WORDS BY Samantha Gurrie
For anyone raised on the literary viands Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, E.B. White was as much an author as an animal lover. But where his classic children’s books anthropomorphised farm animals, his columns for The New Yorker proved dogs were this man’s best friends. Through the beady eyes of his dachshunds, White opined about the trials and tribulations of four-legged Manhattanites such as the ever-facetious Fred, of whom he once wrote: “I’ve never had a dog who understood so much of what I said or held it in such deep contempt.”
“He enjoyed the literary device of using a dog (or sometimes a goose, as with the one he interviewed about Watergate) to speak his mind, whether it was speaking truthfully about the politics of the day or speaking intimately to his wife,” says Martha White, the writer’s granddaughter, who culled together his essays, letters and sketches for E.B. White on Dogs (Tilbury House). “He had fun with the technique and it allowed him to say things he might not otherwise have put into quite those terms.”
To wit: White rhapsodized about everything from dog shows (“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.”) to space exploration (“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.”).
White regarded his pets as people, smuggling them into restaurants and flouting city health codes. In a letter to the ASPCA in 1951, he wrote: “I have received your letter, undated, saying that I am harboring an unlicensed dog in violation of the law. If by ‘harboring’ you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her, I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off.”
On Dogs is a brilliant tome of such droll musings. White was an artful wordsmith, sniffing out the canine condition and turning casual observations into nuggets of doggy wisdom. Were he still alive today, he would have politely declined an interview with us, professing something of the sort: “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.”
All artwork by E.B. White, courtesy of Martha White