Illustration by Garth Williams, for "Charlotte's Web," by .E.B. White, published by HarperCollins.

Illustration by Garth Williams, for "Charlotte's Web," by .E.B. White, published by HarperCollins.

 

It was always E.B. White's worry that he had produced nothing of significance in his lifetime. He worried that a great magnum opus eluded him, and he rejected the idea that his best and most enduring work might be a book for children. But there you are: "Charlotte's Web," is a masterpiece, and it is reaching its 60th birthday this year.

Everything that White wrote--his essays, his letters, his children's books, the humor books he produced with James Thurber--was in his wise, plain, clean style; it "lopes along sensibly," as John Updike said a few years back in the Guardian.

 

E.B. White

E.B. White

I was raised on "Charlotte's Web"; there was always a battered copy of it lying around the house somewhere, maybe on a shelf with Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books; they shared the wonderful illustrator Garth Williams.

 

"Charlotte's Web" was a book that held up to re-reading, and re-re-reading. It had a number of threads you could follow, and you paid attention to different threads at different points in your childhood. There is, of course, the main story of the warm friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte, the doomed pig and the loving, enterprising spider.

There is the wonderful backdrop of the farm, the hissing geese, the resourceful rat, the life-filled barn, "deep in the dung and the dark!"

And there is the coming-of-age story of Fern and her growing friendship with Henry Fussy--a friendship that supplants her friendship with Wilbur. Fern grows up all at once, at the fair, like the narrator of Joyce's "Araby."

"Charlotte's Web" also has the best opening line and the best closing lines in all of literary history. ("Where's Papa going with that axe?" and "It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.")

Were it not for "Charlotte's Web," I might never have heard of White, or might never have reallized that his work went far, far beyond "The Elements of Style." I might never have found his collected essays, might never have read "Goodbye to 48th Street," or "Afternoon of an American Boy," or "Death of a Pig," a darker story about life on the farm.

To celebrate the anniversary, Harper Collins, White's publisher, has produced a charming little story trailer, which you can watch here. But if ever a book didn't need a trailer, it's "Charlotte's Web." Just buy a copy, and hand it to a child. Any child. E.B. White's magnum opus will do the rest.

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