“It always surprises me how many people come out for E. B. White’s granddaughter,” Martha White commented to the book discussion group gathered here on December 10. The author and editor came to read from and discuss E. B. White on Dogs, her recent compilation of the best and funniest of his essays, poems, letters, and sketches, depicting over a dozen of White’s various canine companions. In addition to this most recent book, Martha White has edited two previous volumes of her grandfather’s work, and has over 30 years of publication credits in creative fiction, non-fiction, syndicated columns, book reviews, OpEd columns, and essays. She is a longtime contributing editor to Yankee Publishing and The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
White began by giving us some background on her relationship with the famed author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and The Elements of Style. By the time she was born in 1955, Elwyn Brooks White, his wife Katharine (Angell) White and their son Joel (Martha’s father) had been full-time residents of North Brooklin, Maine, for 18 years. Prior to that they had divided their time between Maine and New York, E. B. White’s attachment to the state having been formed during his boyhood summers in the Belgrade Lakes area in the 1930s. Young Martha and her two brothers spent many happy times at their grandparents’ place, riding their bikes over for a day of chores, followed by a big family dinner. She was 30 when her grandfather died in 1985, and E. B. White on Dogs contains a number of his letters to her.
The first selection Martha White read was called “Dog Training,” a 1940 piece from E. B. White’s “One Man’s Meat” column in Harper’s Magazine. “I like to read books on dog training,” it says. “Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.” White explained that her grandfather didn’t only own dachshunds, but also a collie (his first dog), terriers, beagles and mutts. “They weren’t called ‘rescue dogs’ then,” she said. “Rescue dogs were the St. Bernards who carried the whiskey barrels down the street!” She added, “He would laugh today at our dog costumes, dog boutiques and the commercialism around it all. His dogs always had a place in the barn, unlike the house pets of today. I would love to have known what the dog show people thought about his spoofs.”
To illustrate, White read “Dog Show: A New Showmanship,” a short “Talk of the Town” installment in The New Yorker that everyone found very funny. The essay’s radical revamp of the traditional dog show would have each dog “be made to work for his ribbon, each breed in his own wise. Pointers should have to point, Shepherds should be required to herd a band a sheep…English bull terriers should be made to count up to ten…Scotties chew up old shoes…while St. Bernards carry brandy to anyone in the audience who feels weak, preferably us. Beagles would jolly well have to beagle, or shut up. How about it, dogs–are you dogs, or mice?” Hilarious idea, and with its own logical appeal. “Dog Show Obedience Contest” got an even bigger laugh, with White confessing her favorite line is the last one: “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.”
In addition to columns and letters, E. B. White on Dogs contains poems as well. White read “Dog Around the Block” (Dog around the block, sniff, / Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating, / Sniffing, always, starting forward, / Backward, dragging, sniffing backward, /…) about a Scottie that had been given to E. B. White by James Thurber, fellow New Yorker writer and cartoonist. “If he had had his druthers, (my grandfather) would have been a poet,” she said.
Most of the questions asked of Martha White during our gathering focused on her own writing path, rather than on her grandfather. “When did you start writing?” one group member wanted to know. White explained that while she was growing up, Brooklin High School was closed down and the town’s students were sent across the bridge to Deer Isle. Instead, she left for boarding school in Massachusetts, and there “it became apparent that all I wanted to do was read.” At Mount Holyoke College she became an English major, with John Irving as one of her teachers. “What did Irving think of the fact that you were E. B. White’s granddaughter?” a guest asked. “He didn’t bat an eye,” White said. “But he did include a quote from Stuart Little in the front of one of his books, I noticed.”
White realized only once she went away to school what a prominent writer her grandfather was. “(He) was no big deal in Brooklin, Maine. And when I’m asked the question, ‘What was your grandfather like?’ I want to respond, ‘Well, what was your grandfather like?’ To me, he was like everyone’s grandfather, which was a wonderful thing.”
“Did you share your writing with him?” one person wanted to know. “Yes, some of my early embarrassments,” she answered with a smile. And she described receiving a rich literary background from her very attentive, learned grandmother who had a vast library and piled high the books for her granddaughter to read. White has “tried fiction,” she said, but ninety percent of her income comes from her non-fiction articles and editing.
When E. B. White died in 1985 (his wife Katharine White was deceased in 1977,) their son Joel White became his father’s literary executor. But when he died two years later, Martha White took over for her father. (Both her boatbuilding brothers were off on the water.) “It’s a big job,” White says, “and the first thing I did was to reread his entire body of work.” The original 1976 version of The Letters of E. B. White had just gone out of print, and White set about organizing the revised edition to include the last ten years of additional letters, published by HarperCollins in 2006. She then began to cull from all of his published works a selection of quotations for In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers.” Produced for Cornell University Press, it was published in 2011.
It was in the process of compiling those quotations that White noticed the dog section of the manuscript was quite substantial, enough for a volume of its own. It took Tilbury House Publishers of Gardiner no time to decide to publish E. B. White on Dogs when White proposed it. She reflects on her experience working with the material, saying that in the process she began to realize there were many questions she wished she had asked her grandfather. Dogs were such huge characters on the author’s farm, so why did they not appear prominently in his children’s books? “Perhaps he was concerned their big personalities would overpower the story,” she speculates.
“Did your rereading of E. B. White’s work influence your own writing?” was another good question posed. “After a year-and-a-half of doing the dog and pony show for this book, it does take me some time to get back to writing in my own voice.”
Learn more about Martha White at www.marthawhite.net.