How E.B. White wove "Charlotte's Web" Published in 1952, E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" is still one of the most beloved books of all time. Some 200,000 copies are sold every year and it has been translated into more than 30 languages. It repeatedly tops lists compiled by teachers and librarians as one of the best children's books of all time. (Advertising Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection/Bettman/Corbis)
How E.B. White wove "Charlotte's Web"
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Not long before E.B. White started writing his classic children's story "Charlotte's Web" about a spider called Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur, he had a porcine encounter that seems to have deeply affected him. In a 1947 essay for the Atlantic Monthly, he describes several days and nights spent with an ailing pig, one he had originally intended to butcher.
 
"(The pig's) suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness," White wrote. The animal died, but had he recovered it is very doubtful that White would have had the heart to carry out his intentions. "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig," he wrote in the essay.
 
That sentiment became part of the inspiration for Charlotte's Web, published in 1952 and still one of the most beloved books of all time.
 
A book by Michael Sims focuses on White's lifelong connection to animals and nature. "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic" explores White's encounters with frogs and field mice, rivers and lakes, stars and centipedes, to paint a portrait of the writer as a devoted naturalist, the 20th-century heir to Thoreau, perhaps.
 
White once wrote of himself, "This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." Examining White's regard for nature and animals, Sims has unpacked the appeal of Charlotte's Web.
 
Sims originally conceived of his book as a larger project, one that would examine how authors of children's books, such as Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne, had been inspired by nature, but he came to focus entirely on White, because White's preoccupation with the natural world outweighed that of most other authors.
 
The seeds of White's fascination with nature were planted early, according to Sims' account. The youngest of his seven siblings and painfully shy, Elwyn Brooks White was "miserable when more than two people at a time looked at him." Of fragile health, he suffered from hay fever, in particular, which led one doctor to recommend that his parents "douse his head in cold water every morning before breakfast."
 
In search of fresh country air, his family would travel most summers to a rustic lakeside camp in Maine. Young Elwyn also scoured the nearby woods and barn of his boyhood home in Mount Vernon, New York, acquainting himself with farm animals and assorted critters. Gradually, Sims says, Elwyn "became aware that animals were actors themselves, living their own busy lives, not merely background characters in his own little drama."

As an adult, White found communion with only a few select humans, most of them at The New Yorker magazine. These included his wife, Katharine Angell, an editor at the magazine; its founder, Harold Ross; and essayist and fiction writer James Thurber, another colleague. In fact, White's preoccupation with nature and animals became a kind of shield in his adult life.
 
"He hid behind animals," Sims writes.
 
During his college years, White tried to woo one of his Cornell classmates by comparing her eyes to those of the most beautiful creature he could summon: his dog, Mutt.  Years later, when Angell announced she was pregnant with their first child, he was struck speechless, so he wrote a letter to her "from" their pet dog Daisy, describing the excitement and anxiety of the dog's owner.
 
Columns for The New Yorker were White's bread and butter, but he had already written one children's book before Charlotte's Web. Published in 1945, "Stuart Little" is the story of the adventures of a tiny boy who looked like a mouse. White, who once admitted to having "mice in the subconscious," had been fascinated by the creatures for decades and had made them the subject of his childhood writings and stories for family gatherings.
 
Upon publication, Charlotte's Web, a story of a clever spider who saves a pig, had obvious appeal to children, but adults heralded it as well. In her review for The New York Times, Eudora Welty wrote that it was "just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done."
 
White lived to the age of 86. Though admired for his essays, his fiction and his revision of William Strunk's "Elements of Style" (still a widely used guide to writing), it is Charlotte's Web that keeps his name before the public, generation after generation.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How was E.B. White helped by animals?
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COMMENTS (6)
  • zakrym-ste
    2/03/2017 - 01:03 p.m.

    This was really interesting to read. Charlottee's Web was my go to book/movie to keep myself entertained as a kid. It was cool to read the story behind the classic novel.

  • charleyh1-pla
    2/06/2017 - 02:33 p.m.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the summary of E.B. White's life in a timeline storytelling format with connections throughout to the impact of nature in his relationships and writing.

    I loved the multiple sources you used from people impacted by E.B. White's life and stories. I never connected that the author of Charlotte's Web also wrote Stuart Little, which now makes me want to read Stuart Little. Remembering back, I read Charlotte's Web in 4th grade with my class as generations before me also did. The connection of generations through E.B. White's books continues to connect me to my younger cousins as well. Thank you for covering his life and connecting me further to his works.

  • bradl-pla
    2/06/2017 - 09:05 p.m.

    E. B. White was inspired to write Charlotte's web by an encounter he had with a pig he was supposed to slaughter. This encounter began his fascination with nature that only grew as he aged and traveled to places like Maine. White would often use nature as a type of shield to protect him from adulthood, writing to his pregnant wife through the eyes of his dog. White's story embodies that of the American environmentalist. Many Americans believe we need our national parks and natural environment to serve as a catalyst to stories such as White's. To protect America's beauty, citizens must stay engaged in politics and discussion of our parks.

  • braydeng-atk
    2/07/2017 - 12:57 p.m.

    E.B. White was helped a lot by animals. Animals were his past present and future. He shaped his books around animals and his experiences with animals. If it weren't for the animals in his life, he never would have written Charlotte's Web.

  • kaileew-ste
    2/10/2017 - 11:12 a.m.

    Charlotte's Web is a book by E.B. White known by so many children and grownups. There is a story behind how he created this book. White once spoke a speech about how he had a pig that he kept with him but planned to butcher. I remember reading this book as a child and I loved it very much and I enjoy learning about the mechanics behind the book.

  • noahr-ste
    2/28/2017 - 01:05 p.m.

    This is really interesting because Charlotte's Web is a great kids book and definitely is considered a classic. Its great to see the author of the book is as good of a person as the story itself.

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