Bird of America

In fourth grade, my Language Arts teacher read us The Trumpet of the Swan, a children’s novel by acclaimed American writer E. B. White.

The story opens when Montana boy Sam Beaver, on vacation in a remote part of Canada, discovers a nesting pair of swans. The boy saves the female swan—the pen—from a fox and becomes a trusted observer of the pair and their cygnets. The pen and cob soon discover that one of their newly hatched swans, Louis, cannot beep or honk. Louis (pronounced LOO-ee, like Louis Armstrong) proves himself a strong swimmer and flyer, but his parents worry that his inability to trumpet will harm his chances when it comes time to find a mate.

When he grows older, Louis’s desire to communicate drives him to seek out Sam Beaver, who brings the swan to school. Louis learns to read and write and thenceforth carries a slate and chalk around his neck. But this does not help him with other (non-writing, non-reading) swans, especially when young Louis falls in love with a pen named Serena.

The cob determines to help his son by stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings. The debt weighs heavily on the cob, and Louis, with Sam’s help again, finds a job playing Taps and Reveille at Sam’s summer camp. Louis goes on to earn more money—and fame—playing trumpet for the swan boats in Boston, and in a club in Philadelphia.

Gigging proves lonely for Louis, but soon fate and high winds blow Serena into back into Louis’s life. She awakens after her journey to the sound of Louis playing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” White writes, “It was love at long last for Louis; it was love at first sight for Serena.”

Louis wins the girl with his hard-earned skills. And after misadventures with the zookeepers, the swans fly back to Montana, where they give Louis’s father the money and the cob is able to discharge his debt.

White is best known for such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945). But he is also an important figure in American letters; he wrote the essay “Here Is New York,” was the White of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. In a lot of ways, White has shaped what American literature is now.

Trumpet is a later work, written in 1970. Key facets of the novel have aged badly.

Trumpet is a later work, written in 1970. Key facets of the novel have aged badly. Louis himself and other characters refer to his disability in ways that are jarring and possibility upsetting to modern readers, and White frames Louis’s condition of “being without a voice” as a problem to be “overcome at last.” Sam Beaver is probably supposed have Native American blood, but the book never says outright that Sam is not white. It mentions several times that he is “like an Indian,” in appearance, in habit, in the way he walks by putting one foot in front of the other. Sam is also imbued with almost magical properties of being able to communicate with birds and animals, and always having solutions for Louis and his family when the need arises.

I suspect that my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had an agenda when she selected The Trumpet of the Swan to read to our class.

Fourth grade was the year that I left my English-language school and entered a French immersion program. Twelve—maybe thirteen—of us primarily Anglophone children went from being educated in one language to being thoroughly confused in another. For the first few weeks, we understood almost nothing that our teachers said to us: We didn’t know when we were being told to stand up. We couldn’t understand when we were asked sit down. Nevertheless, science and math took place in French. For music, we sang along to French records. Monsieur Campbell, who also taught an aerobics class in downtown Winnipeg, was our PE teacher. The only class that wasn’t conducted in French was Language Arts—English. It was such a relief to be able to do little things like read and speak.

Perhaps we did identify with Louis—I’m sure many of us did. But we didn’t come from nothing. Louis’s situation was imperfectly mapped onto ours; it allowed us to identify with the underdog—underbird?—without actually having to truly experience hardship.

And maybe Mrs. Stephenson chose to read The Trumpet of the Swan because it was a bit like how we were living in our first weeks of French immersion. Like Louis, we were unable to construct simple sentences, to make ourselves understood. We were unable to communicate.

But—that wasn’t the full story, was it? The difference was that we had our voices, and our teachers did actually understand English, they just chose not to speak it so that we could learn French. And we could talk to each other in English during recess or when the teacher wasn’t listening. We were not alone.

Perhaps we did identify with Louis—I’m sure many of us did. But we didn’t come from nothing. Louis’s situation was imperfectly mapped onto ours; it allowed us to identify with the underdog—underbird?—without actually having to truly experience hardship. We were in an environment engineered to make us helpless for a time, but which was ultimately about providing us with more tools, another language, more power.

After reading Trumpet, I thought about a passage that poet Patricia Lockwood tweeted about from Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot. Batuman writes:

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, a Disney movie about a puny, weird looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that the kids in the class, even the bullies… were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors… But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know?… Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

Lockwood was struck with it because, she notes, at this point in history, everyone thinks they’re the underdog. The current US administration is composed of billionaires who complain of being vilified by media and who tell themselves that they are being attacked by poor people, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQIA, and all combinations thereof.

And I realize that in the story I just recounted about starting French immersion, I elided facts and identities. I wrote as if my class was uniform in our confusion, in being English speakers. We weren’t the same. A couple of kids knew some French. And maybe some of us didn’t care or weren’t listening as avidly to the story about the musical swan. At least one girl in our class was First Nations, and I wonder what the Sam Beaver sections of the story meant to her—if anything. As I reflect on the differences among my classmates, I find that I can’t—shouldn’t—speak for who we might have been and our what our reactions were.

All I know is that I was eager to map myself onto Louis’s narrative.

It is seductive, this story of the underdog, but one key to its appeal is that fact that Louis propels himself upward and onward. It’s part of American mythology to imagine oneself starting off with nothing except maybe some bootstraps and a pair of biceps with which to pull oneself up. I was not even American, and I found myself drawn to it.

Adding to its power is the fact that the writer behind Louis’s story is E. B. White, shaper of American discourse. He writes of Louis’s journey:

Almost anybody can find Philadelphia who tries. Louis simply rose into the air with all his things around his neck, and when he was about a thousand feet high, he followed the railroad tracks to Providence, New London, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Cos Cob, Greenwich, Port Chester, Rye, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Pelham, Mount Vernon, and the Bronx. When he saw the Empire State Building, he veered off to the right.

In passages like these, we can hear the voice of the author of “Here Is New York.” Louis is following well-worn American paths and White sweeps us along, allowing us to imagine traveling upward with Louis. But we don’t all begin at the same geographic points, and we don’t start out with the same amount of nothing.

But we don’t all begin at the same geographic points, and we don’t start out with the same amount of nothing.

At the end, with all their debts paid off, it would seem that Louis’s dealings with the world of money—and people—are done. Sam’s father asks him if he hears from Louis anymore.

“No,” replied Sam. “He doesn’t write anymore. He ran out of postage stamps and he has no money to buy stamps with.”

That’s not quite the truth.

Louis and Serena return year after year to the old campground, to the swan boats of Boston to play for a day, and to Philadelphia to visit the zoo and Sam, who has become a zookeeper there. At times, they deposit one of their needier cygnets there. Ostensibly, they have no need of money or people—they’re animals. Animals don’t need money. Unless they are not quite animals but stand-ins for something else; unless, as this whole story seems to indicate, they do.

Louis has so much at the end, and he is generous with his time and skills. He can afford it.

top photo: “swan,” flickr / jans canon