One of the greatest children's books ever written, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web is notable not just for its lovely prose but for its masterful handling of themes on death and dying. In a letter written to his editor a few weeks before the book's publication, White explains why a peculiar truth about farms makes them such appropriate spaces for exploring the concept of death, and how this moved him to write the book in the first place.
Above: One of Garth Williams' gorgeous original illustrations for Charlotte's Web
I have been asked to tell how I came to write "Charlotte's Web." Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.
A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of "Charlotte's Web" is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.
White goes on to explain his decision to include spiders – and Charlotte, in particular – in the story with a rather moving tale. All in all it's a beautiful missive on the reasons writers write what they do, and concludes on a note we think most artists will identify with:
"I haven't told why I wrote the book, but I haven't told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze."
Read the full correspondence between White and his editor at Letters of Note.