A certain school of thought in the study of animals holds that it’s an insult to all concerned to give them human qualities—the lion courage, for instance, or the hyena cunning. Considering that most humans are merely chimps with guns, that seems a reasonable objection to the practice of anthropomorphism, but it cuts rather deeply at the possibilities of literature, from a good moral-laden Aesopian fable down to the ultramodern pleasures of Frankenweenie.
Though an inveterate collector of notes taped up to every surface in sight, Elwyn Brooks White must not have received the memo nixing human qualities in animals. His beloved book Charlotte’s Web, which turns 60 this year, is full of the interplay of humanlike animals—and sometimes animalian humans—the wisest and best of whom is a barn spider, Araneus cavaticus, named Charlotte.
The book opens on a horrific note that must have sent eyes opening wide way back in the innocent day, with a tiny piglet named Wilbur seemingly destined to become a can of deviled ham until saved by proverbial farmer’s daughter Fern Arable. (Farmer. Arable. No subtlety in White.) Fern is a vision of civilization in a place studded with hooks and scythes and guns, and Wilbur grows happily beyond runtdom. It is in his comfy barn that he becomes acquainted with Charlotte, who, of course, talks.
Charlotte will soon prove herself the best friend a pig could have, though she’s not so very pacific herself. So discovers a fly that unhappily wanders into her eponymous web. “Of course, I don’t really eat them,” proffers Charlotte. “I drink them—drink their blood. I love blood.” (Take that, Bram Stoker!) White punctuates his pleasant story with more than a little carnage, but also with some gently introduced science calculated to convert an arachnophobe into an arachnophile. Careful readers will know, for instance, that a spider’s leg has seven sections: “the coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the patella, the tibia, the metatarsus, and the tarsus.”
White was a pensive man who fled as often as he could from New York to a Maine farm, equipped with a barn, pigs and abundant spiders. He was also a superb naturalist, and he took to heart instructions from a 19th-century New England cleric: “The modern nature writer...must collect his facts, at first hand if possible, and then he must interpret the facts as they appeal to his own head and heart in the light of all the circumstances that surround them.” That cleric added that it would be the facts of the story that would eventually turn a child’s interest to science—thus those seven sections of a spider’s leg—but of course the story mattered, too. White brooded about that as well, confessing, as Michael Sims notes in his excellent book The Story of Charlotte’s Web (Walker, 2011), “My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness.”
White shunned whimsy and cuteness, turning in a story with a hauntingly sad ending—and against all advice from his editor at that. It worked, and his creation, Charlotte’s Web, remains a beloved classic of children’s literature today.