As someone who farmed throughout his life, E.B. White understood that death is an inevitable part of life on a farm. Animals are born, raised, and then slaughtered for food.
Still, such inevitability always bothered White, who felt that he was betraying the trust that animals placed in him. As he wrote: “The duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me.”
Being a writer, White naturally transformed his feelings into words. The result was Charlotte's Web, a novel about how a word-writing spider named Charlotte saves the life of a pig, and one of the greatest children's novels ever written.
“The idea ... came to me one day when I was on my way down through the orchard carrying a pail of slops to my pig,” White once explained. “I had made up my mind to write a children's book about animals, and I needed a way to save a pig's life, and I had been watching a large spider in the backhouse, and what with one thing and another, the idea came to me.”
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Charlotte's Web has just been reissued in a lovely retrospective edition by HarperCollins. The blue cloth-covered volume, which costs $29.95, features an afterword by noted children's book critic Peter Neumeyer. In addition, artist Garth Williams' original black-and-white illustrations have been nicely “colorized” by Rosemary Wells, herself a talented children's book illustrator and author.
But it's the paperback edition of Charlotte's Web, which costs $6.99, that has set publishing records over the years. Although the Harry Potter books are closing in, White's book remains the best-selling children's paperback novel, according to children's book expert Anita Silvey.
It's easy to understand why Charlotte's Web is so beloved, Silvey added.
“It deals with the seasons, with death and life, in such a beautiful and profound way. And he makes you care about every character, from a girl who is easy to care about, to a spider who is not so easy to care about. In fact, Charlotte steals the show in many ways,” Silvey said.
“The other thing that is so remarkable is that every sentence is wonderful, every chapter well-conceived. White was at the height of his powers as a writer. When I am teaching writing, I can open Charlotte's Web at any page and show how this is brilliant writing.”
White, who made a national name for himself as a writer for The New Yorker in the 1930s and '40s, apparently began writing Charlotte's Web in 1950, five years after he published his first children's novel, Stuart Little. That book had sold 100,000 copies in its first year, despite the scathing criticism of Anne Carroll Moore, a children's librarian who wielded tremendous power and influence in the children's publishing world.
White, then 51, finished the first draft of Charlotte's Web in January, 1951. He wrote to Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary Harper's children's book editor, that he had finished another children's book but had “put it away for a while to ripen (let the body heat out of it.)”
A year later, in the spring of 1952, Nordstrom was at her desk at Harper's when White arrived and told her he had brought the new manuscript. Writing about it years later, Nordstrom recalled: “I hadn't even known he was close to finishing a second book, and I was overwhelmed. Thinking immediately that it was already pretty late to get it illustrated and bound for the fall list, I said, `Have you given me a carbon copy too, so I can rush it off to Garth [Williams]?'
“`No,' he said, `this is the only copy; I didn't make a carbon copy.' And he gave me the only copy in existence of Charlotte's Web, got back on the elevator, and left.”
Not even daring to take the manuscript home for fear of losing it on the train, Nordstrom read it through that afternoon. And she knew right away that “this was one of the great ones.” In fact, Nordstrom - known for her honest appraisals of manuscripts - basically felt that there was nothing she could do to improve the book, other than try to convince White to rename the next-to-the-last chapter.
White originally had called it “The Death of Charlotte.” But Nordstrom, more knowledgeable than White about the taboo against death in children's books at the time, urged him to come up with a new chapter title. As Neumayer points out in his essay in the retrospective edition, Nordstrom also felt that “the point at the end was not so much about death but about new life bursting from the old.” So White called the chapter “Last Day” instead.
When Charlotte's Web was published in the fall of 1952, reviewers were nearly unanimous in their praise.
P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins novels, said: “Such tangible magic is the proper element of childhood and any grown-up who can still dip into it - even with so much as a toe - is certain of at least dying young even if he lives to be 90.”
Eudora Welty, herself much lionized in the literary world, stated: “As a piece of work, it is just about perfect.”
There was, however, one reviewer who absolutely loathed Charlotte's Web - Moore, the influential librarian. “I may as well confess that I find E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, illustrated by Garth Williams, hard to take from so masterly a hand,” Moore wrote in her children's book review column.
Nordstrom wrote White with a tart response to Moore's criticisms: “Well, Eudora Welty said the book was perfect for anyone over eight or under eighty, and that leaves Miss Moore out as she is a girl of eight-two.''
Such was Moore's power among her fellow librarians, however, that Charlotte's Web won only a Newbery Honor, a second-place honor in the children's book world. The Newbery Medal committee bestowed the top prize on Ann Nolan Clark's Secret of the Andes, a book of which Silvey says: “Few have ever read it - or ever gotten very far in it.”
“It's one of the great injustices,” Silvey added. “Of course, popularity is not what determines a Newbery Medal winner, but it's rare when you have that quality of writing in a book that has such appeal to children.”
White, who died in 1985, remained typically modest about his success as a children's writer (he eventually wrote a third children's novel, The Trumpet of the Swan.)
“Although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too - truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act.”