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.