August 5, 2009

E. B. White and the New York of Stuart Little

Of the many books that give young people their first and almost always glamorous introduction to New York City, one of the most loved is E. B. White's Stuart Little, published in 1945. Yet, while Hollywood made an enchanting film of the classic in 1999, one that further glamorized the city adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Little's proper little mouse boy, the original tale is a curious story that breaks several conventions.

For starters, in White's book, unlike in the movie where the Littles find him in an orphanage, Stuart is the Little's biological child (!), albeit an unusual one. He looks like a mouse, can walk within weeks after he's born, and he never gets taller than a fraction over two inches. In modern parlance we might describe Stuart as "a special needs child." He requires necessary adjustments in his domestic arrangement so he can climb up to the bathroom sink to brush his teeth.

The largest problem is that he's so small that his family could lose him, but another issue arises with the presence of Mrs. Little's cat, Snowball. Concerned with his potential identity problems, his sensitive parents shield him from widespread derogatory references to mice, going so far as to change one word of a line of Clement Clark Moore's Christmas poem (another made-in-New York classic) to read "Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse." (E. B. White, Stuart Little. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 10)

White, who finished writing the book while living on W. 11th Street in Greenwich Village, describes the location of Stuart's house, as follows: "The home of the Little family was a pleasant place near a park in New York City." While this imprecise location could be fulfilled by many different neighborhoods with parks, the charming adept illustrations by Garth Williams (also the illustrator for White's Charlotte's Web) suggest Gramercy Park (see related feature).

One illustration in particular shows a streetscape with individual townhouses on the left and a park to the right. The ivy-covered houses could fit in several New York neighborhoods, but the gate to the park looks just like the one around Gramercy Park's famously private space. In the illustration (on page 74, if you have the book handy), Williams has sketched in a tall building with a spire that closely resembles the real-life Met Life Tower building. The tower would not come into perspective from this particular view of the park, but perhaps the artist was inspired to substitute the graceful ornamentation of the Metropolitan Life Tower for another less beautiful building. The houses themselves are not exact matches to ones we’d find there today, but they command the same scale and general aesthetic. Anyway, a story about a talking mouse boy who likes to sail boats does not require such geographical realism.

Scott Elledge, the foremost biographer of E. B. White, points out many parallels between Stuart and the author, as well as some similarities between the mouse and White's father. His list includes "Stuart's love of boats, cars, canoes, skating, and travel; the call of the north and the love of morning and summertime." (Scott Elledge, E. B. White: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1985, p. 262) One memorable episode in the book - it's also in the movie - recounts Stuart's triumph in a sailboat race in Central Park's Conservatory Pond. Stuart dresses up like a sailor, "saunters" toward Fifth Avenue, hitches a ride on an uptown bus to 72nd Street, and arrives at the pond where he meets the owner of a "big, black schooner flying the American flag." He takes on a rival boat belonging to an obnoxious boy. As a storm gathers, Stuart successfully cuts the boat away from a paper bag that has blown over it and pulls away from the rival boat that has plowed into the rigging. He triumphantly wins the race.

Readers may remember subsequent scenes from the book such as Stuart's love for Margalo the bird, the intrigue with Snowball and the cat's scheming feline friends, and Margalo's rescue of Stuart from a garbage truck in the East River. What's troubling to some parents and to others in need of a happy movie ending is a perception that the final chapters lack closure.

After Margalo flies the coup, so to speak, Stuart packs up a little hobo stick and walks out the door. As Elledge puts it, "He simply leaves home. He doesn't run away from home with a child's desperation or desire to hurt his family. He avoids a useless argument by not telling anyone his plans." (p. 256) After borrowing a toy car from a dentist, he drives up and around Central Park to the Henry Hudson Parkway and then on to the Saw Mill River Parkway. He's bound for the north and New England.

View Stuart Little's New York in a larger map

In Ames’ Crossing, Stuart meets a tiny girl, Harriet Ames, and after fantasizing about the great perfect date with her on the river in his little gift shop souvenir canoe, the eventual meeting turns into a disaster. In retrieving the canoe, Stuart finds the boat displaced and wrecked, presumably by children, and while normally a mannerly young mouse, he loses emotional control. The girl is willing to make the best of the situation, but Stuart can't wrestle away his disappointment. She walks away, also dispirited. He’s learned a lesson, however, and he presses on with his journey. Meeting a philosophical telephone repairman, Stuart inquires if he has seen the illusive Margalo. The man has not, but he points our tiny hero toward the north.

At the end of Stuart Little, there’s no easy reunion with a warm family within the charming confines of Gramercy Park. Instead, there’s the promise of finding happiness and self-knowledge in the unknown journey ahead, a promise based firmly in the conviction that the traveler is "headed in the right direction."

Lake Placid

Images of Gramercy Park, the Met Life tower, the Hudson River, and a stream in the upstate by Walking Off the Big Apple. Note: Garth Williams' illustration of the Little's street shows a tree bent at the same angle as the one at the top, as well as a similar tree in the background. The trees shown above are taller and more fully grown.


altadenahiker said...

I love all things EB White, perhaps his essays most of all, but this was the book that started it all. And you gave me a map!

The mouse-birth was a little disturbing, even to a second grader. But all was forgiven once the adventure started, and the last paragraph is up there with Gatsby.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks so much for your comments, altadenahiker. I, too, love E.B. White's essays. I brought them along on my recent vacation in the Adirondacks. While not like Maine, the natural setting in upstate New York helped put me in White's frame of mind, especially in understanding his ying-yang relationship between rural New England and New York City.