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Why E.B. White Wrote Charlotte's Web

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The assigned reading this week for a class I’m talking at Johns Hopkins University was this article from Brain Pickings on why the legendary writer E.B. White wrote the famed children’s book “Charlotte’s Web.”

It turns out, a few weeks before the book’s release, its publisher expressed unease about the story’s protagonist being a spider. So they asked White to explain his choice.

And, in a lovely written letter back to them via his editor, White did. Well, sort of.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times 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. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else — the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

Here, here, Mr. White.

Read more from the Brain Pickings article here.

What Else I Read This Week

Howard Lindzon’s blog. A usual stop.

What Makes a Children’s Book Good? The New Yorker. Are you writing for parents or kids? Or both?

What I Wrote or Edited This Week

Will UMBC Men’s Basketball Make March Madness Happen Again? The Retrievers — remember them, America? — have eyes on another mad March. I went to the UMBC-Vermont game on Thursday night.

Every Stick Has a Story. With it being Black History Month, US Lacrosse Magazine re-posted a story, sponsored by Epoch Lacrosse, on Lucien Alexis, who broke ground as a black man on Harvard’s men’s lacrosse team in the 1940s.

The Joy and the Challenge of Swearing Off Social Media. I tried, but as soon as I needed to go on Twitter to find something related to writing the above UMBC basketball story, I got hooked in. As with many other things, quitting cold turkey is hard. Smartly managing use is probably more realistic.

Why 7th-Place Trophies Suck — In Sports and Investing. J.C. Parets is great market technician and storyteller.

I’m continuing to edit a memoir for one of the subjects of a previous magazine article I wrote. I’m excited about it.

What I Watched This Week

A lot of golf from the WGC-Mexico, and… “The Momentum Generation,” on HBO. A coming-of-age story of a groundbreaking class of surfers. Kelly Slater et al. are featured. Not amazing, and slow at some points, but the start and the finish make it worth it.

Until next time.