BOOK REVIEW: ‘E.B. White on Dogs’

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E.B. WHITE ON DOGS
By E.B. White
Edited by Martha White
Tilbury House, $22.95, 178 pages, illustrated

Since the first dog warily entered the first cave, the relationship between man and beast has been intriguing to man, and perhaps to beast as well. A key to the relationship has been a dog’s dependence on its master for food and board, in return for which it is expected to provide companionship, admiration and occasionally other services.

Grumpy Mark Twain took an unsentimental view of the relationship. “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous,” Twain wrote, “he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

Others have seen the man-dog relationship in a more positive light. Christopher Morley wrote, tongue in cheek, “No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as a dog does.” Another author mused, “Man is a dog’s idea of what God should be.”

No author is more associated with his dogs than New York-born Elwyn Brooks White, uniformly known by his initials, E.B., or to his friends as Andy. White was one of the first stars of The New Yorker magazine, and in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s became recognized as one of the country’s leading essayists. When he turned his hand to children’s books, “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web” became best-sellers. A style guide for writers, co-authored by White, remains a standard text for writers and editors.

White was famously shy, and much of his writing was done at his farm in rural Maine. There, he and his wife, Katharine, had a succession of dogs, many of which found their way — memorably — into White’s writings. E.B.’s granddaughter, Martha White, has now collected articles and letters related to man’s best friend into a short volume aimed at America’s 78 million dog lovers. In her recollection, “E.B. White’s dogs came in every shape and style, and sometimes gave voice to the words he could not have spoken otherwise.”

Occasionally, the essayist turned to poetry: “Dog around the block, sniff / Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating / Sniffing, always starting forward / Backward, dragging, sniffing backward.”

Part of White’s secret is that he wrote about his pets much as he might write about a person. The death of one dog in a traffic accident brought forth a dignified obituary: “Daisy died Dec. 22, 1931, when she was hit by a Yellow Cab in University Place. At the moment of her death, she was smelling the front of a florist’s shop. It was a wet day, and the cab skidded over the curb — just the sort of excitement that would have amused her, had she been at a safe distance.”

White encountered dachshunds, with whom he would be forever associated, by way of his wife’s interest in the breed. One of these, Fred, was destined to be famous, but it was not love at first sight. White wrote in 1936, “I have been agreeably encumbered by a very large and dissolute dachshund named Fred. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his [peremptory] scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle.”

White would write of Fred, “Of all the dogs whom I have served, I’ve never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt.”

As time went on, White became more sympathetic to the plight of dachshunds, especially when dealing with stairs. “A dachshund, because of his low center of gravity, is incapable of going up and down stairs one paw after another. He, or she, must tackle stairs in a series of bold, sometimes hysterical leaps, the two forepaws and the two hindpaws operating in pairs.”

Fred went to his reward in 1948, a victim “of his excesses and after a drink of brandy.” But he lived on in White’s writings, achieving a certain literary immortality. As Martha White acknowledges, Fred’s “reports” from Maine continued long after he had gone to the great kennel in the sky.

Admirers of E.B. White will enjoy revisiting his graceful prose.

Historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va., with a devoted wife, Priscilla, and a neurotic dachshund, Vicky.

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