My grandfather suffered from a chronic perplexity, I believe, and he spent his career trying to take hold of it, not infrequently through the literary device of his dogs. Daisy had been the sole attendant at my grandparents’ wedding in 1929. “It was a very nice wedding—nobody threw anything, and there was a dog fight,” my grandfather later recalled. It was natural, then, that the same Scottie dog spoke for him, through a letter to his wife, when White wanted to tell her how happy he was that she was pregnant with his first child. He had “been stewing around for two days now” but was so “beside himself,” and “hoppy” that Daisy had decided to write to Katharine on his behalf.
Between E. B. White’s birth in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899, and his own obituary in October 1985, he owned over a dozen dogs of various breeds—collies, setters, lab retrievers, Scotties, terriers, dachshunds, and mongrel mixes. I was personally familiar with about half of them and I read about the others. Some appeared in his ‘New Yorker’ “Talk of the Town” entries; Daisy and Fred (and also a goose) were interviewed on serious subjects of the day including space travel and Watergate; and many different breeds appeared in poems and sketches and even on the occasional Christmas card. In the early days of White’s comments for the ‘New Yorker’, the city dog shows were an annual topic for amusement and observations on changing styles and trends. In his “Turtle Bay Diary,” White wrote, “The Dog Show is the only place I know of where you can watch a lady go down on her knees in public to show off the good points of a dog, thus obliterating her own.”
Fred’s “fraudulent reports” from the country kept appearing long after that dachshund had died on New Year’s Eve, 1948 “of his excesses and after a drink of brandy.” He had been “possessed of the vital spark” for just thirteen years and four months, but his spark had a habit of rekindling whenever White was puzzling out some new perplexity. Fred’s “dissenting nature” and “corrosive grin” were brought to bear on Truman and Stevenson and Khruschev, and you can imagine that he had a lot to say, almost a decade posthumously, about the Russians sending a dog into space. Fred was the “dishonorable pallbearer staggering along in the rear” in the essay “Death of a Pig,” an “ignoble old vigilante” with a “quest for truth.” My grandfather often had to remind himself, “He was also a plain damned nuisance.”