The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine. 

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

***

Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

Five Catholic books for littlest kids (and also for their parents)

The books we read as young kids stay with us for a lifetime, so I’m always on the lookout for books that not only have attractive and engaging illustrations, but convey powerful and lasting truths.

I’m especially careful when those books are explicitly about our Faith. Here are a few of my current favorites in that category. They not only tell my kids things I want them to know about God, but I’ve found them moving and engaging myself.

Read my list at The Catholic Weekly

In praise of Mike Mulligan

My friends on social media often share excerpts from books they are reading: Illuminating passages from encyclicals, breathtaking ideas found in scholarly books about design and sociology.

I, on the other hand, post a little bit of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel:

I shared this after reading it aloud for maybe the eight thousandth time the other day. I was admiring once again the perfectly-crafted rhythm of the story. You would have to work really hard to read it wrong. In the page I shared, you can hear the building, busy excitement as more and more people get caught up in the action:

“Now the girl who answers the telephone called up the next towns of BANGerville and BOPperville and KIPperville and KOPperville and TOLD them what was HAPpening in POPperville.

“All the people came over to see if Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel could dig the cellar in . . . ”

and the sentence ends in three, flat, one-syllable words that land with incredulity:

“just. one. day.”

The author, Virgina Lee Burton, would read her books aloud to her own two sons and to neighbor children, to make sure they liked it. She said:

My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half, he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.

This is about the story, characters, and pictures, but also about the sound of the writing itself. When you’re reading aloud, a book is only as good as how well it can be read. An awful lot of modern children’s books have all the elements that people think kids want: zaniness, lots of frenetic action, lots of repetition; but they require the reader to make constant adjustments so the lines come out right. 

The execrable Skippyjon Jones books come to mind. They are hugely difficult to read aloud, because the words stutter and start and pile up, but rather than building excitement, they’re formless and aimless, littered with dreary puns that kids won’t get, lacking any purpose or arc. They always remind me of this clown, Cheryl, who used to turn up at children’s events. Her entire repertoire was screaming at the kids, because she heard kids like screaming, so here is some screaming. Cheryl was exhausting.

Anyway, about the story of Mike Mulligan. I was astonished to find that some people think it’s depressing. To paraphrase what several people said: He messes up one little job, and now he has to be a janitor forever! Mary Anne is interred in a basement for the rest of her life! I guess if I read the book for the first time as an adult — especially, perhaps, as a young housewife feeling overlooked and trapped — I might read it that way. 

But I did grow up loving the book, and so I’m predisposed to seeing more in it. It’s a John Henry story (“He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week but he had never been quite sure that this was true”);  except instead of a glorious death in the end, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes them nice hot apple pies. The end of the story is no dark tomb; sunlight pours into the basement, a sort of Elysian Fields for heroes who have earned their rest. 

Several of Burton’s books deal with the idea that progress is good, until it stops being good. (Her excellent The Little House is a more stark and melancholy story with the same theme.) Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are a victim of their own success. In their prime, they did all the works of progress: They dug the great canals, they cut through the high mountains, they lowered the hills and straightened the curves.

They were literally on the cutting edge of industry and progress; and that means they were destined to be surpassed. 

What are they to do? In a briefly grim passage, Mike has a vision of Gehenna:

It’s intolerable. But where else can you go, when you’ve come to the end?

But in Virginia Lee Burton books, there is always a way out; always a little bit of paradise still reserved for the worthy. So the two heroes set off for greener pastures

and Mike finally has the chance to find out if he and Mary Anne can really dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week. 

The busy pressure of their past life of industry is recreated in one final, intense day of crisis: He and Mary Anne are fighting against time. The era is coming to an end; the sun is going down. The only way to survive is to do what they are made to do, faster and faster.

And they win! They beat the sun. But in their victory, they have literally dug a hole for themselves that they can’t get out of.

And here is the brilliance of the book. How are they going to get out? It’s not just about this specific job; it’s about retaining their dignity and identity in a changing world. They’ve come to the end. What can be next?

It would make no sense for them to find more and more digging to do. They’re no longer wanted in the city, but they also can’t despoil the green and sunny world that saved their lives. So instead, rather than finding a way out, they find a way to stay in . . . but without defeat.

Mary Anne’s engine keeps working, but now she warms up the meetings at the new town hall. It’s the end of an era, and this is inescapable; but that doesn’t mean anyone is consigned to the netherworld. They lay down their hammer, but they do not die.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mike and Mary Anne’s virtues are transformed into warmth, rather than mere industry. (They always worked better and faster when people are watching, after all.)

And through their ordeal, Henry B. Swap, with small town scheming ways, is also transformed; and after Mike triumphs, “he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.” So it turns out it’s all about people, in the end.

There are other children’s books that look back fondly on the past, but I’ve never found another book that deals with inevitable change in such a satisfying way.

But it’s not a lesson book, a wholesome moral disguised as a story; and that’s another of Burton’s virtues. My four-year-old doesn’t hear a Fin de siècle rumination on identity, mortality, and the mixed blessing of productivity. She hears an exciting story about digging, and billowing clouds of dust, and hurry hurry hurry, and Kipperville and Kopperville and Bangerville and Bopperville, and hot apple pies, and that’s what makes it a good book. 

So I guess I’m okay with being the one who gets all excited about children’s books, enough to share passages that I find illuminating. I know full well that some people see my kind of life as interred in a basement, endlessly changing diapers and wiping up crumbs instead of using my mind and my college degree and making constant progress. What can I say? I’m using the engine I have, and I feel like I’m making some warmth.