(Ed. note: This essay was written for Nieman Storyboard, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University that explores the craft of narrative journalism. The essay was included in Storyboard 75: The Big Book of Narrative, edited by Paige Williams.)
The first time most people fall for E.B. White – certainly the first time I did – they are 6 or 7 or 8. In 1952, “Charlotte’s Web” made him the New Yorkerwriter with the largest grade-school fan base.
I fell in love with “Charlotte’s Web” because, when White talked about grown-up mysteries like love and death, he was as honest as a punch to the jaw. Many years later, I fell in love with “Death of a Pig” because, covering the same subjects for adults, White was as straightforward as a pie to the face.
Here are the facts of the case: A gentleman farmer (and New Yorker staff writer) ventures out to his pig enclosure one September afternoon and discovers that the hog he has nurtured through spring and summer has lost its appetite, gone listless. An obstruction of the bowel is suspected. The farmer, his dachshund and a veterinarian preside over the pig’s decline, until it dies alone a few days later, sometime between supper and midnight. The pig receives a graveside autopsy and is buried under a wild apple tree. The farmer accepts his neighbor’s condolences (“the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar, a sorrow in which it feels fully involved”) before taking up his pen and telling the story “in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig.”
It’s slim stuff, but that voice! That rueful tone, the invitation to cast White out of the society of pig-raisers. White remembers (perhaps he wrote) the golden rule of first-person narration, which is to approach readers with humility and a perspective they can share. “I live by my wits and started at an early age to inject myself into the act, as a clown does in the ring,” he told The Paris Review in 1969.
It’s one thing to describe the trick. It’s another to execute it.
White was, first and always, an essayist, and he could muse about anything: Model T Fords (“Farewell My Lovely”), making his way around Alaska as a firemen’s messboy on a steamer ship (“The Years of Wonder”), sales pitches for lightning rods (“Removal”). The subjects were diverse, but the common thread was his approach, which was often that of a hapless outsider – as his readers would be. He combined wide-eyed interest with concern for the natural world and a scientist’s knack for detached observation. (Not, however, a scientist’s precision or methods: Once, after collecting, studying and describing a spider’s egg sack, White forgot it on top of his bureau in New York, resulting in a brief infestation and a web-covered hairbrush and nail scissors. This later fueled the conclusion of “Charlotte’s Web.”)
White emerges with vivid prose. “Death of a Pig” is chockablock with precise and memorable lines:
When he opened his mouth to scream, I turned the oil into his throat – a pink, corrugated area I had never seen before. (On dosing the patient with castor oil.)
I made a sucking sound through my teeth to remind him of past pleasures of the feast. With very small, timid pigs, weanlings, this ruse is often quite successful and will encourage them to eat; but with a large, sick pig the ruse is senseless and the sound I made must have made him feel, if anything, more miserable. (On tempting him to eat.)
I have noticed that Fred will feverishly consume any substance that is associated with trouble – the bitter flavor is to his liking. When the bag was above reach, he concentrated on the pig and was everywhere at once, a tower of strength and inconvenience. (On his dachshund’s attempts to sneak sips of an enema solution.)
We’re not being told much of anything; instead, we’re seeing and feeling it. And so we’re having fun, skipping from one bright image to another, along for whatever ride White wants to offer.
The narrative essay isn’t a self-help manual; if we do get any help, it’s to see that we are not alone. The first-person narrative is an invitation to consider the human condition, and part of that condition is indignity.
In that regard, White doesn’t spare himself. In “Death of a Pig,” at least ostensibly the story of a failure and death, the absurdity is relentless and delicious. White begins with a small pomposity:
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
Who doesn’t standing at a graveside and say, aghast, “I could have died – and one day I will”? This self-centered concern leads to all manner of human nonsense – thus the adage that tragedies begin with a wedding, and comedies begin with a funeral. White goes one better: We can’t forget that the grave, in this case, might as well be a luau pit.
Just as White is ginning up some pathos over his pastoralis interruptus, here come the clowns, flinging pies at the funeral.
Enter Fred, a “vile old dachshund” who thrusts his pointy nose into the story and the pigpen as “a happy quack, writing his villainous prescriptions and grinning his corrosive grin.” The pig is “plugged up,” which leads to doses of castor oil and ultimately leaves White “cast suddenly in the role of pig’s friend and physician – a farcical character with an enema bag for a prop.” In the days of treatment, White describes Fred’s surreptitious sips from the soapy enema solution with such exasperation and helplessness that it’s easy to forget that White, not Fred, is in full control of the storytelling. White could have omitted the indignities, if not from the experience, then from his narrative.
But he needs them.
Storytellers often borrow the idea of “a lens” from filmmaking and photography. One of White’s particular gifts was knowing when to shift his lens to unexpected details that seemed like whimsical asides. More often than not, the odd bits act as a counterweight, pulling the camera back from White’s self-contemplation and offering us some perspective. The world spins on when pigs are shuffling off their coil, and when people do, too.
One of my favorite bits of the piece is a quote:
“Poor piggledy-wiggledy!” said Miss Wyman.
It might be the silliest interjection in nonfiction. Miss Wyman, the veterinarian’s fiancée, speaks her only line just as White’s anxiety and the pig’s illness are nearing their crisis. Miss Wyman hits the sour note in the funeral dirge and the balloon of White’s self-importance is punctured again.
And that’s another pleasure of this essay, and why I come back to it over and over again. White invites us to see how uncertainty enters the life of the farmer when reaping intrudes before its season, and to consider that at the end of farming and husbandry (for pigs, wheat, cows, corn, farmers) is death.
But when we finish the piece, we haven’t really read about life interrupted by death. White’s essay is the story of a death interrupted by life. Fred and Miss Wyman are to this story what Dogberry the constable is to “Much Ado About Nothing:” irrepressible and absolutely necessary vulgarity.
White wants to talk about death, he wants to tell us things – often quite interesting things:
The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.
It’s an important thought, dancing on the edge of discomfort. White can get away with that, and keep our attention, by unleashing reality, messy and absurd and undignified – and true.
Betsy O’Donovan (@Oditor) is a 2013 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.