Thursday, July 31, 2008

White v. Moore

I try to make a thorough read of The New Yorker each week, but if I can't, I make sure not to miss work by certain names -- Louis Menand, Atul Gawande, Anthony Lane. I'm learning to add Jill Lepore to that list. Of her excellent pieces, I most distinctly remember one about Noah Webster from a couple of years ago. Her most recent, about E.B. White's Stuart Little and the criticism it received from Anne Carroll Moore, a pioneering children's librarian, is well worth your time.

After she first read the book, Moore wrote a letter to E.B. White explaining, among other things, that she found the commingling of fantasy and reality to be harmful for children. It was White's wife, Katharine, an editor and writer at The New Yorker, who took the most offense at Moore's ideas about what was and wasn't appropriate for young readers:
“It is unnerving to be told you’re bad for children,” E. B. White admitted, “but I detected in Miss Moore’s letter an assumption that there are rules governing the writing of juvenile literature—rules as inflexible as the rules for lawn tennis. And this I was not sure of.” He shrugged it off: “Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. They go over it like little springboks. A fence that can throw a librarian is as nothing to a child.”

White did not write back. His wife did. “K refused to show me her reply,” White wrote to his brother, “but I suspect it set a new world’s record for poisoned courtesy.” It did and it didn’t. “I agree with you that schools won’t be likely to use ‘Stuart Little,’ ” Katharine wrote to Miss Moore, “but, to be very frank just as you have been, I can’t imagine libraries not stocking it.” And she couldn’t help asking, “Didn’t you think it even funny?”
You should read the whole thing. And the magazine's web site has some strong bonus material -- Lepore explaining part of her research for the essay, and an audio clip of Lepore discussing the piece along with Roger Angell, Katharine's son (and E.B.'s stepson).


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