As a child, White found complete happiness during summers in the Belgrade Lakes in Maine and this love of nature, which lasted his whole life, inspired all three of his children’s books. His first, Stuart Little took White about eighteen years to write but Charlotte’s Web was completed after a relatively short gestation period of two years. The story began as an essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled Death of a Pig which told of how White looked after an ill pig that eventually died. Writing from his farm in Maine, we have an account of how White reacted to the death of one of his pigs there: “At intervals during the last day, I took cool fresh water down to him [the pig] and, at such times as he found the strength to get to his feet, he would stand with his head in the pail and snuffle his snout around…Once, near the last, while I was attending him, I saw him try to make a bed for himself, but he lacked the strength, and when he set his snout into the dust, he was unable to plow even the little furrow he needed to lie down in…I went back up to the house and to bed, and cried internally – deep hemorrhagic in tears. I didn’t wake till nearly eight the next morning, and when I looked out the open window, the grave was already being dug…I could hear the spade strike against the small rocks that blocked the way. Never send to know for whom the grave is dug, I said to myself, it’s dug for thee.”
The idea for Charlotte’s Web came to White while he was on his farm. He explains: “One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began to feel sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, it 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.” In fact, it is clear from his poem Natural History written twenty three years before Charlotte’s Web that White had been long fascinated by spiders and their webs:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a threat of her devising:
A thin , premediated rig
To use in rising.
And all the journey down through space,
In cool decent, and loyal-hearted,
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.
Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.
White’s tale was born from a love of nature and there is nothing forced about it. The following is White’s own description of his work, taken from the New York Times: “What am I saying to my reader? Well, I never know. Writing to me is not an exercise in addressing readers, it is more as though I were talking to myself while shaving. My foray into the field of children’s literature was an accident, and although I do not mean to suggest that I spun my two yarns in perfect innocence and that I did not set about writing Charlotte’s Web deliberately, nevertheless, the thing started innocently enough, and I kept on because I found it was fun. It also became rewarding in other ways – and that was a surprise, as I am not essentially a storyteller and was taking a holiday from my regular work.”
White was working at the height of his craft when he finished Charlotte’s Web in 1952 and his editor, Ursula Nordstrom claimed that she never altered even a word of the manuscript that was delivered to her and published that year. She did suggest a different chapter name for “The Death of Charlotte” which finally became “The Last Day”. Fifty thousand copies were printed immediately and Charlotte’s Web went on to become the best-selling children’s paperback book in America.
When it was first published, Eudora Welty reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review and declared it “just about perfect”. The book did have its critics though and Anne Carroll Moore – who was the powerful head of Children’s Services of the New York Public Library - wrote in “The Horn Book” that she thought White’s book was “hard to take from so masterful a hand”. Many believe that Moore played a critical role in denying White the gold Newbery seal. Instead Ann Nolan Clark’s (seldom-read) “The Secret of the Andes” won the medal.
Some of the early controversy surrounding the book stemmed from White’s honest portrayal of issues of life and death. After World War Two there was much fear and uncertainty about death and, written in 1952, Charlotte's Web investigates the individual's relationship to the uncertainty of life, of friendship, love and loss. Although the book addresses death, loneliness and loss, it also celebrates life, love and companionship and this is what makes the novel so moving. White himself, making a commercial recording of Charlotte’s Web, choked as he read the words “and no one was with her when she died.” Over fifty years after its publication and Charlotte’s Web is still one of the best-loved children’s books of all time.