Lovers of Charlotte’s Web who believe the E.B. White House has just one story to tell may be surprised.
By Colin W. Sargent
This fall, with its crisp lines, black shutters, white clapboards, and gnarl of apple tree, the E.B. White House in North Brooklin can be yours for $3.7M.
The sellers, summer residents Robert and Mary Gallant, are the former owners of a bracelet of 40 Gallant-Belk department stores based in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, a year after White died, the Gallants bought this soaring 44-acre saltwater farm from his son Joel White, the naval architect who owned Brooklin Boat Yard. That same year, the E.B. White House, with its classic restraint, 2,080 feet of coastline, and understated elegance, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was a spectacularly public epitaph for a writer who fetishized privacy. And it’s your first clue to unraveling the mystery of why this property has intentionally not been listed on the Maine Multiple Listings.
The People of the Dawn were the first to civilize this part of Vacationland embraced by Blue Hill Bay. Like the Manhattans of New York, the Penobscots loved to party–the clamshell heaps they left behind are testimony to their veneration for this land–including the grand picnic spot with endless views they called Naskeag.
Fast-forward to 1795, when Capt. Richard Allen–a housewright who likely knew his way around a fast ship–built this post-Revolutionary frame house for the first of its owners, William Allen Holden. In those days, this area was called Sedgwick. In 1849, the town of Port Watson was incorporated. But the name Port Watson didn’t stick–it was changed to Brooklin barely weeks later. A quick line edit (because, well, there was a brook and a boundary).
Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) grew up loving Maine–from his boyhood, his family had summered at Belgrade Lakes. While studying at Cornell, he spent a concurrent hitch in the Army before graduating in 1921. By 1929, he was a budding New Yorker contributor who was falling for the magazine’s fiction editor, Katharine Angell. She divorced her husband and married White that same year. While Maine was never a hideaway, it clearly beckoned. Scandal? “Whatever,” Roger Angell, her oldest son, has recalled of the romance between his mother and stepfather, whom he would later come to admire.
In 1930, the Whites had a son, Joel White, the future wooden boat designer. In 1933, the young family of four (Roger was 13, Joel 3) bought this house in North Brooklin as a summer getaway. By the end of 1937, they’d ‘winterized.’ In 1938, the Whites moved to Allen’s Cove year-round.
A Flash of White’s Talent
How many lovely stories did E.B. White write in this house? Many of his essays for Harpers during the late 1930s and early 1940s were made (or at least polished) here and published as One Man’s Meat in 1942. No doubt the North Brooklin house was darkened then with blackout shades as World War II raged and enemy U-boats hunted for freighters off the coast.
“Both of my grandparents participated in plane-spotting watches at one of the local schoolhouses, but to my knowledge there were no patrols from the property,” says his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White.
Who knew that in the privacy of his thoughts, with World War II jamming the newsreels, the future author of Charlotte’s Web could be sexy. In a New Yorker reverie, Roger Angell has provided a striking example from One Man’s Meat: “The air grew still and the pond cracked and creaked under our skates…The trails of ice led off into the woods, and the little fires burned along the shore. It was enough, that spring, to remember what a girl’s hand felt like, suddenly ungloved in winter.” Snowbound Wonders
Sprung from White’s imagination in Maine, the classic children’s novel Stuart Little captured readers in 1945. Charlotte’s Web, also ‘made in Maine,’ delighted a mass audience when it hit the bookstands on October 15, 1952. In fact, it anticipated the publishing phenomena of the 21st century.
Such is Charlotte’s Web’s renown that in 2017 at press time, it still commands No. 269 among all hardcover books at Amazon. By comparison, the first novel in t he Harry Potter Series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is No. 2,518 in hardcover books.
The Charlotte Subculture
But was Charlotte’s Web really Harry Potter before Harry Potter? To this day, countless Charlotte’s Web enthusiasts travel great distances to peer over the hedges at the source of their beloved novel’s inspiration. Some of them even talk their way inside the big red gate. On one occasion, a blogger insisted she have her picture taken in E.B. White’s waterfront writing shack–in exactly the same position where the photographer Jill Krementz, wife of Kurt Vonnegut, once snapped the rigid image of E.B. White himself.
In 1977, Katharine White died of congestive heart failure at 84. E.B. White suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and followed her eight years later at 86. They rest side-by-side in Brooklin Cemetery.
Privacy Once Removed
The Gallants knew what they were getting into. This farm brings them into direct contact with well intended Charlotte’s Web enthusiasts countless times: “I do feel the overwhelming majority are channeling Charlotte’s Web,” Mary says. “I tell them, ‘I’m so glad you love Charlotte’s Web. I hope when you grow up, you will read some of his other works.’ I’m always disappointed when that’s the only story they’re interested in, because E.B. White was so much more than that. On the other hand, don’t undersell it. Harry Potter is a good analogy, and it encourages reading.
“Someone told me the other day there are generations of little girls who’ve become vegetarians because of Charlotte’s Web. In particular they refuse to eat…bacon!”
Sensitive to the shyness of the dead, White family members continue to invoke their famous relative’s dread of personal exposure. Ever in the New Yorker, Roger Angell has in recent years let slip the revelation of his stepfather’s “even passing up an invitation in 1963 to go to Washington and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson; the deed was consummated instead by a stand-in, Maine’s Senator Edmund Muskie, in the office of the president of Colby College. ‘Andy’ also skipped his wife’s private burial in the Brooklin Cemetery, in July, 1977. None of us in the family expected otherwise or held this against him. And when his own memorial came, eight years later, I took the chance to remark, “If Andy White could be with us today he would not be with us today.”
Which gives rise to the question, at what point does a lust for privacy become a narcissistic act in a public figure? When I call Roger Angell on the phone at his 1261 Madison Avenue digs in Manhattan, he replies, “I don’t want to talk about E.B. White’s house in Maine. I’m sorry.” [Click.]
Well, now I have a Roger Angell story! If nothing else, it’s a masterwork of brevity. Which is something his stepfather, E. B. White, who edited The Elements of Style, might admire.
Still to the notion of privacy once removed, when we contact E. B. White’s literary executrix Martha White, Joel White’s daughter, she writes:
“What I would offer by way of comment on the sale of the former E.B. White property is that the Gallants have been very good stewards for three decades and we are assured that they are seeking equally good owners to see that the 1700s house and property will remain under good care. My grandfather expressly did not want the place to ever become a museum or commercial entity bearing his name, or a place of pilgrimages, but rather to continue as a private property and, in the best of all possible scenarios, as a viable privately owned farm. That is what we hope, as well. Anyone who knew or has read E.B. White knows that he did not believe that writers should have to be public celebrities. We encourage his many fans, instead, to find him in his books, or canoe the lakes that he loved, or sail Penobscot Bay or other coastal waters, or ride a train, or write a Letter to the Editor.” Let’s Go Inside
Real estate exec Martha Dischinger of Downeast Properties is thoughtfully aware of this home’s elements of style, and she knows how to guide us through with sensitivity and charm. There’s a “living room with a fireplace, dining room with a beam ceiling and fireplace, a kitchen renovated in the taste of the period. There’s a full bath on the first floor,” along with “a large enclosed and winterized porch with beautiful views of Harriman Point, which is now owned by Blue Hill Heritage Trust and will never be developed. The mountains of Acadia can be seen from the house and property. There are two first-floor rooms with fireplaces serving as offices for Mr. and Mrs. Gallant. There’s a ‘woodshed’ leading from the kitchen to the Barn, which is a lovely sitting room with doors on both ends to enjoy the sea breezes off the fields. Upstairs includes 5 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and two additional fireplaces.” The estate includes “a guest house that contains a large second-floor bedroom and a kitchen and bath.” Entry is through “one of the gardens. There’s a brick terrace off the sun room as well. The property contains three ponds and a lovely drive or walk to the shore where the small house/cabin sits in its original condition where E.B. White would sit and do his writing with his small writing table still in place.”
Whenever he wrote in his little ocean shack, White had a farmhand carry his clunky Underwood typewriter out to the water, then back to his study in the main house when he was finished. Once he was asked why he did this.
Like a true Mainer, he knew how to answer: Otherwise, he’d have had to buy two typewriters.
In the main house, “[my grandfather and grandmother] each had a downstairs office to either side of the front door of the house, separated by the front hallway and stairs,” Martha White says. “The telephone lived in a dark closet off Katharine’s office and was rarely used. [My grandfather’s] office had nautical charts for wallpaper, but they are no longer there. He also had a grand piano in his office. Cornell University library has many of his desk items (in addition to his archives), including a manual typewriter and a marmalade jar that he used to hold his pencils. Accounts of how much of his writing he did at the boathouse are often exaggerated, although he did go there with a portable typewriter, on occasion, in mild weather.”
But the real soul of the house seems elsewhere to a visitor. It’s as if Dischinger has saved it for last: “Adjoining the kitchen, there’s a sitting room with the original black cook stove used by the Whites.
”The stove is so evocative, so endearing, that Anna Gallant Carter, the sellers’ daughter and a talented photographer, says, “I’ve never even attempted to shoot it. It’s just to be felt. A photograph could never do it justice.” Why? Because when she sees the stove, she engages with it across time, and not just with the visual sense. “My parents used to make us blueberry pancakes there.” How can you snap a picture of an unforgettable fragrance? “Up above, in the ceiling, there’s a hole where the heat can pass through to upstairs.” Imagine waking to the warmth, and the aura, of blueberry pancakes at this ocean farm, in Anna’s case after her first visit after graduating from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It’s just a black iron stove,” but it’s also “my brothers, my children, my parents, friends.”
Because she loves horses, she’s taken bewitching photos of the barn. “I like being in the barn. I grew up with horses. I’ve spent a lot of time on farms. To be in that barn, my imagination goes wild. While it’s empty just now, their presence is there.”
At the mouth of the barn is the rope swing that stars in Charlotte’s Web. “I’ve photographed it and swung on it. It’s a quick up and down!” “For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair.” –From Charlotte’s Web
Stepping from the barn, “I enjoy seeing evidence of fences,” Anna says, where she can sense the ghosts of livestock on either side. “I like to follow the beautiful walkway that goes to the shore.”
Then the Cove lifts its curtain: “You see Mt. Desert, which is absolutely beautiful. I think of sunsets and how the stones lift with light under the water–the water is so clear, and the stones are so pretty when the setting sun plays off the rocks. Then there’s the dock. Beyond that, you see deeper into the cove, which is all woods.”
Anna has a dreamy career in Charlotte, North Carolina, “translating English into Spanish, and Spanish back into English.” Like E.B. White, “I am about words all day long.” There’s a pause. “This is my parents’ house, not mine.”
Suddenly I feel an impulse to ask her, a visitor for three decades, a figure for all of us, “What do you call this house when you visit?” I’m looking for a fresh narrative that addresses this second, right now. I hope she won’t call it the E.B. White house. It’s the only hope a new buyer will have, because each of us deserves to be more than a custodian.
“We’ve had it for 30 years now. These are our memories now. I call it Maine. When we talk about it, say, on the telephone, we say, ‘When are you going to Maine?’”