by Alexie Basil
In E. B. White’s own words, Charlotte’s Web is a “story about a barn.” Which is interesting because if you tried to get away with that explanation on a fourth grade literature test, you’d probably fail.
But if you pressed Andy (as Elwyn Brooks White was called), you’d learn it wasn’t only a story about a barn—it was a story about his barn, the spider he saw there, and the pig he couldn’t save.
In this letter he wrote to his readers shortly before his death, he answers the many curious children who, over the years, wrote to him, asking how he came up with Charlotte’s Web:
“One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story that you know, a story of friendship and salvation on a farm. Three years after I started writing it, it was published. (I am not a fast worker, as you can see.)”
But, of course, the full story of Charlotte’s Web didn’t start just three years before it was published—it was the culmination of a lifetime of writing, horrible social anxiety, and a deep love for animals.
Andy grew up on a farm in Mount Vernon, New York. He once wrote of himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” When he found himself lonely or anxious, animals—especially his dogs—were there for him. (Much later, when his wife became pregnant with their child, he was so overwhelmed that the only way he could talk to her about it was through a letter written from his dog’s perspective.)
After serving in the military and graduating from Cornell University (where he was nicknamed “Andy” because of a college tradition), he eventually took a job at the New Yorker, just a couple of years after its founding in 1925. He was about 26 at the time.
(Fun fact: The New Yorker launched from Harold Ross’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. With the support of Algonquin Round Table, the magazine moved into its first official office at 25 West 45th Street in 1925, right in the middle of Times Square [read more here]. The New Yorker wouldn’t leave Times Square until 2015, when they moved to 1 World Trade Center.)
Even if Harold Ross got Andy to work there—and do so for decades—he couldn’t get Andy to physically stay there. According to fellow writer James Thurber, when strangers showed up to the office, Andy would slip out the window and hide on the fire escape to avoid conversation. He once wrote of his fear of public appearances, saying, “Nobody who has never had my peculiar kind of disability can understand the sheer hell of such moments, but there they are.”
In 1929, he married the woman who’d recommended him for the job at the New Yorker, Katharine Angell, a literary editor. In addition to her children from a previous marriage—Roger and Nancy, who primarily were with their father—Andy and Katharine had a son, Joel.
Andy paid the bills writing essays (you can browse his articles here) until pressure from his niece finally convinced him to try writing for children. The protagonist of his first children’s book allegedly appeared to him in a dream, and Stuart Little was published in 1945. Talk about a grand entrance into the world of kids’ literature!
David Allender, Executive Vice President of Editorial here at Scholastic Reading Club, explained how White’s partnership with illustrator Garth Williams came to be:
“The legend is that [editor] Ursula Nordstrom had written a note on the Stuart Little manuscript that said, ‘Try Garth Williams.’ And that’s what Williams saw when he got it in the mail. He later saw people reading Stuart Little on the subway and decided to become a full-time illustrator.”
Stuart Little was met with rave reviews, but also intense controversy because of the shocking idea that a mouse could be born to human parents (which we explored in an earlier Life of a Reader article about mice). This didn’t deter Andy, however. Shortly thereafter, an encounter with a pig spurred his mind to begin weaving Charlotte’s Web.
This is a timeline of Charlotte’s Web illustrated by Booki Vivat, creator of Frazzled and editor at HarperCollins.
As Andy neared 50, he lived with his wife on a farm in Brooklin, Maine. The Whites raised their own animals and generally enjoyed their bacon and ham without problem. But when one pig became very ill, Andy suddenly found himself extremely invested in its recovery.
His own emotional response shocked him—even though he had planned to kill the pig himself, now he was entirely focused on saving its life. “The patient was asleep,” he wrote about a particular night of caring for the sick pig. “Kneeling, I felt his ears (as you might put your hand on the forehead of a child).”
And when the pig did die, Andy wrote an essay about his experience called “Death of a Pig” for the Atlantic. The article was published in 1948—not long before he began writing Charlotte’s Web—and in it, he and his dachshund Fred mourn the passing of their patient: “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig.”
Inspiration might have come easily, but the writing did not. His stepson, Roger, described Andy’s writing process for Charlotte’s Web as arduous. “He rewrote the first page of Charlotte’s Web eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, ‘to let the body heat out of it,’” he explained. “Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings.”
Apparently, all of his hard work paid off, as now that pig gets to live on forever in a Newbery Honor book.
“Joe told me that in that long year he’d read aloud to his father often, and discovered that he enjoyed listening to his own writings, though he wasn’t always clear about who the author was. Sometimes he’d raise a hand and impatiently wave a passage away: not good enough. Other evenings, he’d listen to the end, almost at rest, and then ask again who’d written these words.
“‘You did, Dad,’ Joe said.
“There was a pause, and Andy said, ‘Well, not bad.’”
Despite how critical Andy may have been of his own work, on December 31, 1999, Time magazine named Charlotte’s Web the best children’s book of the 20th century.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Reading Club