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  • A City and World in Miniature: The Scale of Perspective in E. B. White’s Stuart Little
  • Alethia Shih (bio)

There has always been something about the implausible scale of E. B. White’s protagonist Stuart Little that has stretched the limits of believability, even to the author himself. Although the eponymous protagonist of Stuart Little belongs to a human family, he looks “very much like a mouse in every way”—“wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane,” according to White’s humorously matter-of-fact narrator (1–2). As a result of his unusual size, Stuart embarks on a series of uniquely scaled adventures throughout New York City and the countryside, commandeering toy sailboats in Central Park and flying over the metropolis with a beautiful bird named Margalo. He also engages, however, in tasks that initially appear unsuited to his size: at one point, he even leads an invigorated, authoritative classroom discussion about what it would mean to be Chairman of the World. The at-times random structure of the novel has prompted critics such as Roger Sale to dismiss the book as “terribly bored during many of its episodes” (258); meanwhile, Malcolm Cowley has also observed with disappointment that “the parts of Stuart Little are greater than the whole” (68). Yet, there is a way of understanding how Stuart’s size-based relationship to these episodes creates a narrative of wholeness, one that constantly recalibrates the relationship between scale and value. In the first part of his city adventures, for example, Stuart’s unconventional view of the world brings the loftiness of New York City repeatedly under his microscopic scrutiny. Whether he spends his time examining miniature coins on the bus or admiring model sailboats at Central Park, Stuart’s unique point of view constantly works to transform a sublime (and potentially terrifying) urban encounter into an accessible, aesthetically valuable experience. As the story progresses, Stuart learns to expand his miniature vantage point, adopting the bird’s-eye view of his friend Margalo and traveling through the vast countryside in pursuit of her after she flies away. [End Page 22]

These scenes of transformation and rescaled perspective augment White’s interest in the relationships among childhood, fantasy, and the miniature: as Marah Gubar observes, many scholars automatically tend to associate “the trials and tribulations of miniature heroes with the plight of children, who must also navigate a world built to a scale that exceeds their size” (98–99). But whereas White’s protagonist certainly engages the fantastic literary conventions of miniature heroes such as Tom Thumb or Lemuel Gulliver, Stuart’s expanding desire to explore New York, scour the countryside in search of Margalo, and even become a global leader suggest that White conceives of smallness as much more than a metaphor for childhood tribulations. In what follows, I maintain that Stuart’s smallness, together with his global ambition, actually stands in dialogue with the nonfiction prose that White wrote for the New Yorker and other periodicals during World War II and the immediate postwar period (particularly with respect to the formation of the United Nations). Much like the first half of Stuart’s metropolitan adventures, White’s essays on New York City (including his most famous piece, “Here Is New York”) are centrally concerned with perspective and scale in urban space. In a statement that resonates with White’s representations of the city in Stuart Little, he describes New York as a place that is “characterized by physical majesty,” making it the “loftiest of cities” (White, “Here Is New York” 700). White’s nonfiction writings of this period also share a vocabulary that connects the loftiness of New York with a distinctly global perspective. In his 1940s political essays, White refers to New York City as “a world government on a small scale” and discusses the urgent need to create a federalized, cosmopolitan postwar world government (Wild Flag xii). White’s vision of a global federation certainly informs Stuart’s desire to play-act as Chairman of the World, since he is a tiny leader who respects the value of every perspective regardless of the owner’s size or perceived power (Wild Flag xii).

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 22-38
Launched on MUSE
2016-06-16
Open Access
No
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