Friday, January 24, 2020

Stuart Middle

The blogger Ampersand, aka the artist Barry Deutsch, linked to this New Yorker article on E. B. White's Stuart Little last week.  The article is even older than last week -- it was published in 2008 -- but I hadn't seen it before, it's about one of my all-time favorite books, and I learned a lot about the writing of the book, the state of children's literature in the mid-twentieth century, and other matters of interest to me.  It's well worth reading.

One thing bothered me, though.  Jill Lepore, the author of the article, doesn't like the ending of Stuart Little, and she boosts her dislike as if it were an objective fact about the book:
“Stuart Little” leaves you in doubt, a good deal of doubt, really; it doesn’t exactly end so much as it’s just, abruptly, over.  In Chapter VIII, Stuart falls in love with a bird named Margalo, and when she flies away he goes on a quest. In the book’s last chapter, he stops his coupe at a filling station and buys five drops of gas. In a ditch alongside the road, he meets a repairman, preparing to climb a telephone pole. “I wish you fair skies and a tight grip,” Stuart says, thoughtfully. “I hope you find that bird,” the repairman says. Then come the book’s final, distressing lines:
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
Stuart Little isn’t Gregor Samsa. He’s Don Quixote, turning into Holden Caulfield.
Lepore mentions Gregor Samsa because the critic Edmund Wilson told White that he "was disappointed that you didn’t develop the theme more in the manner of Kafka."  (Samsa is a man who turns into a giant insect in Franz Kafka's tale "The Metamorphosis.")  But Stuart isn't Don Quixote or Holden Caulfield either; I think Lepore is as deaf to nuance as Wilson or the librarians who objected to the book's blurring of fantasy and reality.

Lepore found the ending of Stuart Little "distressing," and I wouldn't be surprised if many child readers agreed.  Lepore quotes with delight the 'happy' ending written by a fifth-grade girl in 1946, which is well-done for a child that age but just as wrong for the book as Wilson's suggestion.  I can only report my own reaction when I first Stuart Little, on my own, in third grade, around 1960: I loved the ending.  It was, I suspect, the first unresolved ending I'd ever encountered, and it taught me something about what stories could do that I never would have learned if White had chosen for Stuart and Margalo to be "married back in New York and [raise] a family of half mice and half birds."  Lepore loves this; I don't; many people hate unresolved endings, it's a matter of taste.  But millions of copies of Stuart Little have been sold, and I don't believe that all of its young readers rejected White's ending.  Lepore is entitled to her distress, but I for one am glad that White ended the story as he did.