E.B. White on Dogs


Edited by Martha White. Tilbury House Publishers. $22.95.

Noted American essayist, poet, author and longtime The New Yorker magazine contributor E.B. White disdained publicity, hated to come to the office yet epitomized the human-animal bond as you’ll see in this terrific, yet meandering collection dating from 1929 to 1984.

Known equally for his New Yorker pieces and beloved children’s classics such as “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and the “Trumpet of the Swan,” White found great joy and writing targets in dogs, ranging from mutts to purebreds, which is beautifully captured here by his granddaughter.

During his lifetime (1899-1985) he owned more than a dozen dogs – collies, setters, retrievers, terriers, Dachshunds and mongrel mixes. Some like Daisy (Scottish Terrier) and Fred (Dachshund) became celebrities and almost household names via his New Yorker works (particularly question-and-answer sessions with topics of the day, from space travel in the late ‘50s to the Watergate break-in of the early ‘70s.

But New York City’s dog shows at Madison Square Garden were also one of White’s favorite targets – and he captured them with wonderment. For example, “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.”

White’s love affair with the dog is best characterized in this passage from “Dog Training” (1940): “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

Earthy and colorful, beguiling and spirited, White’s words nimbly carve a pathway of one man’s lifetime relationship with man’s best friend from ownership to oversight.

Here are several select pieces:

“Obituary” (The New Yorker, March 12, 1932):

‘Daisy died Dec. 22, 1931, when she was hit by a Yellow Cab in University Place. At the moment of her death she was smelling the front a florist’s shop. It was a wet day, and the cab skidded over the curb – just the sort of excitement that would have amused her, had she been at safe distance.

“. . . Daisy was the smallest of the litter of seven, and the oddest. Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment. Persons who knew her only slightly regarded her as an opinionated little bitch, and said so; but she had a small circle of friends who saw through her, cost what it did.

“ . . . She never grew up, and she never took pains to discover, conclusively, the things that might have diminished her curiosity and spoiled her taste. She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

“Dog Show: The Scottish Terrier” (The New Yorker, Feb. 24, 1934):

“The memorable thing about the Dog Show was the booing of the Scottish Terrier. We watched a team of four Scotties take a blue ribbon, and heard the Garden roar its disapproval. A fickle land, with styles in dogs changing along with styles in dresses. The Scottish Terrier achieved a fame such as no breed ever dreamed of, and then was victimized by its own national advertising. Public favor has swung over toward more rangy breeds, dogs with legs. Setters are adored of show-goers. Bedlingtons are popular with people of fashion, who seek the unusual and who would rather be seen dead than leading anything as common as a Scotty. It is all very sad.”

“A Boston Terrier” (One Man’s Meat, May 1939):

“I would like to hand down a dissenting opinion in the case of the Camel ad that shows a Boston Terrier relaxing. I can string along with cigarette manufacturers to a certain degree, but when it comes to the temperament and habits of terriers, I shall stand my ground.”

“The ad says: ‘A dog’s nervous system resembles our own.’ I don’t think a dog’s nervous system resembles my own in the least. A dog’s nervous system is in a class by itself. It if resembles anything at all, it resembles the Consolidated Edison Company’s power plant.”

The fun-filled collection mixes the simple and lyrical from “Wartime Dachshunds”: “In this war (World War II) if you own a Dachshund people don’t think you are pro-Nazi; they just think you are eccentric” to “Abercrombie’s Dog Catalogue” where he determines “what it costs to set up a medium-sized city animal in the style to which it will soon get accustomed.” In 1942 it totaled almost $70 (for most likely a year).

This gem transcends the ages. It is a must read for all dog owners since it captures a great writer at his best with his favorite subject – and best friends. Does life get any better than that?