by E. B. White
In 1952, Elwyn Brooks (E.B.) White gave his editor the manuscript for what would become one of the best-loved children’s books of all time, Charlotte’s Web. At the time, the decision of the veteran New Yorker essayist to write children’s books must have seemed as inexplicable as his oddball choice of characters. Or as the “small voice. . . rather thin, but pleasant,” White used to introduce the most famous spider in literature, Charlotte. Make that Charlotte A. (for Araneus) Cavatica. The common -- in this case, very uncommon -- barn spider.
Charlotte introduces herself to Wilbur the pig, who lives in farmer Zuckerman’s big barn and longs for a friend. Even though Wilbur doesn’t yet realize his destiny is to be turned into ham and sausages, a creature who kills other creatures for a living initially appalls him.
The little spider does her best to reassure the innocent young pig. “‘I don’t really eat them. I drink them -- drink their blood. I love blood.’ said Charlotte, and her pleasant, thin voice grew even thinner and more pleasant.”
“‘Well,’ (Wilbur) thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty -- everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’”
Before the end of the story, Wilbur will need all of Charlotte’s cleverness (as well as the aid of the amoral barn rat, Templeton) to avoid becoming the centerpiece of the Zuckermans’ holiday dinner. And as Charlotte spins ever more intricate webs to assure, first the inhabitants of the Zuckerman farm, then the entire county, of Wilbur’s intrinsic value, the little pig learns the lessons of a lifetime about friendship, sacrifice, love and death.
The story of the improbable friendship wasn’t White’s first foray into writing for children. Perhaps with his small son, Joel, in mind, he published Stuart Little, the story of a mouse boy born to human parents, in 1945. Although now recognized as a classic, the book received a tepid initial reception. Seven years later, White tested the waters of children’s literature again with Charlotte, Wilbur and Templeton.
“The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off,” White said in a later interview with The Paris Review. “But I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent.”
Prior to Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, White had been better known for his essays and commentary for The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. (He would later become famous in every American writing class for The Elements of Style, co-written with his former college English professor, William Strunk, Jr.)
“Is there any shifting of gears in writing (children’s books)?” The Paris Review interviewers George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther asked White in 1969.
“Anyone who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears,” White replied. “Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. . . In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”
White’s children’s books, including his last, The Trumpet of the Swan, are widely available. For his complete interview with The Paris Review, now introduced with a posthumous tribute from his stepson, Roger Angell, see "The art of the essay,"
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a February of animal adventures with Enid Bagnold’s tribute to her horse-loving childhood, National Velvet.)