Monday, July 09, 2007

But when I became a man I put away childish things

Oh, how wrong you are, I Corinthians! After all, the final volume of Harry Potter is on its way . . .

That, along with thinking about Lloyd Alexander, has me in the mood for a few notes on children's books.

1 In the comments on my Lloyd Alexander post, Idalia wrote:
That *is* an awesome first sentence, I had forgotten that one. However I have yet to see a children's book first sentence that can go up against Charlotte's Web's "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
Just as she had forgotten the opening of The Book of Three, I had forgotten the opening of Charlotte's Web. What strikes me now, reading that line, is how perfectly in keeping it is with the tone of E. B. White's letters, a collection of which I've been reading off an on for the past few months.

Here, for example, is his reply to a batch of letters from a fifth-grade class, in which he was asked about animals on his farm:
I have raised a good many young pigs, lambs, chicks, and goslings in my barn. I will tell you something that happened to the young geese last winter. There is a small pond down in the pasture and the geese use it for a swimming pool. They start from the barnyard, walking slowly; then as they get nearer the water, they break into a run; and then they spread their wings, take to the air, and land on the pond with a splash. But one night, early last winter, the pond froze during the night. The young geese had never seen ice, and knew nothing about it. They started for the pond, sailed into the air, and when they came down for a landing their feet struck the ice and they skidded the whole length of the pond and crashed into the opposite bank. That's how they learned about ice.

White's prose, whether in a letter or in a more polished piece of writing, has a kindness and matter-of-factness that rescues it from the ever-present danger of archness. What ultimately comes across is the sense of an observant man who enjoys sharing what he's seen, particularly glimpses of the livees of animals or unusual people. The bounce and balance of his sentences ends up seeming effortless, only natural to his storytelling style, as in this letter to James Thurber:
I made the drive in an open car with a turkey in the back seat and a retriever in the front. Stopped off at the Coatses' and we ate the bird and freshened up the dog.

Even when, as so often, he's being thoroughly ironic, as in this 1943 letter to Gustave Lobrano, his charm wins out:
Hospitals are fun now because all the competent people have gone off to the fighting fronts, leaving the place in charge of a wonderfully high-spirited group of schoolgirls to whom sickness is the greatest lark of the century.

All of which leads me to wonder if maybe it's time to reread Charlotte's Web? Or maybe The Trumpet of the Swan, which I remember liking more when I was young?

2 Thinking yesterday of waiting for books to be sent to me through the regional library system also reminded me of the annual trips my parents would take to Chicago for the Farm Bureau convention. I had never been to Chicago, which was 300 miles away from our town, but I imagined it as a paradise, because it had Kroch's and Brentano's, a multi-story downtown bookstore that, it seemed, stocked nearly every book. Before each trip, my parents would ask me for a list of books I was looking for, and invariably they would bring back the majority of them.

The very idea of such a big bookstore was fantastic to me in those pre-superstore days; the fact that in a city you could walk out of a bookstore with not only The Rescuers but Miss Bianca and Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines as well--to say nothing of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH--was, I think, the first seed of my desire to transform from a a country mouse to a city mouse.

It was the right choice: Kroch's is long gone, and books of all sorts are far more readily available to rural residents, adults and children alike, but the lure of the city remains powerful, the rich variety emerging from density no less compelling.

3 I've also had J. M. Barrie on the brain lately, perhaps a lingering reaction to once again seeing the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens this spring--or possibly because of a surfeit of Thomas Hardy, of whom Barrie was a champion. Explains Lisa Chaney, in Hide and Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie:
Amongst living writers it was Hardy and Meredith whom Barrie admired the most. . . . Barrie's capacity for hero worship might at time have made the diffident Hardy feel a little uneasy, but where Barrie worshiped he also protected, supported, even nurtured. He was capable of immense loyalty, and throughout his life was prepared to expend gargantuan efforts on behalf of his friends.
That loyalty could unquestionably be smothering for its objects, as Barrie was a strange and difficult man, never quite comfortable with adults but at the same time unable to achieve that relatively easy (some might say too easy) understanding with children that Lewis Carroll seems to have had. After his wife left him for a younger man, Barrie successively insinuated himself uncomfortably into two different families--Anthony Powell describes him in this stage as "Dracula-like"--in the unpleasantly overlapping roles of father figure/friend of children/third wheel to a marriage. Though his adopted families were often glad of his company, attention, and, it must be said, money, the situation, it seems, never quite escaped awkwardness, if not outright discomfort.

The following story of Penelope Fitzgerald's father, longtime Punch editor E. V. Knox, meeting Barrie for the first time, which she relates in The Knox Brothers, seems typical of Barrie's uncomfortable nature:
Desmond MacCarthy, the most genial of Irish critics, had been at King's, and wanted to help [Edmund], as he wanted to help everybody he met. He also knew everybody. Eddie must come to him and ask advice from James Barrie, who was at the height of his fame, though he could sometimes be a little disconcerting, unless the side of him which spoke to adults, and which he called "McConachie," happened to be foremost. Buoyed up by MacCarthy's confidence, the two of them called at 133 Gloucester Terrace, where they found the room empty, except for a large dog, with which Barrie used to play hide-and-seek in the Park. While they waited, Eddie in sheer nervousness hit his hand on the marble mantelpiece. It began to bleed profusely. MacCarthy was aghast. Barrie could not bear the sight of blood. They tried to staunch it with handkerchiefs, and with the cuffs of MacCarthy's soft shirt, which became deeply stained. Barrie appeared at the doorway, took one look at them, and withdrew. Kind-hearted though he was, he was obliged to send down a message that he could not see them.

Overall, Barrie's was an odd, sad life, with far more than its share of sorrow and loss to leaven his success. Powell, in a review of Janet Dunbar's J. M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image (1970) writes:
In the end one feels that only Dostoevsky could do justice to Barrie's life, the passionate sexless love affairs, the money, the rows, the reiterated tragedies. It is all Dostoevsky's meat.

4 All this has lead me to wonder whether some children's or young adult books should accompany me on my upcoming vacation. On my shelf, unread, is The Brilliance of the Moon (2004), the third volume of Lian Hearn's samurai adventure series, Tales of the Otori. Should it be packed? And, having hauled down the Prydain Chronicles to write about Lloyd Alexander--and then finding myself wanting to argue that they're better than Susan Cooper's sequence, The Dark Is Rising--I wonder if I should bring those along?

That would help solve my problem of bringing too many books on trips: if I get tired of hauling these around, I can always send them home with my nephew, further cementing Stacey's and my reputation as that aunt and uncle who always give books. I guess there are worse types of aunt and uncle to be.


  1. Y'know, I never really got down with Susan Cooper. I read all those, but remember them being kind of a slog.

    Did you ever read Diana Wynne Jones? She's pretty cool. I liked Dogsbody and The Homeward Bounders. You could follow Claire S's lead and read the Twenty One Balloons. That seems suitable to travel, especially if you're going around the world in a balloon.

  2. "Father figure/friend of children/third wheel to a marriage." If all of my child-bearing friends hadn't the foresight to move out of town before making me an UNcle, surely I would add those lines to my business card!

  3. Joe,
    Thanks for reminding me of The Twenty One Balloons! I'd totally forgotten it, but it was a book I loved.