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. 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 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. It was published in 1952 and is 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. 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 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, 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 worked 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. 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. 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. He 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. 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?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (54)
  • rodolfoc-pel
    2/06/2017 - 11:34 a.m.

    E.B. White found in animals and in nature what he did not find in humans. He had a better communication with animals. White was a man of nature, he loved being outdoors. Like Sims said, "he hid behind animals," so in some he found refuge in the animals and in nature.

  • hannaht-pel
    2/06/2017 - 12:52 p.m.

    E.B. White viewed animals as friends and started treating them with more respect.

  • shawnn-pel
    2/06/2017 - 12:52 p.m.

    it changed his life and made him a better person.

  • elenas-pel
    2/06/2017 - 12:53 p.m.

    from the description of his childhood, it seemed EB White may have had a small amount of social anxiety that was calmed by the animals

  • jessicar-pel
    2/06/2017 - 12:56 p.m.

    E.B White was helped by animals because they served him as a way to express his feelings

  • kayleeh-pel
    2/06/2017 - 12:58 p.m.

    He can communicate better with animals and they show him how they should be treated.

  • danielc1-pel
    2/06/2017 - 01:04 p.m.

    It helped him communicate with human beings as animals do.

  • kevinl-pel
    2/07/2017 - 09:07 a.m.

    He loved and was inspired by animals

  • juliamc-pel
    2/07/2017 - 09:09 a.m.

    E.B White was helped by animals by them being a shield in his adult life, they also just about made up his whole career.

  • joshuag-pel
    2/07/2017 - 09:20 a.m.

    he help make him realize that all animals should be treated better

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