10 Things You Might Not Know About Charlotte’s Web

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White created beloved characters out of the most unlikely of animals—a runt of a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte, who weaves words in her web to save his life. This poignant tale about life and death on a farm is still one of the best selling children’s books of all time. 

1. THE FARM IN THE BOOK WAS REAL.

“This is a story of the barn,” E.B. White said. “I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself." Along with being an essayist and co-author of The Elements of Style, White owned a farm in Maine. While he wrote Charlotte’s Web in the property's boathouse, he was imagining the farm's red barn, where he kept geese, sheep, and pigs. The barn even had a swing like the one described in the story: “Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway." 

2. A SICKLY PIG INSPIRED WILBUR.

As a farmer, White raised pigs for slaughter. As an animal lover, he felt conflicted about killing animals that he'd come to like. In one case, a pig he owned got sick. Even though White had originally planned to kill the pig for food, he devoted himself to nursing it back to health, staying up with it all night and calling the vet—but the pig died anyway. White seemed surprised by how much its death bothered him. He wrote in the essay "Death Of A Pig," “He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”

3. CHARLOTTE WAS BASED ON A REAL SPIDER. 

One day, White noticed a spider in his barn making an egg sack. He was so interested, he got a stepladder to take a closer look. After that, he never saw the spider again. When he was getting ready to go to New York City for the winter, he decided to take the egg sack with him. He cut it down with a razor blade and put it in a candy box with holes punched in the top. Then he left the box on top of his bureau in his New York bedroom. Soon enough, the egg sack hatched and baby spiders emerged from the box.

“They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors,” he wrote in a letter. “They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show. At the present time, three of Charlotte's granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.”  

4. CHARLOTTE'S NAME IS BASED ON SCIENCE.

When White started writing the story, he called the spider Charlotte Epeira because he misidentified the spider in his barn as a gray cross spider, Epeira sclopetaria. Then he contacted an expert at the American Museum of Natural History and was able to correctly identify the spider as Araneus cavaticus—the common barn spider. Thus, his spider was renamed Charlotte A. Cavatica. 

5. FERN WASN'T ADDED UNTIL THE LAST DRAFT OF THE BOOK.

“'Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern.” This first line of Charlotte’s Web feels so perfect that’s hard to believe that Fern was almost not in the book. At first, White struggled with how to start the story, unsure whether to begin with Wilbur or Charlotte. Then at the last minute, he added Fern, the little girl who pleads with her father not to kill the runt piglet named Wilbur. Although she fades from the story as she matures, Fern adds layers of humanity that connects directly to the young reader. 

6. WHITE'S EDITOR HAD NO IDEA HE WAS WRITING THE BOOK.

After the success of Stuart Little in 1945, White’s editor Ursula Nordstrom didn’t expect him to be writing another book until he showed up suddenly in her office with Charlotte’s Web. She was shocked and asked if the manuscript was a carbon copy. "No," he said, "this is the only copy; I didn't make a carbon copy." Then he got on the elevator and left. Not wanting to risk losing the only manuscript of the book, Nordstrom sat down and read it right there. “I couldn't believe that it was so good!” she wrote. The book was published in 1952 and was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies in 16 months.

7. THE ILLUSTRATOR WANTED TO GIVE CHARLOTTE A WOMAN'S FACE.

Garth Williams, who also illustrated Stuart Little and the Little House on the Prairie series, wasn’t sure how to draw Charlotte at first. He wanted her to look friendly and charming, two words most people wouldn’t associate with spiders. He tried drawing her with a woman’s face and even went so far as to make her look like the Mona Lisa (you can see some of those sketches here). Both White and Nordstrom nixed the idea. Finally, they settled on drawing an anatomically correct spider with two little pinpoints for eyes.

8. PEOPLE CRITICIZED CHARLOTTE'S WEB FOR DEPICTING DEATH.

While Charlotte’s Web received great reviews, it was still disparaged by some educators and parents because of the characters—a book about a spider?—and because Charlotte dies. In a letter to Nordstrom (which was unpublished but cited in The Annotated Charlotte's Web), White made fun of the criticism with a bit of satire: “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

9. HOLLYWOOD WANTED TO CUT CHARLOTTE'S DEATH FROM THE CARTOON.

White resisted Hollywood at first, nervous about what a studio would do to his book. Finally, in 1973, Hanna-Barbera made a cartoon of Charlotte’s Web with Debbie Reynolds as the voice of Charlotte. Predictably, Hollywood tried to get a happier ending for the story, worried about a kids' film where one of the main characters dies. But White held firm that Charlotte’s death was essential to the story and in the end, he won. The cartoon remains faithful to the book.

10. WHITE RECORDED THE AUDIO BOOK OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB IN 1970.

Even though it had been almost 20 years since he wrote the book, Charlotte’s death still made him emotional. "Every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death," Michael Sims, author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, told NPR. "And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry." You can listen to him reading the book above—but keep a tissue handy, just in case.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios