Charlotte’s Web has been in print for 60 years this week. It’s a classic story – pig meets spider, spider becomes pig’s best friend … you know the rest. But according to the author, E.B. White, the story isn’t so much about Wilbur and Charlotte. In 1970, when White voiced Charlotte’s Web for an audio book, he said, “This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children and to amuse myself.”
Charlotte’s Web is a story of Place
White grew up in a time before automobiles transformed American culture. The relationship between humans and animals was much closer, even in cities. White grew up in a suburb of New York City, where his parents kept a stable. Then as an adult, White moved to a farm in Maine where he could recapture some of the simple joys from his childhood. He was inspired by his barn there to write Charlotte’s Web. There was a real piglet he cared for and a real spider who worked on its web in the barn and a real rope swing like the one he described in his story. His biographer, Michael Sims, wrote:
His return to a barn in adulthood ignited smoldering memories of the stable in his childhood home in Mount Vernon, New York. By creating a fictional hybrid of the most enchanted settings from both childhood and adulthood, White became one of the rare authors who solve what the American critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman once called “the standing problem of the juvenile-fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole.
The barn White wrote about in Charlotte’s Web is not a real place that can be visited and is in need of preservation (although his barn in Maine still exists). But the barn White created for his tale is a beautiful reminder of the importance of place – whether we, as readers, knew it or not, the barn was the main character.
It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell, as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. -E.B. White