E.B. White was many things—a writer for The New Yorker, a stickler for certain elements of style, a poet, an essayist, and—according to James Thurber—someone very good at hiding from random visitors. He is perhaps best remembered, however, as a children’s writer, thanks to a set of three remarkable books featuring animal protagonists, starting with Stuart Little, a little book about a talking mouse that later spawned three films and became a classic of children’s literature.
Full disclosure: I hate it.
Stuart Little opens in fairy tale fashion, as Mrs. Frederick C. Little finds herself giving birth not to a normal baby, but to a tiny mouse about two inches long. Rather convenient that the mouse just happens to be born to a family with the last name of “Little,” but we will move on. The Littles, to their credit, love him anyway, and on the second page of the book, Mrs. Little makes special clothing for him including a little suit with pockets for holding handkerchiefs, money and keys.
At this stage, my seven year old self dropped the book and went looking for a ruler. This took some doing—if you’ve ever had a younger brother, you will immediately understand—but after some drama I found it and measured a lira coin. It was about an inch wide, which meant that it would be about half the length of Stuart, plus the pocket still had to have room for keys. This meant that the pocket would have to cover most of the mouse, which didn’t fit the illustrations or the text.
It felt, well, wrong.
I suppose it’s some testimony to the book that I was immediately so involved that I wanted to check to see if it could be true, but at the time, it irked me. Finding out on page 29 that my suspicions were correct, and that Stuart and his pockets were too small for actual money, and that Stuart is carrying around, not coins, but rather bits of tin foil not actually accepted by New York City bus drivers as valid currency, did not help. Especially since later on, at least, he does seem to be carrying around actual money. Maybe.
Anyway. To continue! Stuart is quite part of the family, and there’s some cute stuff about how he gets around the house given his size, and the issues he encounters, and the startling revelation that he lives with—get this—a cat. Named Snowball. Also a mouse hole which the Little family is terrified that Stuart will enter and get lost in, not that this terror inspires them to do something, like, I don’t know, Other Littles, find a board and nail it over the hole, or, even failing that, put a piece of paper over the hole with some nice glue. Instead they worry and worry about it, and I have to say that on this reread, while I was delighted to see their love and acceptance for their little mouse son, their parenting skills could use a little bit of work.
This explains just why Stuart decides to take off from time to time, exploring the city and getting involved in boat races in Central Park (you can do this if you are the size of a mouse), and completely fails to explain why the family adopts a nearly dead bird and brings it into the house without doing anything about the cat. Stuart and the bird, Margalo, become good friends, and she saves his life, but alas, cat conspiracies force her to flee without a word.
Stuart follows her example. He picks up a small car perfectly sized for him that can turn invisible with the touch of a button, which initially leads to a hilarious scene and then immediately into a Very Sad Moment, complete with an illustration of a crying mouse. No wonder I hated this book. Moving on. He heads north to find Margalo, stopping along the way to teach school for a day as a substitute teacher and try to take young, beautiful Harriet Ames—a girl who, like him, is only two inches high—out for a canoe ride. This all ends in tears. Actual tears. And then, after some final poetic exchanges with a repairman, Stuart continues to head north and we never find out what happened to him or the bird.
Not that I’m, you know, still bitter about this or anything years after I first read it.
Stuart Little supposedly took White a decade or so to write, existing first as short stories, then as a partial book nobody wanted to buy, and then finally, in the last years of World War II, a book someone wanted to buy. Vestiges of that writing process remain: it’s not just that this is a book seemingly without purpose, and one that drifts here and there, but it’s a book that shifts rather dramatically in the middle.
I can’t prove it, but my guess is that once White reached that middle, he got stuck. It might seem that a talking mouse could provide plenty of story opportunities. But apparently not. And White also worked for The New Yorker, and part of his job involved reading the news, and a lot of it, just as World War II was hitting. It is thus perhaps not surprising that midway through, the book changes from its mix of wistful to amusing vignettes and short stories, to a quest story—but a quest story that largely features getting the hell out New York City and almost never looking back. That this story also includes the chapter where Stuart abandons studies of arithmetic and spelling to discuss law and pacifism, and how he could properly rule the world, perhaps also speaks to White’s frustrations.
The Harriet Ames chapters cast a particular pall over the book. It’s not just that it all ends in tears, and that Harriet ends up walking away. Indeed, in some ways—since this is a quest story—Harriet walking away is exactly what the story needs at this point: Harriet is a distraction from Stuart’s true goal, serving as the lovely maiden who attempts to drag the knight away from his quest. The problem is that Stuart, for all of his occasional courtliness in other circumstances, is absolutely horrible here. He starts by promising Harriet a canoe ride even though he doesn’t actually own a canoe, and has never paddled one before. The canoe he eventually does purchase is a cheap toy, which at first leaks, and is then badly damaged. Harriet, who seems like a nice girl, suggests doing something other than sitting around and sulking. Stuart is completely shattered.
This chapter hints at something—at the loss of a dream, at trying to talk with someone who cannot understand how important that dream is to you, how devastating its loss is. Stuart’s frustration is very real, and in that sense, understandable. But in another sense—Stuart’s entire plan, after all, was in theory to do something that Harriet would like. When that doesn’t work out, she offers several different alternatives—fixing the canoe and going canoeing later, imagining things about the canoe, or just going dancing at a club. Stuart, after saying “I’m afraid a woman can’t understand these things,” turns them all down. In the process, he doesn’t just manage to deny himself the pleasure, for once, of hanging out with someone just his size, who could be a perfect companion, and doesn’t just manage to destroy a chance to have fun in reality because of his dream of perfection, but also manages to be rude to Harriet, who really has done nothing to deserve any of this. I could deal with the first parts of this—it’s a nice deep lesson about reality versus imagination. But the way Harriet was treated left me indignant and angry at Stuart—a feeling that hasn’t changed on this reread, I’m afraid.
Part of the problem, no doubt, was my own expectations. Animal protagonists in children’s literature, Aslan aside, are, granted, generally flawed. Think of Freddy the Pig’s laziness, the Cowardly Lion’s, well, cowardice, Winnie the Pooh’s lack of brain, Paddington’s ongoing tendency to land himself into considerable trouble. But for all that, they’re fundamentally likable. The very few unlieable ones are introduced as unquestioned bad guys—described from the outset as evil, selfish, or cruel. Here, though, we had a mouse who, even before the quest, never seemed particularly likable, and after the Harriet incident, I couldn’t like him at all. Not, to be fair, that Stuart is ever particularly mouselike either—small, certainly, and often overlooked, but his temperament is never the scurrying sort I tend to associate with mice, and he doesn’t squeak. Perhaps that was another problem.
It probably doesn’t help that Stuart never does send a single note to his family to let them know he’s alive—even though earlier scenes had shown that, whatever his feelings towards them—mild fondness, I think—they panicked whenever he disappeared. To be fair, that is less Stuart, and more the way the book in general introduces intriguing elements and characters only to drop them completely later. The invisible car, for instance: after providing an amusing moment or two, Stuart decides to never turn the car invisible again, and the book’s brief foray into science fiction is over. Various other characters are also dropped: the two cat antagonists, the boat racers in Central Park, the doctor, the….basically everyone that Stuart meets. It adds to the book’s often disjointed, isolated feeling.
This isn’t to say that Stuart Little doesn’t have its moments. An early chapter explaining how Stuart manages to get around the house, and the difficulty he has turning the water on, is amusing. I also quite like Stuart’s brother, George, who gets good ideas but is so easily distracted he rarely follows through with them, and the way the cats logically figure out how they can get around their responsibilities towards human hospitality. And I have to give full credit to Stuart’s parents for welcoming him into the family despite his differences.
But this is still a book that leaves me unhappy and cold. It’s probably just as well that it wasn’t the first White book I read; if it had been, I don’t think I would have continued to the next two. Let alone listened to anything he had to say about style.
Mari Ness is not as diligent about following The Elements of Style as she probably should be. She lives in central Florida, near the realm of a much friendlier Mouse.