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E.B. White’s True Inspiration For ‘Charlotte’s Web’

E.B. White is one of my great literary heroes. I first read “Charlotte’s Web” in elementary school. “Some Pig!” The phrase stays with me today. They are two simple words spun with diligence and care by a man – via a spider – who by his own admission “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.”

Fresh Air’s Maureen Corrigan writes that “Charlotte’s Web” is “White’s magical meditation on the passage of time, mortality and the great gift of finding a ‘true friend’ in this world.”

Imagine my surprise when I learned that White developed his deep understanding for the gift of friendship during a period of his life lived in relative isolation and away from the hustle and verve of New York City. Far away, in fact, on a farm in Maine.

Michael Sims writes about White’s life in Maine in the new book: “The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Ecccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.” He describes how White achieved that peculiar state of grace so singular to childhood: a restless curiosity about the natural world and a frank acceptance that perhaps it cannot be fully understood.

To read Sim’s description of White’s first significant encounter with a spider – a real spider that then crawled into White’s imagination and gave life to Charlotte – made me fall in love with “Charlotte’s Web” all over again.

As I matured beyond “Charlotte’s Web” (in reading ability, not in spirit), I found White’s kinship with animals, and the subconscious flow of nature never left him. You hear echoes of it in essays and stories he often wrote as an adult for The New Yorker magazine.

In 1947, White published “The Second Tree from the Corner”, a New Yorker short story. It is one of my favorites. It’s about a man named Trexler. He is full of anxieties and uncertainties. He visits a psychiatrist who asks him repeatedly, “What do you want?” The answer, Trexler realizes, is all but ineffable except for that which he finds in nature:

Trexler felt invigorated. Suddenly his sickness seemed health, his dizziness stability. A small tree, rising between him and the light, stood there saturated with the evening, each gilt-edged leaf perfectly drunk with excellence and delicacy. Trexler’s spine registered an ever so slight tremor as it picked up this natural disturbance in the lovely scene. “I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands,” he said, answering an imaginary question from an imaginary physician. And he felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had none could take away.

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