Written by essayist and literary critic E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web has become White’s most lasting legacy, a window into the bucolic and brutal life of the mythical American farm. Though most readers have not lived on the type of farm White describes in his book, there is something about the world he creates for Charlotte’s Web that still rings both genuine and true. I suspect there is more to it than White’s crisp and carefully chosen prose, or the realistic yet charming illustrations of Garth Williams. Instead, the veracity of Charlotte’s Web has to do with the life and death themes White tackles in his book, as well as the ways in which Charlotte’s Web reflects a world he knew and loved.
Born Elwyn Brooks White on July 11, 1899, White grew up in a prosperous household in Mount Vernon, New York. The son of a piano manufacturer, the family’s home was more suburban than rural. But it still included --- like many households of the time --- a barn with many animals where the young Elwyn liked to spend time. This was the first of two farms that would play a significant role in White’s life. Though White would make a living and his literary reputation as a contributor to The New Yorker, he would buy a second farm with his wife Katherine Angell in 1933. The two would split their lives from then on between the farm in Maine and their literary careers in Manhattan.
Perhaps Sims’ approach overreaches here --- many of the details seem extraneous or over-engineered to relate to White’s later work --- yet details like White’s 1948 essay for The Atlantic titled “Death of a Pig” certainly carry resonance when contrasted to the book and characters he would create several years later. Exploring the uneasy tension of caring for farm animals, White describes one pig he nursed through illness, but ultimately lost to disease before it was ready for slaughter. He writes:
"The loss we felt was not the loss of a ham, but the loss of a 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."
This phrase almost perfectly encapsulates one of the more difficult themes of Charlotte’s Web: that all creatures must die, by nature or violence. It is telling that in a book in which the plot revolves around redeeming the life of one pig, that the most moving death is reserved for one of nature’s most unfairly reviled creatures: a spider. In a letter to his readers, White has said of spiders --- which held for him a life-long fascination --- "Once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else --- the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign."
Yet White does not stoop to sentimentalism even when describing the behaviors of this beloved character. What’s most remarkable about Charlotte’s Web is not the human emotions of his characters, but the accuracy of their animal behaviors. Sims’ book is stuffed with spider-related anecdotes, whether it is White’s careful research for Charlotte’s Web or his removal and transport of a spider egg sack from his Maine farm to his Manhattan apartment so he could watch them hatch. Sims reports that the tiny hatchlings were allowed to weave new homes amidst the brushes and comb of his bedroom bureau until “the maid who came in to clean refused to work around a spider refugee camp.” (p 167)
It is details like these that make Sims' book worth reading. Perhaps most fascinating to me are later chapters about the construction of Charlotte’s Web. Sims clearly had access to White’s notes as well as manuscripts, highlighting texts in which White --- whose guide The Elements of Style remains a staple in writing programs today --- makes minute changes to wording and phrasing while working out the language of his book. (At one point, an early draft of Charlotte’s Web was 134 pages written in longhand that White described as keeping in a carton "as you would a kitten.") (p. 195)
Also of interest in Sims' book are contemporary responses to Charlotte's Web. Mississippi writer Eudora Welty wrote in The New York Review of Books, "What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work, it is just about perfect and just about magical in the way it is done."
This philosophy shaped a great deal of White’s work, and also peppered the advice he’d give to other aspiring writers. In a letter to a young and discouraged writer in 1951, White encouraged her not to give up, saying "remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself." Later, he would write, in 1974 to a Childhood Revisited class, "I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for a youngster." (p. 229)
Sims’ central thesis in The Story of Charlotte’s Web is that part of the reason the book remains a classic is because it reflected White’s life and interests translated into a farmyard novel for readers of all ages. White himself, in a legendary letter to his readers that’s still made available on the publisher’s website, wrote:
Are my stories true, you ask? No, they are imaginary tales, containing fantastic characters and events. In real life, a family doesn't have a child who looks like a mouse; in real life, a spider doesn't spin words in her web. In real life, a swan doesn't blow a trumpet. But real life is only one kind of life -- there is also the life of the imagination. And although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too -- truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act.
For me, Charlotte is still one of the most intelligent and literate animal characters ever created. Her story, about the fictional friendship between pig and spider, is about the way words can literally save a life. This is encouragement for all, no matter how small, who wonder if their presence or voice in the world matters. Her epitaph, which ends the book, is one any of us would be honored to have, and is reminiscent of something White’s wife --- herself an accomplished editor and writer --- once said of her husband: "It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
When was the last time you read Charlotte's Web or had it read to you? What are your favorite books that reflect animal lives?
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