Monday, September 17, 2012


Charlotte's Web, Sixty Years On

This fall marks the 60th anniversary of E.B. White's masterpiece (depending, of course, on how you feel about The Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little, The Elements of Style, or the delightful Is Sex Necessary?), and it is still as lovely as you remember.

Let's briefly revisit White's 1948 Atlantic article (The Death of a Pig), and dream of a world in which all of us can write prose like this:

It was a Saturday morning. The thicket in which I found the gravediggers at work was dark and warm, the sky overcast. Here, among alders and young hackmatacks, at the foot of the apple tree, Howard had dug a beautiful hole, five feet long, three feet wide, three feet deep. He was standing in it, removing the last spadefuls of earth while Fred patrolled the brink in simple but impressive circles, disturbing the loose earth of the mound so that it trickled back in. There had been no rain in weeks and the soil, even three feet down, was dry and powdery. As I stood and stared, an enormous earthworm which had been partially exposed by the spade at the bottom dug itself deeper and made a slow withdrawal, seeking even remoter moistures at even lonelier depths. And just as Howard stepped out and rested his spade against the tree and lit a cigarette, a small green apple separated itself from a branch overhead and fell into the hole. Everything about this last scene seemed overwritten – the dismal sky, the shabby woods, the imminence of rain, the worm (legendary bedfellow of the dead), the apple (conventional garnish of a pig).

Not to overwhelm you with further tasks on a Monday morning, but Roger Angell, White's stepson, shares his own memories here, and you won't regret it.

42 Comments / Post A Comment

The Lady of Shalott

Charlotte's Web is the reason I secretly want to name a daughter Fern. (At least a middle name! Come on! Pretty.)


@The Lady of Shalott You are not alone!


@The Lady of Shalott Oh me too, and it was my great-grandmother's name so I could even justify it as a family thing, even if I only met her twice.


@The Lady of Shalott
I know I'm super late to the party here, but I was on vacation this week! This book is the reason I want to name a daughter Charlotte, but Fern is lovely, too.


i would like more it was great!!@l


Interesting how themes of writing technique echo in his fiction and non-fiction. A pig whose livelihood depends on the loquaciousness of a spider. A deaf swan whose only means of expressing himself is writing on a chalkboard. You can find fault in The Elements of Style—it's overly prescriptive, and I say this as an annoyingly staunch linguistic prescriptivist—but it's obvious the man loved language.


I loved Trumpet so very, very much, partly because I grew up in MA. But mostly because that book is brilliant and sweet.



They still have me in their sway.


@PatatasBravas yeah, I like Charlotte's Web and all, but The Trumpet of the Swan is where it's at.

oh! valencia

@PatatasBravas I think I only read Charlotte's Web once, but I read the Trumpet of the Swan over and over and over again.


Nope, not crying at work. NOPE.


@anachronistique Yeah, I'm not reading any of these articles until later, when I have time to sob uncontrollably.


@Ophelia Better not-crying at work than reading about cuckolding fetishes or Cosmo editors, I think.


We have the audiobook of White himself reading Charlotte's Web, with the soft Maine accent and everything. It's wonderful. The only thing it's missing is Garth Williams' illustrations. He deserves his own gushing tribute, because man, his drawings are spectacular.


@Bittersweet Case in point, this drawing by Williams from Miss Bianca, by Margery Sharp. Why oh why aren't those books in print?


@Bittersweet If there were a Garth Williams tribute I would just roll all over the comments section, shrieking incoherently. A Cricket in Times Square!


CHARLOTTE'S WEB! Augh, my first tearjerker. I will always love you, Charlotte. You and your messages.


Hold on now. You're telling me EB White is a man? I'm having a reverse JK Rowling here. I have spent the last four decades thinking EB White is a woman. I don't know what to do with this information. Did everyone in America know this? (I'm in Britain oh and my name is Charlott so if anyone should have known I should). Anything else I should know?


@dontannoyme Bruce Willis is dead the whole time.


@dontannoyme Rosebud was a sled.


@dontannoyme The call is coming from inside the house.


@dontannoyme Snape kills Dumbledore.


@dontannoyme Vader is the father.


@dontannoyme I was thinking that too, as I read this, but I think I was getting mixed up with E. Nesbit. (I am also in Britain.)


@Verity For some reason I always think that Rudyard Kipling is a woman.


@dontannoyme Dear myself. Please learn to write your own name - it's Charlotte. And please also pay attention to the genders of authors. Some very useful tips here hairpinners. Thanks for the headsups.


In college my friend and I went to a Wilco concert and stayed after to get autographs but were totally unprepared so my friend fished "Is Sex Necessary?" out of her bag and they all signed it YES!

ann aunamis

How did I never realize that it's the same EB White that wrote Elements of Style as Charlotte's Web?


@ann aunamis RIGHT? I feel like such a chowder-head.


@Yarnybarny ;_; Whoa.

Carrie W.

Two summers ago I did a read-aloud of Charlotte's Web for my kids. It went great. The next book I chose was Little House in the Big Woods. The first chapter? All about how to kill a pig, eat fried pig's tail and play with a bladder balloon. Whoops.

oh! valencia

@Carrie W. Hahaha oh nooo!


I just realized that that illustration is probably why I have been holding onto a dream of having a wee pig as a pet. (A couple years ago I finally realized that there are no real "wee pigs" and that all pigs get big and it kind of broke my heart. I WANT A LITTLE WEE PIG, DAMMIT.)


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher There is such a thing! Mini-pigs. A friend of mine who bartends has dubbed the tip jar her mini-pig fund. Although according to the wikipedia page they're bred specifically to be pets by combining the runts of litters, which I didn't know and which seems kind of sad.


@MissHalfway I have seen these mini-pigs! But yes, I share your concerns about health issues--and apparently it's not an exact science, and sometimes you buy a bebe mini-pig and then it turns into an adult big-pig. :(

de Pizan

This is from the foreword by Kate DiCamillo in the 60th anniversary edition, and it is simply beautiful:
"Things didn’t turn out well.
But they also did turn out well.
And that, for me, is the crux of the miracle of this book: within the confines of its pages, something terrible, something unbearable, happens. And yet, we bear this unbearable thing. And in the end, we even rejoice.
E.B. White said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
White loved barns and pastures, dumps and fair grounds, ponds and kitchens. He loved pigs and sheep and geese and spiders. He loved rain and, harnesses, pitchforks, springtime, fall. He loved spiderwebs, monkey wrenches, Ferris wheels.
Every word of Charlotte’s Web bears the full weight of White’s love for the people, seasons, animals, and arachnids of this world. And every word of the book shows us how we can bear the triumphs and despairs, the wonders and the heartbreaks, the small and large glories and tragedies of being here.
We can bear it by loving it all.
These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world….Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur–this lovely world, these precious days….
This is Charlotte’s promise to Wilbur.
It is also E.B. White’s promise to his reader: things will continue, life will go on. It will be beautiful, astonishing, heartbreaking. And as long as you keep your eyes and heart open to the wonder of it, as long as you love, it will be okay."


@de Pizan Wow, thanks for posting this.


STUART LITTLE FOREVER! The weirdness. It was so weird. I can't not love it. (The movie, of course, is less weird. Meh.)

Tweedle Dumb

It's not available on Kindle :( None of EB White's books are.

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