MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
A few weeks ago, when I was on Cape Cod, I grew quite fond of a spider. She had spun her web in the corner of an outdoor shower, and the bright yellow pattern on her abdomen shone in the sun. When a long-legged insect made the mistake of wandering into her web, I watched it disappear over the days, as the spider did what spiders do. I was learning - as E.B. White once wrote - that once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else. I started to call her Charlotte.
BLOCK: Remember Charlotte?
WHITE: Salutations are greetings, said the voice.
BLOCK: Charlotte A. Cavatica, the friendly, clever spider of "Charlotte's Web."
WHITE: When I say salutations, it's just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning. Actually, it's a silly expression and I am surprised that I used it at all.
BLOCK: That's E.B. White reading from his book, which came out in 1952. He made the recording in 1970.
Charlotte is a spider's spider, who teaches us something profound about love and commitment. She is my choice for our series In Character, which explores memorable characters in fiction. And what a character Charlotte is. She's utterly devoted to her new friend Wilbur, the pig. Pretty, she says so herself, an unapologetic, blood-thirsty devourer of insects.
WHITE: Flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets - anything that is careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don't I?
Why yes, of course, said Wilbur. Do they taste good?
Delicious. Of course I don't really eat them, I drink them. Drink their blood. I love blood, said Charlotte.
BLOCK: She is a predator, but also of course Charlotte is a gifted writer. The words she weaves into her web - some pig, terrific, radiant and humble - are what save Wilbur's life, keep him from ending up as smoked bacon and ham at Christmas time. And as my daughter points out, Charlotte always keeps her promises. When she says she'll save Wilbur's life, she does.
I asked some people who've spent a lot of time thinking about Charlotte how they would describe her.
PETER NEUMEYER: What keeps coming to my mind always first is the word soignÃ©e.
BLOCK: This is the author of "The Annotated Charlotte's Web," Peter Neumeyer.
NEUMEYER: Sort of elegant, sexy, classy, sophisticated, and very, very loving under that crusty, under that forbidding exterior.
MARTHA WHITE: She's loyal. She can also be severe and authoritarian. She knew her way around the barnyard.
BLOCK: That's Martha White, E.B. White's granddaughter. And finally, here's the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, E.B. White's stepson.
ROGER ANGELL: She is, well, as he pointed out, among other things, she's a New Englander. She is disciplined and she is orderly. She also is - she's a trapper. What she does is to trap flying things and eat them.
BLOCK: E.B. White wrote that he pulled no punches in "Charlotte's Web." The spider in the book is not prettified in any way, he said. She's merely endowed with more talent than usual. I came out ahead because of not trying to patronize an arachnid. Again, Roger Angell.
ANGELL: It's so strange that here we are talking about a spider and not quite able to say everything that we know about her, and it's quite something that this tiny thing the size of a gumdrop, as he says, holds so much interest and attention and complexity.
BLOCK: And E.B. White was careful to convey all the complexity that real spiders have because above all he wanted Charlotte to be a true spider. White spent a year studying spiders before he started writing about one. He studied their habits - their temperament, as he fondly put it. He studied drawings of how they're put together. He consulted with a curator of spiders at the Museum of Natural History in New York, asking questions about a spider's life.
Read "The Annotated Charlotte's Web" and you'll see E.B. White's pencil sketches, which Peter Neumeyer found in the author's papers archived at Cornell.
NEUMEYER: There are little drawings with vectors indicative of the sequence in which the spider makes her web, which he describes so very precisely.
WHITE: Charlotte climbed to a point at the top of the left-hand side of the web. Swinging her spinnerets into position, she attached her thread and then dropped down. As she dropped, her spinning tubes went into action and she let out thread. At the bottom, she attached the thread. This formed the upright part of the letter T.
BLOCK: So we learn, as E.B. White learned, what makes spiders work - their spinnerets and other tiny parts. Here again is White's stepson, Roger Angell.
ANGELL: There's a moment where Charlotte is talking about her legs and she names the seven parts of her legs, seven different parts of a spider's leg...
WHITE: The coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the patella, the tibia, the metatarsus, and the tarsus.
ANGELL: And Wilbur is - Wilbur is fascinated, and so am I.
WHITE: Wilbur sat bolt upright. You're kidding, he said. No, I'm not either.
BLOCK: I love that you mention that section because you can tell that E.B. White loves it too. He loves it so much that he has Wilbur ask her to say them again. I didn't catch them the first time.
ANGELL: Yeah, (unintelligible) again, just the way a kid would. A kid would say, what was that? Read that again.
WHITE: Say those names again. I didn't catch them the first time - coxa, trochanter, femur, patella, tibia, metatarsus, and tarsus.
BLOCK: E.B. White captures us with these spiderly details in his writing, but this is after all an illustrated children's book and he also had very strong feelings about how Charlotte should look. He said he wanted her to be beguiling, but he insisted she shouldn't have a human face. White sent two huge books to the illustrator, Garth Williams, with pictures of 30,000 spiders - all gruesome, Williams noted. The artist struggled with Charlotte, and finally came up with what he called a Mona Lisa face.
But as Neumeyer recounts in "The Annotated Charlotte's Web," E.B. White had ideas of his own.
NEUMEYER: White got rid of the face that Garth had put on Charlotte, and drew in two little eyes - you can just barely see them - and three hairs.
BLOCK: It all worked. "Charlotte's Web" became a huge success, selling 100,000 copies in just 16 months. And soon Hollywood came calling. E.B. White held out for years, worried about what would happen to his story on the screen. He didn't want animation, didn't want songs, didn't want the book turned into a morality tale. Anybody who can't accept the miracle of the web, he wrote to his agent, shouldn't try to film it. But in the end, he agreed. The Hanna-Barbera animated movie came out in 1973. Charlotte became a curvy, glamorous spider with a coy smile and heavy-lidded blue eyes. Debbie Reynolds was the voice, and sure enough she sings.
(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "CHARLOTTE WEB")
DEBBIE REYNOLDS: (As Charlotte) (Singing) Charlotte sings: Chin up, chin up. Everybody love a happy face. Wear it, share it. It'll brighten up the darkest place.
BLOCK: You can imagine how E.B. White felt about that. There was one key point on which the author would not back down. In his book, at the end, Charlotte lays her eggs and dies. Her death is central to the story. But Peter Neumeyer says Hollywood wanted a happier ending.
NEUMEYER: He held out against animation, against films. He held out at great financial cost to himself for years and years, because people wanted to fudge on that. They were worried about Charlotte dying in a children's film.
BLOCK: But E.B. White prevailed, and die she did. Martha White is literary manager of her grandfather's estate. She still gets letters from readers - children and adults. Are many of the children upset by the ending, by the death of Charlotte?
WHITE: No, I think many more adults are upset than children. Children just ride the wave. They're able to go in those leaps and bounds in ways that adults don't always do.
BLOCK: And Roger Angell isn't immune himself.
ANGELL: Charlotte dies. It's almost unbearable, that you're reading this along to a kid and you grab for the Kleenex. You know it's coming.
BLOCK: Unbearable too for E.B. White when he recorded the audiobook. In an NPR interview in 1991, the producer, Joe Berk, described the author's reaction.
JOE BERK: He broke down just as I did. We did 17 takes. And I said on a number of occasions, I said, would you consider taking a break? And he said, I've got to do it, Joe. And the 17th take, that was the one that was used. And then we went, we both stood up and went outdoors and we went on a short walk, and he turned to me and he said: It's ridiculous - a grown man reading a book that he wrote and being unable to read it aloud because of tears.
BLOCK: Goodbye, she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded in the vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The fairgrounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.
(SOUNDBITE OF "MOZART'S QUARTET IN F MAJOR")
BLOCK: E.B. White thought this would be the perfect accompaniment for Charlotte's death scene in the movie, the Adagio from "Mozart's Quartet in F Major" for oboe and strings. Just a strain or two, he said. He never got that wish.
(SOUNDBITE OF "MOZART'S QUARTET IN F MAJOR")
BLOCK: I've read "Charlotte's Web" many times, first as a child, now as a parent. And each time, it seems I find some new dimension, another side of Charlotte I hadn't appreciated before: her sarcasm, her pride, her wit. When Martha White reads "Charlotte's Web" or listens to the recording made by her grandfather, she's struck now by a family resemblance.
WHITE: Charlotte herself, I think, today, reminds me more of my grandmother in some ways. I found myself wondering today whether my grandfather was, in some ways, writing an appreciation of his wife. Many of the words that he uses to describe Charlotte could certainly have been true of his wife. Certainly, they were close friends and close allies and would have done anything to save each other's lives if they could have done that.
BLOCK: E.B. and Katherine White were married for almost 50 years. And if Charlotte the spider were a tribute to Katherine, for what higher honor could there be than the seeds that were sown years before? A couple of weeks after E.B. White married Katherine in 1929, he sent her a poem he had written. It's called "Natural History."
The spider, dropping down from twig, unwinds a thread of his devising. A thin, premeditated rig to use in rising. And all the journey down through space, in cool descent and loyal-hearted, he builds a ladder to the place from which he started. Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do, in spider's web a truth discerning, attach one silken strand to you for my returning.
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