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September 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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I have spent most of the past summer, when I should have been playing golf, writing discussion guides for Storylines New England, a radio reading series sponsored by ALA’s Public Programs Office. The upside of such an endeavor is that it offers a chance both to reacquaint yourself with old friends (Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, for example) and to get to know some new faces, writers you had always been meaning to read more of (John Casey, Annie Proulx). For me, though, the most interesting part of the project has been rereading Charlotte’s Web. Not just for the novel itself but also for a startling discovery I made while nosing around in books about E. B. White, who has long been one of my favorite writers. It turns out that when Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, it received dozens of rave reviews, including one in the New York Times by Eudora Welty, who called the book “just about perfect.” On the negative side, Charlotte garnered only two bad reviews. One of those, by the then-prominent children’s librarian at New York Public Library, Anne Carroll Moore, appeared in the Horn Book. The other negative review was published in Booklist. Definitely not one of the better moments in literary history for librarians and the library review media.
My discovery of what Peter F. Neumeyer, in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web, called “the gaffe by Booklist” turned out to be quite timely, in an ironic way. We are beginning a year-long celebration of Booklist’s 100th anniversary, and as part of that celebration, we will be reprinting notable reviews and articles that have appeared in our pages over the past century. Naturally, most of these backward glances will focus on times when we got it right. On the other hand, it’s impossible to hang around on this planet for 100 years without committing a few grievous errors, and in the spirit of humility, why not acknowledge those, too, if only to keep the self-congratulation from turning smarmy? So in that context, I offer, in its entirety, our review of Charlotte’s Web, as it appeared in the September 1, 1952, Booklist:
“Like Stuart Little, this fable will have an ostensible appeal for children by virtue of its simple style, nature lore, and realistic juvenile characters; the younger readers, however, are likely to lose interest as the story moves on, leaving it to adults who enjoy the author’s symbolic and philosophic implications. The story tells of the friendship between Wilbur, the runty pig, and Charlotte, a comradely spider who applies spider psychology so that Wilbur may end up in a prize-winner’s stall instead of the pork barrel.”
I suppose we can be glad that our reviews were shorter then because our anonymous reviewer was forced to hold her opinions to a minimum. And when I say anonymous, I mean both in the magazine and in history. Our reviews were unsigned until 1980, but, in the Booklist offices, we have a glorious old card catalog that contains—theoretically—information on every book we have ever reviewed, including the reviewer’s name. Curiously, there is no card in the file for Charlotte’s Web, suggesting that, when the extent of our “gaffe” became clear, a red-faced reviewer may have destroyed the evidence. That reviewer should have known that cover-ups never work. The time has come for mea culpas, first to Charlotte and Wilbur, for the absurd contention that younger children would lose interest in their story, and second, to White himself, for our horrendous misreading of a book that is anything but “symbolic.”
I know that mentioning Charlotte’s “symbolic and philosophic implications” must have rankled White because he despised symbol hunters. Writing to a screenwriter who hoped to develop a film version of the novel, White addressed this issue directly: “I just want to add,” he wrote, “that there is no symbolism in Charlotte’s Web. And there is no political meaning in the story. It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times, with the garrulous geese, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, and the sameness of sheep.”
The worst part of our review is that we ignore the barn altogether. White once wrote that his novel “was a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung.” Unfortunately, Booklist was too busy worrying about symbols even to smell the dung, much less accept it. As I reread Charlotte this time, I was impressed once more with what a marvelous balancing act White manages. On the one hand, he was adamant about showing barn life as it really was, but on the other hand, he set himself an utterly unrealistic goal: to keep Wilbur out of the pork barrel. As a farmer himself, White had killed his share of pigs—that’s what farmers do—but he never liked it, and in Charlotte’s Web, he wanted to find a way to let one live. To do so, he was obligated to mix fantasy and reality, which required the help of a spider who was capable of being “both a true friend and a good writer.” Introducing fantasy into a book intended to celebrate the reality of farm life was a dangerous move for White. In saving the pig, would he lose the barn? Will the manure still smell when the spiders become prose stylists? We know now that White’s barn was plenty big enough for both Wilbur’s manure and Charlotte’s bons mots, and we are profoundly sorry Booklist didn’t know it in 1952.
In the January 1948 issue of Atlantic Monthly, White published a powerful essay called “Death of a Pig” in which he described his unsuccessful attempt to save a sick pig on his farm. The pig dies, and White’s grief, understated yet palpable, pours from the pages like sweat. Charlotte’s Web gave White a chance to write a different ending. One could say that White feels about pigs as Robert Frost, another New England farmer, feels about walls. Pigs must die, either by their owner’s hand or of natural causes, and walls are necessary devices on a working farm. But just as there is something that doesn’t love a wall, so is there something that would save a pig.
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