Happy Birthday, E.B. White!
by AMNH on
Born on July 11, 1899, Elwyn Brooks White grew up to be the famed author of Charlotte’s Web, a timeless story of love and loyalty between a spider named Charlotte and her friend Wilbur, the runt pig. The book, which has charmed children and adults alike since it was first published in 1952, features many spider details that have some basis in scientific fact, and this is no coincidence. E.B. White relied heavily for his research on Willis J. Gertsch, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, in what was then the Museum’s Department of Insects and Spiders.
In the many months White spent studying spiders before starting to write Charlotte’s Web, he pored over scientific texts, eventually meeting with Gertsch in person, with a list of questions in hand. The results are readily apparent in certain details—Charlotte is sedentary, near-sighted, stuns her prey, works at night—all based on scientific facts about many spider species. White's attention to arachnid anatomy, as seen in the following passage, is rare for a children’s book:
“You have awfully hairy legs, Charlotte,” said Wilbur, as the spider busily worked at her task.
“My legs are hairy for a good reason,” replied Charlotte. “Furthermore, each leg of mine has seven sections—the coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the patella, the tibia, the metatarsus, and the tarsus.”
White even acknowledged the curator's help in naming his title character. Awed and inspired by a spider in his Maine barn, the author had at first thought the book’s inspiration was a gray cross spider of the genus Epeira. But after consulting Gertsch, he came to name her Charlotte A. Cavatica, after a common orb weaver, Araneus cavaticus, one of the 20 arachnid species featured in the current exhibition, Spiders Alive! Hence this exchange in the book:
“My name,” said the spider, “is Charlotte.”
“Charlotte what?” asked Wilbur, eagerly.
“Charlotte A. Cavatica. But just call me Charlotte.”
As far as possible in a fantasy, White used his research to remain true to Charlotte’s spider nature, down to the bitter end—that she would die after she had produced her egg sac, her “magnum opus,” while away at the County Fair. The publisher, Harper & Brothers, had misgivings about the death of the heroine in what was essentially a children’s book but “on this point [White] refused to budge,” writes Michael Sims in The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. “Natural history could not be dodged: Charlotte’s species of spider dies after spinning its egg sac.” White’s choice stands the test of time. Charlotte’s Web is as popular and enduringly poignant as when Eudora Welty first described it in her 1952 review. “What the book is about,” Welty wrote, “is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”
Discover more about orb weavers and other arachnids at the live-animal exhibition Spiders Alive! open at the Museum through November 2.