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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?" ...

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