While the opening paragraph signals possible incoming political fire—“three
Democrats” —the topic does not emerge again until four pages into the piece.
Instead, White reminisces about his late dachshund, Fred, who comes off
as troublesome and unsavory, yet whimsically appealing:
He was red and low-posted . . . he certainly gave the
quick impression of being a dachshund. But if you went at him with
a tape measure, and forced him onto scales, the dachshund theory collapsed.
The papers that came with him were produced hurriedly and in an illicit
atmosphere in a back room of the petshop. . . . So much of his life was
given to shady practices, it is only fitting that his pedigree should have
been . . . a forgery. (149)
His comically apt characterization of Fred—this dog lives and breathes
in these pages—will color all that follows. In 1956, during the cold
war and closely following McCarthyism:
[Fred] watched steadily and managed to give the impression
that he was a secret agent of the Department of Justice. Spotting
a flicker or a starling on the wing, he would turn and make a quick report.
Then follows two more pages of dog—“this ignoble old vigilante. .
. . held the belief that under the commonplace stone . . . lay the stuff
of high adventure and the opportunity to save the nation”—so that when
the topic turns to politicians, they compare easily with Fred: “these quick
Democrats. . . . have been busy writing and speaking, and sniffing out
the truth. . . . they converged on me by the slick device of getting
into print. . . . so I make bed space for them” (150, 152, emphasis
added). Readers associate dog and political situations because of
their closely drawn resemblance. In the latter part of the piece,
the actions and statements of Truman, Eisenhower, and others are compared
with the dog’s behavior:
“I just saw an eagle go by,” he would say.
“It was carrying a baby.”
This was not precisely a lie. Fred was
like a child in many ways, and sought always to blow things up to proportions
that satisfied his imagination. . . . He was the Cecil B. deMille of dogs.
He was also a zealot, and I have just been reminded of him by a quote from
one of the Democrats sharing my bed—Acheson quoting Brandeis. “The
greatest dangers to liberty,” said Mr. Brandeis, “lurk in insidious encroachment
by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Fred. .
. . had a dossier on almost every living creature . . . (150)
Fred was an unbeliever. He worshiped no personal God,
no Supreme Being. He certainly did not worship me. If
he had suddenly taken to worshiping me, I think I would have felt as queer
as God must have felt the other day when a minister in California . . .
said, “We believe Adlai Stevenson to be Thy choice for President of the
United States. Amen.” (155-56)
When “Mr. Truman” complains that “the press sold out in 1948 to ‘the special
interests’” and otherwise sabotaged his candidacy, White says “this bold,
implausible truth engages my fancy”—and ours, since it closely parallels
the dog’s bold, implausible report that preceded it. The dog comparison
is clear in White’s charge of “pure irascibility” in Truman’s “gloomy report.”
Yet the sting of his charge seems downplayed by the indirect connection,
conveyed by the dog, between politician and spurious report. The
tight resemblance between dubious dog conduct and slanted political rhetoric
makes White’s point doubly explicit, even as humor softens its rhetorical
Then, perhaps anticipating an overly sensitive
reader’s possible indignation that the essay had likened anyone to a dog,
White puts himself in the dog’s place: “when I see the first faint shadow
of orthodoxy sweep across the sky, feel the first cold whiff of its blinding
fog . . . I tremble all over, as though I had just seen an eagle go by,
carrying a baby” (156). I doubt White’s points would come across
half as well had he just come right out and stated them plainly—especially
in such tremulous times. One of the greatest feats in writing is
to slip past readers’ defenses and deliver serious comment, made palatable,
or otherwise tempered, by humor. (See Huckleberry Finn, for
instance.) The rhetorical aspect of the personal essay
is often implicit. Personal experience is presented as allusion or
metaphor to other issues or situations, and it is left to readers to make
final connections, to draw their own conclusions. Also, this allusive
business appeals to me because it comes closest to mirroring real experience—which
we don’t necessarily understand in abstract so much as we compare one experience
with another. The abstractions come later.
Back to my home page