“I can tell you that it was his agent who thought it was a bad idea, when the book was first published, to have a black hero.” Roald Dahl’s widow says that he intended for the eponymous hero of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be “a little black boy.” Pair with our own Jacob Lambert’s fond recollection of reading Dahl to his son.
As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days.
However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics.
If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food.
Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school.
After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce.
Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach.
These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer.
My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals — “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.)
Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid — they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy.
Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam — she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas — enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.
If, like me, you’re a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different — but that’s not always the case. Over the years I’ve made connections between my favorite authors and my son’s. Once you see the similarities, you can’t un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes…
Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons — on manners, nightmares, and so on — contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone’s psyches. And like Franzen’s novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they’re straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can’t be coincidental.)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel’s famous amphibious friends. And, let’s face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel’s stories, like Yanagihara’s novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world. Plus, Toad’s nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude’s million-dollar country home.
Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman
Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children’s alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book — Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him — remind me of the Post family in Straub’s novel The Vacationers: they’re sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry
You might think you’re super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard’s multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.” But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry’s books, which, like Knausgaard’s, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry’s wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you’ve never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European.
Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don’t mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I’m not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka’s crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone’s endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart’s novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book’s workplace commentary, so tragic it’s funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I’d love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like “Pastoralia” but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine.
So there you have it. I suppose it’s time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We’re tired enough, aren’t we?
My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday — Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand — was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?
We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.
After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing — like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”
Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo — a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp — his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.
But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area — a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.
And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near — like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.
My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions — the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating — and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.
Because of this dynamic — the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader — I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child — often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act — the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.
My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.
Things don’t change much. I thought somebody ought to know.
–E.B. White (Letter to Stanley Hart White)
When I was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands with my two brothers and my 70-year old mother — an exceptional hiatus from our lives with family and children, just the four of us, to celebrate my mother’s milestone birthday, our good fortune that we had had her in our lives for such a long time — I happened upon a collection of essays by E.B. White, a book that the house owners had left on the shelf. I had read White’s autobiographical piece, “Once More to the Lake” in college, but here I was, a man in his late-40s, again under its spell. Throughout our time at that lovely house under the clear skies, overlooking the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean, I kept returning to his rumination on summer memories.
Written in August 1941 and published originally in Harper’s, the story is deceptively simple. White takes his son to a camp for a short vacation. It is the same camp, by Belgrade Lake in Maine, where his father had taken him many times when he was growing up, over 30 years before. He writes, “I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot.” Except for the sound of outboard motors on boats, a mid-century technological advance — a “petulant, irritable sound” that “whined about one’s ears like mosquitoes” — he found it to be the same place. “Once More to the Lake” is not a psychological exploration, except for one recurring detail. As White sees his son engage in activities that he himself used to do — baiting a fish hook, pulling on a bathing suit — he transposes identities, imagining himself as his father to his younger self. The jarring illusion keeps returning.
For a true story that takes place in the early 1940s, there is no mention of Hitler’s insane aggressions, concentration camps filling with prisoners, or mass murders, although White had some awareness of these far-away tragedies and his country’s anxieties about its role in a hostile world. Although “Once More to the Lake” does not mention them, I cannot help but feel that the longing for the familiar place of one’s childhood, a place of “peace and goodness and jollity,” is motivated in part by grim adult fears. Imagine the Harper’s reader of 1941, worried over atrocities reported in world news. Witness his Walt Whitman-like exuberance:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked.
The language of unperturbed continuity is a balm to the agitated adult brain: the indelible patterns of the time, “unshatterable,” “fade-proof,” “forever and ever,” “summer without end.” There is also the jab at the idealisms to which memory is vulnerable: the postcards that present a sunnier version of the place, a fixed image, the awareness of fabrication.
Of course, I was re-reading this essay while I myself was on a summer vacation. At times I read it on the beach, supine on a towel, while my mother sat in a fold-up chair beside me. I was not with the nuclear family I was raising, but with the family in which I was raised, 30 years after the last teenager left home. We were all in character, the usual roles we had occupied since childhood. The bookish one, I was immersed in literary adventures, my obsession with language, while my brothers snorkeled near the coral reef and, coming up for air, called out their discoveries to my mother, like excited teenage boys. It was my own version of White’s jarring illusion. My mother was the same as always, but slower, more hesitant to venture onto the shifting sand. I found myself mulling over the essay when we crowded into the vehicle that careened over the island hills, my brother Mike driving like a fiend, adding his wicked cackle to each roller-coaster descent while the rest of us gasped at his recklessness. Without my own children to attend to, I had an uncommon amount of time for reflection. Re-reading White’s essay, I felt the pull of a deep pattern, that I struggled to name, that brought me back to my childhood.
White writes, “It’s hard to say why a certain thing takes hold.” Since I was a boy, whenever I found a book that I loved, I became deeply attached. Almost obsessively, I pored over it, drawn to the secret, submerged patterns of the work, the sentence-rhythms that bring it to life, the difficult-to-define sense of “the voice,” that inner authority and coherence, mysterious and pulling as faith. The drawback of this literary craving is that I have read fewer books than the average writer, the best of whom are voracious readers. Indeed, I am a voracious reader, just of the same small set of books, over and over again.
This habit was particularly intense when I was growing up. Like any habit, there were rituals. The setting was important. I had two favorite places where I liked to read. My first perch was the cherry blossom tree in front of my grandparents’ home in Secane, Penn., a suburb outside Philadelphia, where I often spent stretches of time, especially in the summer. The boughs of that old tree seemed perfectly formed to cup my eight- or nine-year-old body. I loved the feeling of solidity, the bark rough against my skin, as I leaned with a paperback book in my hands. Suspended above the earth, with the barest awareness of gravity, I loved the airiness that surrounded me. No one could see me. I was alone with my book. Best of all, I loved the period when the pink blossoms made my perch into a cotton-candy world. The light would shift and there would be a pink glow on the page. I would be alert to sounds on the ground: my grandfather’s pickup truck coming into the driveway; the clink of dishes in my grandmother’s kitchen, the window just a few feet away; the familiar sound of them bickering about chores and errands; sometimes, the intrusion of a teenage cousin’s voice when he came to visit and steal a Fig Newton.
The second favorite spot was a lawn chair made of braided plastic straps softened with age. The chair sat in the middle of a campground. Every summer my grandfather arranged this compound of tents and trailers and vehicles, in a campground called Buttonwood, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On long weekends my mother and father and we three boys, and my aunt and uncle and their eight children, and sometimes a great aunt and uncle, or my father’s parents and their teenage children, would come to stay. There was a shared screened-in kitchen and a campfire space surrounded by chairs, for talking and singing under the stars. In the background, as I turned the pages of a book, I would hear the sound of adults drinking beer; my father’s hearty laughter; the clink of horseshoes; cousins breaking into the kitchen to steal marshmallows and chocolate squares which were supposed to be for s’mores; my grandmother, who didn’t love camping, sitting under the shade of a trailer awning, turning the pages of a romance, enduring. More distantly, from the pavilion by the bay where the teenagers hung out around a juke box, there was the sound of the ’70s: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
At first I read and re-read paperback comics: Archie’s gang, Nancy and Sluggo, and Peanuts. By the time I was eight, at my grandmother’s urging, I had started reading childhood classics: The Little House books, Louisa May Alcott, E.B. White, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Borrowers. Charlotte’s Web was my favorite. Never bored, I would recline in that lawn chair, eating pretzels, immersed in the story of Wilbur and Charlotte.
Early summer days are a jubilee for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp — everywhere love and song and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeters and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The sing sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says, “Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallows swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.
The book, an indispensable component of my happiness, celebrated the same continuity of experience that surrounded me as a child. White’s words transported me into the summer days of the story-world, but it also moored me to that familiar grassy spot in the sun, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, reassuring me that a kind of constancy was possible.
Implicit in these sentence-rhythms is the promise at the heart of Charlotte’s last words to Wilbur at the end of the story:
“Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall, Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you matter a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The long sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awaken, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”
The words are both beautiful and reassuring. They are both true and also illusory. Fern will stop visiting the barn. Charlotte will die. My grandfather will get cancer and become the first great lesson in loss in my life. My father’s alcoholism will worsen and he will leave my family. My parents will eventually divorce.
My brothers and I and my mother stayed at the remote villa on St. John’s Island for seven days. We began our days with bacon and pancakes by the pool, endless discussions about which beach to visit that day, the elaborate daily business of applying sunscreen, before pulling together beach equipment and driving over the hills to whatever destination we had chosen. The days were filled with snorkeling and swimming, following sea turtles, and boating; the evenings with making pina coladas, playing cards, and talking about our lives and families. During the stretches of open time that came with that intimate family vacation, I did read other books. There was a biography of the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker’s short stories. But I kept returning to “Once More to the Lake,” in the same way, once upon a time, that, trance-like, I had read and re-read Charlotte’s Web.
“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back,” White writes in “Once More to the Lake.” “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another.” Again and again in his homilies, essays, and children’s novels, his writing has a distinctive temporal swath, enfolding multiple, glorious days, reliably similar, into a single declaration. This is how it always was, he seems to insist.
There is a certain verb construction that White uses, that I suspect is the source of the story’s hold on my attention. Linguists refer to it as “the habitual aspect.” Writers call it “the continuing past.” It is a way of depicting activity that occurred usually, ordinarily, or customarily. The habitual aspect is marked by words like “used to” or “would” or, with the right clues (“I remembered…”) the simple past tense of the verb. Interestingly, the habitual aspect does not occur in all languages. One linguist found that it occurred in only seven of 61 languages studied (including English). What would one’s reality be like without this vehicle of nostalgia?
Anticipating his first adult sight of the lake, White leans on these language-grooves formed from memory and experience:
I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent lingered through the screen. The partitions in the camp were thin and did not extend to the top of the rooms, and as I was always the first one up I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remember being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwhale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.
The sense of time is indefinite. White is describing habits that attached to all the mornings in the camp of his youth, the rituals that occurred as his family slept and it was just the world and him, the lone perceiver. Re-reading such passages in “Once More to the Lake” recalled my earlier devotion to Charlotte’s Web, where the same rhythm of the continuing past, seemingly insulated from change, beguiles. Consider his description of the barn, another of the holy places he celebrates:
Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm, delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
As a student of creative writing throughout high school, college, and graduate school, I recall being cautioned against the use of the habitual aspect, if not judged and reprimanded. The habitual aspect, I was told, led to a kind of mushiness. It lacked that sharp, time-bound specificity admired in contemporary writing. The consummate stylist and arbiter of English usage, White relied on it heavily. Indeed, I would assert that the habitual aspect — verb tense of fables — is inseparable from his voice, a voice insistent on nostalgia. A theme in his early pieces for Harper’s and The New Yorker was the intrusion of progress. In a 1938 essay, he recounts the noise of the Sixth Avenue El, destined to be replaced by a subway:
Here was a sound that, if it ever got in the conch of your ear, was ineradicable — forever singing, like the sea. It punctuated the morning with brisk tidings of repetitious adventure, and it accompanied the night with sad but reassuring sounds of life going on — the sort of threnody that cricket and katydid render for suburban people sitting on screened porches, the sort of lullaby the whippoorwill sends up to the Kentucky farm wife on a summer evening.
The lovely word “threnody” resonates. Derived from Greek and Proto-Indo-European roots, it is a “wailing ode” in the form of a song or poem, an artistic form that enshrines memory at the same time it foreshadows endings. It is a paradox to which the human soul is bound, attracted, and forever bedeviled. The word “lullaby” reminds us of the comforts of this repetition. The “sad but reassuring sounds of life going on,” the “repetitious adventure:” these are the language-pillars in White’s literary architecture.
But the habitual aspect in White’s work is never a safe tense, insulating a timeless, recalled world. It always serves as a background for disruption. Throughout Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur luxuriates in the rhythms of barn life at the same time he fears that he will be killed by Zuckerman. Against the beloved patterns of the seasons, Charlotte, his friend, will die in the corner of the pigpen, alone. The habitual aspect may be the antidote to anxiety. But patterns finish. The rhythm ends in grief. The grooves betray.
The most brilliant writers, I believe, write from a sense of urgency. They are trying to figure out a perplexing problem or knot in their minds. Something must be corrected about the world, or saved. E.B. White has three known versions of his visit to Belgrade Lake, which forced him to grapple with the past from different angles. There is the “Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake,” which he wrote in 1914, when he was a teenager. A second draft of the reminiscence appeared in a letter to his brother, Stanley Hart White, in 1936, when he was 37. “Once More to the Lake” was published five years later. Not mentioned in this final version of the piece, which I think White finally got what he wanted from this recollection, was that both of his parents had died a few years before it was written.
The penultimate image in that third version is the thunderstorm over the lake, “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe:”
Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills.
After the storm, White’s son decides to join some friends and go swimming. He pulls on his icy, wet swimsuit, which had been hanging on the outdoor clothesline. There is a last transposition: a middle-aged White, grief unspoken, sees his son wince as he pulls the icy suit over his genitals and “suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
He had never laid out the paradox of pattern and disruption so starkly.
The hills of St. John’s Island are steep. They are terrifying to drivers unused to them. It was not uncommon to reach the top of one and believe you were on a cliff-edge high above the earth. There would be a moment, when my brother drove us to this or that beach or restaurant, when we would careen over a hill and for a brief moment have the illusion of falling off that precipice, until we could again sense the hard asphalt beneath the car, the direction of our gaze shifting from a freefall to the ground of the descending hill. Mike, who had been to the islands many more times than I had, had fun with this illusion, excitedly narrating our ascent then screaming at the pinnacle when, for a second, no one could see the future, save the void. In the back seat, trapped in his roller-coaster narrative, my mother clutched my arm, I held my breath and squinted, both of us on the edge of terror, but laughing, all of us together in this bright summer memory, delighted.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Roald Dahl’s estate has released a 1961 draft chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The draft reveals a number of little-known characters the author later excised from the book. It also reveals that, at one point, the story featured as many as 10 golden tickets. The Guardian has the draft chapter in full.
“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
A newly released Roald Dahl collection, The Missing Golden Ticket and Other Splendiferous Secrets, includes a secret ending to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and excerpts from the author’s hilariously bad report cards. Wrote one teacher about Dahl in 1931: “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.” (via Galley Cat)