How E.B. White wove "Charlotte's Web"
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 an 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. It was 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 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. It was published in 1952. It remains 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. It paints a portrait of the writer as a devoted naturalist.
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 unpacked the appeal of Charlotte's Web.
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." He suffered from hay fever as a child. That 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. He would acquaint 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 worked at The New Yorker magazine. His co-workers included his wife, Katharine Angell, an editor at the magazine. 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. That was 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. The letter described 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. That was Stuart Little. It was published in 1945.
Stuart Little is the story of the adventures of a tiny boy who looked like a mouse. White once admitted to having "mice in the subconscious." He had been fascinated by the creatures for decades. He had made them the subject of his childhood writings and stories for family gatherings.
Charlotte's Web is a story of a clever spider who saves a pig. It had obvious appeal to children. 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. But it is Charlotte's Web that keeps his name before the public, generation after generation.