s sympathies were also aligned with the natural world, in all its complication, noise and messiness. Writing about Jones (whose sire was known as Hunston Horseradish—and there was plenty of bite to Jones, as well), White said he “is seldom found more than six feet from where I am. He is a neurotic…. But he and I are enough alike so that we get on well, and I can’t help being touched by his loyalty—which I think in his case is simply insecurity. He would never take a prize at a show. Neither would I, come to think of it.”
E. B. White did take a few prizes, of course, among them a Pulitzer Prize special citation for letters, in 1978, and before that, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from John F. Kennedy, presented by Maine’s Senator Edmund Muskie, in 1964. If he had been required to trade any of these prizes for one of his dogs, however, I suspect the dog might have won out. Asked for an interview for the New York Times with Israel Shenker, White commented, “I wish instead I were doing what my dog is doing at this moment, rolling in something ripe he has found on the beach in order to take on its smell. His is such an easy, simple way to increase one’s stature and enlarge one’s personality.”
E. B. White’s dogs came in every shape and style, and sometimes gave voice to the words he could not have spoken otherwise. These poems, essays, and sketches about dogs have been culled from a lifetime of his letters and comments and book collections, although interestingly, dogs did not feature largely, if at all, in White’s children’s books. I suspect their personalities were too dominant for the stories he chose to tell. Margalo the bird or Snowbell the cat, in Stuart Little, could take a back seat, but a dog would have needed a major role, more like Templeton’s, the rat in Charlotte’s Web.
The love that White felt for his dogs is nowhere more beautifully stated than at the end of “Dog Training” (1940), where he says:
A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along. Out of the vast sea of assorted dogs that I have had dealings with, by far the noblest, the best, and the most important was the first, the one my sister sent me in a crate. He was an old-style collie, beautifully marked, with a blunt nose and great natural gentleness and intelligence. When I got him he was what I badly needed. I think probably all these other dogs of mine have been just a groping toward that old dream. I’ve never dared get another collie for fear the comparison would be too uncomfortable. I can still see my first dog in all the moods and mutations that memory has filed him away in, but I think of him oftenest as he used to be right after breakfast on the back porch, listlessly eating up a dish of petrified oatmeal rather than hurt my feelings. For six years he met me at the same place after school and convoyed me home—a service he thought up himself. A boy doesn’t forget that sort of association.
Tilbury House has enabled me to collect these celebrations of his various dogs under one roof and offer them to E. B. White readers, new and old; I hope this book will lead you to his other work, as well. In all of his writing, which spanned nearly eight decades, White’s primary declaration was much like Zimmy’s “I love you, I love you!”
E. B. White gave it a few more words: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” When it came to a nine-to-five office job, or the trappings of celebrity, however, he and Zimmy would have been in complete agreement: “Let me out!”
Excerpt republished from ‘E. B. White on Dogs’ edited by Martha White, published by Tilbury House.