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McLuhan, Youth, and Literature: Part II

By Eleanor Cameron

I believe it is a pity that considerable sums, taken out of tight library budgets, should be expended on sometimes as many as ten copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Knopf) and that hard-won classroom time should be given over to the reading aloud of a book without quality or lasting content. And especially when there are really fine humorous tales such as Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me (Little); Sid Fleischman’s By the Great Horn Spoon!Chancy and the Grand Rascal, and The Ghost in the Noonday Sun (all Atlantic-Little); E. C. Spykman’s A Lemon and a StarEdie on the Warpath (both Harcourt), and other chronicles of the Cares family; or, to go back in time, Pinocchio and certain deliciously funny chapters in The Wind in the Willows (Scribner). But children do not always have to be made to laugh, though certainly the books I have mentioned bring more to their readers than laughter. Classroom reading, it seems to me, should be a treasurable time, in which the discerning teacher can introduce books the children might never discover on their own, such a book, for instance, as Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family(Pantheon). A sixth-grade teacher tried it out on a group of boys more interested in sports than in anything else; and when she had finished, one of the roughest and most unlikely candidates as audience for such a poetical tale begged her, “Read it again! Please read it again!” And I think it extremely regrettable that the same children should hear Charlotte’s Web (Harper) term after term, because this is one of the few books elementary schoolteachers know about; for, once it is introduced, the children can go back to it as many times as they like. However, as a contrast toCharlie, let us test Charlotte’s Web by referring its various elements to standards set by some of the finest critics and writers of adult literature.

We remember Jack Kroll, in reviewing Welty’s Losing Battles, speaking of the epic side of truth and wisdom dying out in adult fiction. We remember Eudora Welty herself noting three kinds of goodness that contribute to the stature of a novel: the goodness of the raw material, the goodness of the writing, and the goodness of the writer himself, which involves his roots, his point of view, his worth as a human being. Elizabeth Bowen, the great English writer, has spoken of a particular plot as being something the novelist is driven to, rather than its being a matter of choice; he is, she says, confronted by the impossibility of saying what he has to say in any other way. And she charges characterless action as not being action at all, in the plot sense, for the act cannot be divided from the actor, nor the qualities and likelihood of an act from a particular actor. Without this kind of truth, action is without force or reason. In Literature and the Sixth Sense, the critic Philip Rahv lists his own criteria for a work of literature: the criterion of language or style, the criterion of character creation (disclosing the depth of life out of which a novelist’s moral feelings spring), and the criterion of plot constructed in such a way as to invest the interplay of experience with the power of the inevitable. The American novelist Flannery O’Connor has written that for the writer of fiction everything has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be perceived by it. For her, “the roots of the eye are in the heart.”

As I do not know E. B. White personally, I cannot give inside information as to why Mr. White was driven to the particular plot of Charlotte’s Web in order to say what he had to say. But I do know from his essays that he lives on a farm, that the natural world is of the greatest importance to him (which is perhaps why he has chosen to live on a farm rather than in the city), and that this importance is expressed throughout his book with a pervading, humorous tenderness. White’s whole attitude toward the world of plants and animals, toward the rhythm of the seasons and of life and death is expressed in the story of a pig who forms a close friendship with a spider, whose death ends the tale.

“I am not a fast worker,” White has said. Certainly his book did not come quickly, for the article that was its donnée was written in 1948 [1], and Charlotte’s Web was not published until 1952. That article, which tells how White failed to save the life of a sick pig, gradually turned into the story of how the child Fern Arable out of love, the rat Templeton out of greed, and the spider Charlotte out of friendship managed to save Wilbur from becoming bacon in the autumn pig-killing. Now, in the course of this apparently simple tale, we are shown the truth of Eudora Welty’s conviction that “[t]he moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animates the whole of his work” [2].

You may recall White’s loving description of the barn, which is the main scene of the book:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell — as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman [3].

It may seem that in quoting this passage I am following in the path of those teachers I complained of for repeating what is already well-known. But I quote it because it explains to those critics who feel that long descriptions are apt to be static and so have no place in children’s books that the value and desirability of any description depends wholly upon the language, upon how the description is written; and, in this case, we see that it is anything but static and passive. I quote it, too, because we are reminded by the beautiful precision of White’s evocation of the Zuckerman barn (which he enriches from chapter to chapter almost without the reader’s being aware of it, as he does the whole life and appearance of the countryside) of another of Eudora Welty’s convictions.“No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose” [4]. We are reminded also by White’s description, which I have called loving, of Flannery O’Connor’s words, “the roots of the eye are in the heart.”

As for the protagonists themselves, they exemplify still another of Miss Welty’s statements. “Place, then,” she says, “has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character, it defines it” [5]. E. B. White has not only given us a revelation of farm life as much from the point of view of his animals as from that of his human beings, but has also created his protagonists with absolute truthfulness, each to his kind. These animals and people illustrate to perfection Elizabeth Bowen’s statement that characterless action is not action at all, for the act cannot be divided from the actor, nor the qualities and likelihood of an act from a particular actor.

Wilbur, the runt pig, who is saved in the beginning by Fern’s love for him, never ceases throughout the progress of the story to be anything but naive and ingenuous, completely unsophisticated in a plump, pig-like way, dependent upon others for comfort and spiritual sustenance and upon plenty of food and sleep and sunny weather for day-to-day happiness. Like many a naive and ingenuous person, he is deeply influenced by the opinions and moods of others; he is always the innocent who is acted upon in order that he shall be saved, rather than the hero who acts independently and with assurance to save himself.

The real hero of the book is Charlotte, the spider, “brilliant, beautiful, and loyal” — so Wilbur characterizes her: controlled in the face of Wilbur’s hysterics and desperation, acutely perceptive of the nature of mankind (as shown in her awareness that Wilbur’s salvation lies in her one chance of working upon the gullibility of human beings), patient as spiders have need to be, and completely unsentimental when it comes to the prospect of her own death at the peak of her forces. All this is in marked contrast to Wilbur’s own behavior under the same circumtances. Female spiders always die after they have hatched their eggs, and there is nothing to do — Charlotte knows — but to accept the fact with dignity. Yet E. B. White does not hesitate for a moment to tell the complete truth about his appealing heroine: that in addition to possessing the above excellences, she is bloodthirsty. Wilbur cannot bear this, but “‘It’s true,’” Charlotte tells him, “‘and I have to say what is true.’”

Nor does White hesitate to tell the truth about Fern, even though it may not show her in a very favorable light. After the story opens, with Fern saving the piglet from being killed because he is the runt of the litter, Fern spends all her free time during the following months sitting at Wilbur’s pen, listening to the animals’ conversation, and watching Wilbur grow. Next to Charlotte, she is his most devoted friend. And yet, because Fern is human and a child, she changes. During the opening chapters, Fern’s whole life is Wilbur and the events of the barn, for she is at that particular age when imaginative children quite easily convince themselves that not only do birds and animals talk, but that they themselves understand them. And it is a nice little detail that never once does Fern enter into these conversations among the animals, but only reports them afterwards, quite matter-of-factly, to her mother and father, seeing nothing unusual or surprising in her understanding of bird and animal talk. Thus the halcyon summer passes. But then something happens to Fern. For the first time in her childhood she becomes disturbingly aware of a member of the opposite sex, one Henry Fussy. And at the very moment when Wilbur is winning his prize at the county fair, when he has become that pig which long, long ago (in other words, three or four months ago) she had envisioned him becoming, she is off with Henry, aware only of Henry. Nor does she ever come regularly to the barn again because “She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near the pigpen.”

On the other hand, Wilbur never forgets Charlotte, nor can his love for her children and grandchildren ever supplant his love for her nor his gratitude to her. And it was quite moving to me to find in a library copy of the book a heavy black pencil line, rather wobbly, which some child had felt compelled to draw around the words, “Charlotte died. . . . No one was with her when she died.” I had an idea that, like Wilbur, that child would never forget Charlotte.

It is the burden of feeling and meaning in Charlotte’s Web which makes it memorable, which will speak to all times and not just to our own time. It is that burden which gives all the great children’s books their greatness, a burden which is the natural result of their author’s ability to invest a tale for children with wisdom and truth. It is this burden of feeling and meaning which speaks not only of the goodness of the raw material and the author’s handling of it, but of the essence of the writer himself: his point of view, the roots from which he has sprung, roots which in White’s case go deep into the natural world and are responsible for the tone and import of his book.

At a dinner in San Francisco where medals were being given to various California authors who had published outstanding books in 1969, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay (Doubleday) was given a silver medal for the best children’s book. And I was amused when the master of ceremonies “complimented” it by saying that “even though it was for children” he would recommend it to the assembled guests and that they need not be ashamed of reading it. I don’t know if it would have made any difference to anyone there that though The Cay was written in a remarkably short time, Taylor had brooded his material for ten years. If you step from books written for adults down to teenage books, you ought — I suppose — to feel self-conscious no matter how good such books might be. But if you step down further still into children’s books and are caught reading them, you ought apparently to be nothing less than mortified. Yet, it intrigues me that, year after year, I find four or five children’s books — real children’s books, I mean — in which I find those qualities I pointed out in Charlotte’s Web, but much more rarely do I find a rich and satisfying combination of these qualities in the creations — so often neither fish, flesh, nor fowl — which we call junior novels.

Nat Hentoff has written two novels for teenagers: one good, Jazz Country (Harper); and one, to my mind, a failure, I’m really dragged but nothing gets me down (Simon). In his essay “Fiction for Teenagers,” Hentoff says, “Is it possible, then, to reach these children of McLuhan in that old-time medium, the novel? I believe it is, because their primary concerns are only partially explored in the messages they get from their music and are diverted rather than probed on television. If a book is relevant to those concerns, not didactically but in creating textures of experience which teenagers can recognize as germane to their own, it can merit their attention” [6].

What troubles me is that, in Hentoff’s intense concern to reach teenagers, the difference between bibliotherapy and literature is lost sight of. I’m sure Hentoff knows the difference between the two: that literature was never written with the purpose of providing a tool or a release for the desperate. It is written because someone must make palpable and seen and understood his private vision of the universe. What we call literature gives the reader an intensified sense of existence, a revelation, gives him people with idiosyncrasies and habits and beliefs, people with histories and possible futures which the reader cannot help dwelling upon when the last page is turned. People, I should think, at the opposite pole to those faceless ones, the message carriers (most of them depressingly, boringly alike in their involvements and rebellions and obsessions) presented us by the writers of the catering and problem type of teenage novel. Reading a stack of them becomes tedious beyond endurance, especially when they are written in the first person, purportedly by a teenager.

And yet Hentoff, desiring, I am sure, to write an admirable novel, one with quality, has given us exactly what he speaks against — didacticism, an arrangement of ideas already well-known to teenagers — but has not given us what he created in Jazz Country, a texture of experience. This, it would seem to me, ought of necessity, given the nature of the human body, to include Flannery O’Connor’s all important eye. Yet very rarely does I’m really dragged give us the look either of human beings or of places; we are not, strangely enough, made aware of any particular place. And in losing the particularity of place, we lose somehow the sense of reality, and I mean an intense sense of reality. We are all but blind — like the chambered mole. Nor do we feel the surfaces of solid objects; they seem scarcely to exist. We never smell anything. As readers, we seem stripped of all senses except hearing, and remember McLuhan’s saying, “For the eye has none of the delicacy of the ear.”

I’m really dragged is like a play, with the characters coming through to us only in their speeches about subjects of interest to contemporary teenagers. You experience Hentoff’s people as you do those in a play, only the strictly pertinent core of them rather than the accomplished novelist’s exploration of facets of personality. And you can go through the short chapters and assign a title to each just by running an eye down the dialogue: Chapter One, the draft and blacks vs. whites; Chapter Two, father vs. son; Chapter Three, drugs, to smoke pot or not to smoke it; Chapter Four, father vs. son; Chapter Five, blacks vs. whites; Chapter six, father vs. son; Chapter Seven, the generation gap; Chapter Eight, parents and school; and so on. Is this what Hentoff calls “textures of experience”? But surely that texture we call “the novel” gives us, at its most treasurable, a passionate, sometimes rapturous meeting between the artist’s private vision and the haunting, ambiguous, paradoxical world of feelings and objects — all interlaced. And these interlacings open up for us intimations about ourselves and the world we had not guessed at before, or had not seen, nor been able to put into words for ourselves.

Because of their loss of literature today, the young, writes Gore Vidal, “are quite unable to comprehend the doubleness of things, the unexpected paradox, the sense of yes-no without which there can be no true intelligence, no means, in fact, of examining life as opposed to letting it wash over one” [7].

The great makers of literature are door-openers, and teenagers especially need to be given not what they already know but what they have not yet divined.

Copyright © 1972. by Eleanor Cameron.

 Read Part III


1. E. B. White, “Death of a Pig.” The Atlantic Monthly, 181:30-33, January, 1948. [Back]

2. Eudora Welty, Place in Fiction. New York: House of Books, 1957, O.P. PP. 9-10. [Back]

3. E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952. PP. -13-14. [Back]

4. Welty, op. cit., pp. 15-26. [Back]

5. Ibid. P. ii. [Back]

6. Egoff, Stubbs, Ashley, eds., Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature. Toronto, New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. p. 40:1. [Back]

7. Gore Vidal, Two Sisters. Boston, Little, Brown, 1970. p. 41. [Back]

Eleanor Cameron based her article on material first presented at the First Conference on Children’s Literature at Mount St. Mary’s College, June 24, 1970, and later given at a special meeting of the New England Round Table of Children’s Literature, March 24, 1972. Her book A Room Made of Windows (Atlantic-Little) received the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for excellence of text in 1971.

From the December 1972 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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