Where Charlotte Wove
ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, out of school and footloose and broke, I decided I would pay a visit to my favorite writer, the essayist E.B. White, then residing, as he had for 50 years, on a saltwater farm along the coast of Maine. I was sure White would welcome the visit -- after all, I reasoned, what ailing octogenarian writer doesn't long for the company of an unemployed 20-year-old houseguest with no visible means of support and no reason to leave? -- but just as a courtesy, I decided to send him notice of my arrival. Already I had in hand a friendly letter from White, written a year or two before in answer to a fan letter I'd sent him. So I mailed him a note letting him know that I would soon be taking our friendship, as we say in the '90s, to another level.
I didn't know the mails could work so quickly, but four days later there was a reply in my mailbox. "Dear Mr. Ferguson," it read. "Thank you for your note about the possibility of a visit. Figure it out. There's only one of me and ten thousand of you. Please don't come. Sincerely, E.B. White." I dropped my plans for a trip to Maine.
White's 100th birthday comes this July 11, and to mark the occasion I recently made my long-postponed visit. White wasn't around to enjoy it, of course, having died in October 1985. But the farmhouse is still there, resting on a rise above Blue Hill Bay, and the barn is still attached to it, Maine fashion, and down at the water's edge is the little boathouse where White wrote his children's stories, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, along with the many essays that have entered the canon of American literature: "Once More to the Lake," "Death of a Pig," "The Geese" and half a dozen others.
The New York Times once called the farm "historic literary territory." White would have trembled at the tag. In his will, he stipulated that the property remain in private hands, to forestall any effort to transform it into a shrine -- a prospect he found horrifying. The farm was sold to a couple from South Carolina, Robert and Mary Gallant, who have made their changes with delicacy and taste. White's chicken coop is now an artist's studio, and the woodshed is an open-air sitting room. The animals are gone from the barn where Charlotte wove her web and Wilbur the pig luxuriated in his manure pile, and sometimes the Gallants lay down Persian rugs and hold a cocktail party there, or set out chairs and tables for a meeting of the local garden club, or even, once in a while, arrange bales of hay in a semicircle for a reading of Charlotte's Web to local schoolchildren. And when the kids come across the famous passage about the barn swing ("Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway"), they can look over to see the swing White made for his grandchildren decades ago, tied to the beam over the north doorway. If it is not historic literary territory, the farm is still, for a reader who has imbibed White's work deeply and often, enchanted nonetheless.
White was born in suburban New York, but he was a Mainer by inclination. Although clarity was the chief virtue of his writing, he was always intentionally fuzzy on the subject of where he lived. After publication of Charlotte's Web in particular, he was bedeviled by tourists and busloads of schoolchildren arriving unannounced for a tour of the famous barn. In the New Yorker he published a series of essays under the dateline "Allen Cove," a designation that appears only on nautical maps. "That way," he said, "no one will be able to find [the farm] except by sailboat and using a chart."
His neighbors respected his reticence and shared it. They're Mainers, after all. "We're private people," one of them told me, "and we protect the privacy of others. And we're always rather surprised when someone else doesn't." That protectiveness holds even today, 14 years after White's death. In the local library one morning, I struck up a conversation with a man who used to run the general store.
"Mr. White always left town on his birthday," he said, "because that's when the reporters would show up, bothering him. He'd tell us at the store where he was going, but nobody else."
No kidding, I said. Where would he go to hide?
"Oh, I can't tell you that," the man said.
I pressed him a little. After all, I said, Mr. White is -- well, dead.
"Sir," the man said, offended, "I told Mr. White I wouldn't tell anybody. And I'm not going to."
And he didn't.
July 12, 1999
Universal Press Syndicate