A new biography of E.B. White has recently been published, entitled The Story of Charlotte’s Web. While listening to an interview with the author on NPR, it was noted that a group of editors of children’s fiction voted this the best American children’s book ever written. I was surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t be.
I never read Charlotte’s Web as a child. In 2007, however, I saw the movie with Dakota Fanning as Fern and was just bowled over. I knew so little about it that I didn’t even know Charlotte was a spider until the movie came out. I left the movie wondering if it was really suitable for children. It seems to me that all children’s fiction has some sort of morality tale to tell: in this case, the virtues of love, loyalty, and friendship. But this book/movie also has death, and the inevitable progression toward it. Not to mention spiders. I just wondered if it wasn’t too scary for kids. But I guess the editors proved me wrong.
If all you know is Charlotte’s Web, however, you don’t know E. B. White (pictured above with his irrepressible Dachshund Fred). I consider him one of the best American writers ever, and in that at least, there are those who agree with me. In 1978, he was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for his body of work.
So the publication of White’s biography made me think of his essays, from the collection Essays of E. B. White, which I read maybe three years ago. I lost my copy, so I bought a new one, because one of the essays has been much on my mind recently: specifically, one entitled “The Geese”.
The essays are not arranged chronologically, but rather by topic or by locale. The categories then are The Farm (White lived in NYC, but had a farm in Maine where he eventually retired), The Planet, The City, Florida, Memories, Diversions and Obsessions, and finally, Books, Men, and Writing.
The Geese was written in 1971, when White was 71 years old. It is, you could say, about the indignities of getting older.
On that topic, I’ve always tried to live as if it weren’t happening. I know too many people who seem to think getting older is a good reason for abandoning life, in a sense. But I’m not blind. These days when I wake up in the morning, I find myself taking a sort of inventory. What hurts? What will I have to contend with today? I have to ask other people now to pick up heavy things for me, or open pickle jars.
So…The Geese. White has two old geese, a male and a female (whom he refers to as the “wife”). One day White finds her dead on the path from their pen to the pond. The old gander is bereft and moping. White buys three little goslings to keep him company, and he is re-energized, and takes to foster fatherhood like a pro.
As the little goslings grow up, it turns out that two of them are female. The gander “takes up” with one of them, so to speak, and is quite loyal and monogamous. He won’t have anything to do with the other goose–but he won’t let the young gander near her either.
One day, White is aroused by a great commotion in the goose pen, where it turns out the young gander has had enough, and not to put too fine a point on it, is kicking the old gander’s ass. The old gander manages to stagger away, injured, and crawls under the rail of the pen to reach the meadow and the path to the pond.
White writes, “I felt very deeply his sorrow and his defeat. As things go in the animal kingdom, he is about my age, and when he lowered himself to creep under the bar, I could feel in my own bones his pain at bending down so far”.
Finally, “Toward the end of the morning, he walked back up the lane as far as the gate, and there he stood all afternoon…Through the space between the boards of the gate, the old fellow watched the enchanting scene: the goslings taking their frequent drinks of water, climbing in and out of the shallow pan for their first swim, closely guarded by the handsome young gander.”
He ends it by saying, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day”.