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Lauren F. Winner

Spinning a Tale

The unobtrusive perfection of Charlotte's Web.

"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." Those are the concluding sentences of E.B. White's Newberry Award-winning, much-beloved children's novel, Charlotte's Web. Their unobtrusive perfection exemplifies the writerly virtues that White and his coauthor, William Strunk, taught in The Elements of Style. Even so, at first glance, the enduring fame of White's books for children seems incongruous. After all, White was best known to several generations of readers as The New Yorker's most winsome essayist. A Cornell alum, he had begun writing for the self-consciously urbane magazine in 1925—his first piece was a lighthearted satire about a copywriter's gearing up for a spring ad campaign—and no one was more influential shaping its tone and outlook than White, who, among other things, oversaw the "Talk of the Town Section," wrote taglines for many of the heralded New Yorker cartoons, and contributed innumerable essays and poems to the magazine over the years.

White would continue to write for The New Yorker for the rest of his life, but in 1938 he made two moves: he started contributing regularly to Harper's, placing 55 essays there between 1938 and 1943 (at which point he resumed more-or-less-full-time writing for The New Yorker); and he left Manhattan for a farm in Maine. And it was on the farm that he took up children's writing. Stuart Little, the story of a mouse born to human parents, was published in 1945. Four years later, White began Charlotte's Web.

The outlines of the story are fairly simple: Fern Arable is an eight-year-old farm girl whose daddy raises pigs. One day, a new litter of piglets arrives, all perfect and pink and healthy except for one, who is small and weak. Papa Arable, sensible man that he is, prepares to kill the runt, but Fern begs that Papa spare the piglet's life. (Opponents of Peter Singer might want to note Fern's speech: "The pig couldn't help being born small, could it?" she demands. "If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me? … This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.") Papa relents. If she is willing to care for the piglet, he can live. Fern, rejoicing, christens him Wilbur.

That might have been, actually, the end of the book. The story thus far has all the components that middle-school English teachers demand: introduction, rising tension, climax, dénouement. But of course Fern and Wilbur's story constitutes only the first two chapters of the novel. In fact, Fern's opening scene didn't appear in White's first drafts. He had a very hard time coming up with a good beginning to the book. In one version, the novel started with Charlotte the spider. In another draft, White led with Wilbur, a "small, nicely-behaved pig living in a manure pile in the cellar of a barn." A third draft opened with a poetic ode to life in the barn. A fourth version began with the farmer walking out to the hoghouse at midnight, counting the litter of newborn pigs. Only after many such false starts did White latch onto Fern—and one of the best opening lines in American fiction: "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

But no matter how long it took White to nail the beginning of Charlotte's Web, the narrative arc of those first two Fern-and-Wilbur chapters is crucial to the book. The opening scene encapsulates in miniature the action at the heart of the novel: the threat to Wilbur's life and his rescue by a loving female.

So Fern gets to keep Wilbur. Under her tender nurture, he grows into a fine, big pig—and Papa Arable, seeing that Fern can no longer adequately take care of him, insists she deliver Wilbur to the Zuckermans' farm. Once there, Wilbur learns the horrifying news that he is being fattened up because the Zuckermans plan to slaughter him. Wilbur panics. He doesn't want to die. He wants somebody to save him. And somebody does: a spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica. (Araneus cavaticus is the Latin name for the common barn spider. The spiders in the Araneidae family spin the orb-shaped webs you see on posters at Halloween time.)

Charlotte, who lives in the Zuckermans' barn, befriends Wilbur and declares that she will save him. Then the rub comes—she has to figure out how to save Wilbur. Charlotte thinks on it and thinks on it, confident that, in point of fact, fooling the humans won't be that hard. She decides to use her weaving skill and her tremendous vocabulary to trick the Zuckermans into thinking that Wilbur is super-duper-special. (Or perhaps trick is not the right word. Maybe Charlotte is not tricking the human beings, but just helping them to see something they ordinarily wouldn't notice.)

Charlotte begins to weave messages about Wilbur into her web. The first message is simple, but startling nonetheless: when the Zuckermans head into the barn one morning they see the words "Some Pig!" embroidered into the spider's web. The human beings, of course, fall for Charlotte's cunning in a second. The whole town turns out to see this special pig, and only Mrs. Zuckerman thinks to suggest that perhaps it is not the pig, but the spider, who is extraordinary.

Charlotte knows that one slogan is not enough, so she gathers together all the barnyard animals for a brainstorming session. "I called this meeting in order to get suggestions," says Charlotte. "I need new ideas for the web. People are already getting sick of reading 'Some Pig!' If anybody can think of another message, or remark, I'll be glad to weave it into the web. Any suggestions for a new slogan?" A lamb suggests "Pig Supreme," but Charlotte says that sounds too much like "a rich dessert." When the goose offers "terrific," Charlotte decides that's a keeper, though she needs someone to spell it for her. (Wilbur protests that he is not terrific, and Charlotte says that doesn't matter—most people believe anything they read.)

Templeton the rat is drafted to go through the trash heap, hunting for scraps of paper with compelling phrases—he turns up a soap box emblazoned with the phrase "with new radiant action." (The barnyard community, it turns out, is undertaking something of an advertising campaign—shades of that first piece White wrote for The New Yorker.) Templeton also produces a newspaper clipping with the word "humble." That completes Charlotte's oeuvre. Like a movie marquee, her web proclaims that Wilbur is terrific, radiant, and, finally, humble. And that is enough to save him from the slaughterhouse. Not only do the Zuckermans determine to keep Wilbur alive, they are going to display him at the county fair.

During her campaign, Charlotte begins to flag. She is tired. The weaving seems to be wearing her out. But she pushes on, and eventually her efforts come to fruition. The fair is a moment of triumph—but also of sadness. Charlotte won't be retuning to the barn. She lays a sack of eggs, and then stays at the fairground to die, alone. Wilbur is devastated. When he realizes he can't stay to attend Charlotte's death, he decides at least to get her egg-sack back to the barn. Unable to carry the sack himself, Wilbur recruits Templeton to help out. "Use extreme care!" he said. "I don't want a single one of those eggs harmed."

Back at the barn, Wilbur guards the eggs vigilantly, waiting and watching, until one day Charlotte's 514 children emerge. They hang around (literally) for a few days and then, one morning, they begin to fly off:

"Wait a minute!" screamed Wilbur. "Where do you think you're going?" … Wilbur was frantic. Charlotte's babies were disappearing at a great rate.

(I have to admit, this scene moves me to tears every time I read it.) One baby spider stops to explain that they're moving on the warm updraft, following the wind wherever it takes them. Wilbur, beside himself with grief, cries himself to sleep. He is still moping around the next day when he hears a small voice shouting "Salutations! I'm up here!" Wilbur looks up. Three of the babies—Joy, Aranea, and Nellie—have decided they like Wilbur and they like the barn, and they are staying.

And that brings us back to the famous last lines of the book. Wilbur, White tells us, lived a long and happy life in the barn. He loved Charlotte's children and grandchildren, although they never took the place of Charlotte in his heart. For "it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

That Charlotte is a good friend is pretty obvious. She is a friend who sacrificially loves Wilbur. She saves his life even though spinning all those words in her web wears her out and probably hastens her death.

But she is also a good writer. Curious, that, for Charlotte seems to suffer from writer's block. After her first web-message, "Some Pig," Charlotte seemingly can't generate the, um, text-messages by herself. "Terrific," "radiant," and "humble" are all words suggested by her barnyard neighbors. And, as critic John Griffith has pointed out, Charlotte never wrote anything else: "Her entire literary canon consists of … five famous words in her web." So, in what sense is she a good writer?

For starters, in E. B. White's sense: White, as The Elements of Style makes certain, valued simplicity, clarity, and economy of words above any rococo flourishes. (If you remember only one line from The Elements of Style, it should be "Omit needless words." Or maybe "Make every word tell.")

But Charlotte is a good writer in another sense, too. She models the individual focus that writing requires, and she shows the vital role that community plays in writing.

Writing is typically regarded as the most solitary of activities. (Take me, right now: I am typing these words alone in my house, wearing my pajamas and earplugs. A solitary undertaking if ever there was one.) And Charlotte, of course, does the actual weaving herself. She must focus her whole being on the mechanics of writing the words in her web. White devotes an entire paragraph to her creation of an "R" in "TERRIFIC": "Now for the R! Up we go! Attach! Descend! Pay out line!" Children—at least those who, in this computer era, are still schooled in cursive writing—will relate to Charlotte's focus: Learning how to make an R is no small thing. And grown-up writers will relate, too, thinking not so much about the struggle to shape a letter but rather about the struggle to shape a text. The words literally come out of Charlotte's body—a jarring and apt summary of how it feels, sometimes, to write.

And yet it would be sheer hubris for me to imagine that my writing starts when I sit down at the computer and stops when I press the save key. To the contrary, almost everything I do feeds the act of writing (for good and for ill). White knew this. He knew that the act of writing wasn't encompassed by what he did at his desk in Maine. Nor is Charlotte's writing encompassed by her costly weaving. Her writing begins when she calls all the animals together for a brainstorming session. They come up with the web-content together.

One does wonder if Charlotte really needs the input of the other animals. She has the best vocabulary on the block—she regularly peppers her speech with words like languishing and magnum opus. Perhaps she calls her barnyard meeting not just because writing can be a communal task, but because self-sacrificial love is, too. Charlotte calls the meeting, perhaps, not because she needs help with diction, but because she wants to include the rest of the animals in her heroic saving of Wilbur.

And so they should be, for ultimately all the love and thought and savvy that goes into Charlotte's weaving is undertaken by the entire barn. And that, too, is an apt summary of how it is to write.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin/Random House) and, most recently, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).

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