Blog FROM THE VAULT: White’s Web, An Appreciation

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E. B. White made his reputation during the 1920s as a lead writer for a smart new magazine called The New Yorker. Impelled by the moral gravity of World War II, White altered his focus as a writer during the 1940s in a series of New Yorker editorials urging the creation of “government on a higher level.” In April 1945, as preparations continued for the publication that fall of his first book for children, Stuart Little, White covered the founding of the United Nations for the magazine and reported on the UN’s early and distressingly fractious deliberations.

Humbled by the momentousness of his new theme and none too sure of his ability to do it justice, White in the fall of 1947 returned to writing about personal matters, chronicling, in a tragicomic essay called “The Death of a Pig,” his failed attempt to keep alive an ailing farm animal in his care in Maine. Left unstated was a question that must have haunted the writer just then: how could a man incapable of saving a pig presume to know much about saving the world? Not long afterward, he turned his thoughts to the writing of a second story addressed primarily to children.

In writing Charlotte’s Web, White deliberately set out to accomplish in fiction what he had not been able to do a few years earlier in fact: save the life of an innocent animal. But he also fashioned a larger story about life, death, friendship, the power of language, and “the glory of everything.” Its subtlest turn of events comes in Chapter XII, “The Meeting,” when Charlotte calls the barnyard together for suggestions for new words to write in the web. Why, a reader might ask, would a verbal wonder such as that spider possibly need the other animals’ help? The most plausible answer is that she doesn’t, really, but that, looking ahead, Charlotte realizes the need for the animals to learn to plan for their common survival. If quarreling diplomats could not see the sense in this, White may have thought, perhaps children would do better.

Meanwhile, what better image than a web to stand for both life’s resilience and its fragility, the natural world’s uncanny knack for hanging on, at times, by a single thread? In Charlotte’s Web, language itself becomes a life form as web thread doubles as a line of urgent, clear, life-saving communication.

From the moment Fern reminds her mom that to “do away with a pig” means to kill it, White’s story unfolds as a case study in the uses and abuses of language. Euphemisms, inflammatory rhetoric, and false advertising all figure in the joining of the drama of Charlotte’s Web. So too do examples of characters really connecting with one another by means of an honest and friendly exchange of words. Did White believe that words alone could save the world? Hardly. But he did see language as a uniquely powerful tool that could just as easily be put to use malevolently or as a binding and healing force. In Charlotte’s Web, White reminds us that the choice in language, as in life, is ours to make, and that with every choice comes a web of consequences.

White’s Web: An Appreciation is used by permission of Leonard S. Marcus ©2005 by Leonard S. Marcus. Leonard Marcus is a rare bird: a renowned historian and critic and one of the children’s book world’s liveliest writers and speakers.

To read more about Leonard and his work please go to: http://www.leonardmarcus.com/index.html

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