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October 1, 2007

TT: The best of all possible mice

Last week OGIC, who has been reading The Hobbit for the first time, asked the following question:

What children's classics did you first discover as an adult (Harry Potter doesn't count), and how did it make you feel--old? young again?

I didn't read many children's books when I was a boy. E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little were read out loud to me in the classroom, but I didn't read them for myself until I was in my thirties. This didn't make me feel old or young: I simply experienced and judged the two books as works of art.

Charlotte's Web I found charming, but Stuart Little seemed to me something more, and still does, perhaps because its symbolism is so precisely gauged and its inconclusive ending so unabashedly open. Even now it strikes me as a little masterpiece, one of the few children's books that is equally satisfying to the adult reader. I well remember how stunned I was by the vulgarity of Rob Minkoff's 1999 live-action film version, which made no effort whatoever to convey the book's quiet, wistful tone.

While we're on the subject, allow me to share with you this reminiscence by White himself:

A couple of days after the book appeared, Harold Ross, my boss at The New Yorker, stopped in at my office. His briefcase was slung over his shoulder on a walking stick and he looked unhappy. "Saw your book, White," he growled. "You made one serious mistake."

"What was that?" I asked.

"Why the mouse," he shouted. "You said he was born. God damn it, you should have had him adopted." The word "adopted" boomed forth loud enough to be heard all down the corridor. I had great respect for Ross's ability to spot trouble in a piece of writing, and I began to feel uneasy....

My next encounter was with Edmund Wilson, who stopped me in the hall. "Hello, hello," he said, in his wonderfully high and thrilling voice that sounds like a coaching horn. "I read that book of yours. I found the first page quite amusing, about the mouse, you know. But I was disappointed that you didn't develop the theme more in the manner of Kafka."

I thanked Edmund and wandered back to my room to chuckle at the infinite variety of The New Yorker: the editor who could spot a dubious verb at forty paces, the critic who was saddened because my innocent tale of the quest for beauty failed to carry the overtones of monstrosity. What a magazine. There's never been anything like it.

That's my all-time favoriite Edmund Wilson story--and as the Italians say, Si non è vero, è ben trovato.

Posted October 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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