The 60th Anniversary of Charlotte's Web: Charlotte and the Museum

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Mention spiders to a book lover and, inevitably, talk turns to Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s story of love and loyalty between a spider named Charlotte and her friend Wilbur, the runt pig. The story has charmed children and adults alike since it was first published 60 years ago today. 

Its plucky heroine is fiction, of course. After all, this spider talks and writes: who can forget her cheery “Salutations!” or the words she weaves into her web, most memorably “SOME PIG,” the start of a public relations campaign to spare Wilbur’s life. This is an act so out of the ordinary it leads a clergyman to conclude that “human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.”

Still, there are aspects of Charlotte’s life that have some basis in scientific fact, and this is where the American Museum of Natural History comes in. According to several accounts, including The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, by Michael Sims, White relied heavily for his research on Willis J. Gertsch, a curator in what was then the Museum’s Department of Insects and Spiders. The results are readily apparent in certain details—Charlotte is sedentary, near-sighted, stuns her prey, works at night—and an attention to anatomy rare in 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.”

“…Say those names again, I didn’t catch them the first time.”

“Coxa, trochanter, femur, patella, tibia, metatarsus, and tarsus.”

“Goodness!” said Wilbur, looking down at his own chubby legs. “I don’t think my legs have seven sections.”

“Well,” said Charlotte. “You and I lead different lives. You don’t have to spin a web. That takes real leg work.”

In the many months White spent studying spiders before starting to write Charlotte’s Web, he pored over scientific texts, including The Spider Book, by John Henry Comstock, a 1912 work revised by Curator Gertsch, and Dr. Gertsch’s own newly published American Spiders. Eventually, White met with Gertsch in person, a list of questions in hand.

Gertsch’s generosity was legendary. In an appreciation published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in 1981 on the occasion of Gertsch’s 75th birthday, fellow arachnologist B. J. Kaston wrote, “Gertsch was always helpful, not only to the scientists who visited him, but also to those who wrote for help… He also encouraged youngsters who came to the Museum with their questions. I can recall a number of occasions while I was in the laboratory when he would take time to help a youngster who had come to his door, or to answer questions over the phone.” Kaston went on to note, “The well-known author E. B. White, in his book Charlotte’s Web, acknowledged Gertsch’s help when it became necessary to suggest the name of the species to which Charlotte belonged.” “My name,” said the spider, “is Charlotte.” “Charlotte what?” asked Wilbur, eagerly. “Charlotte A. Cavatica. But just call me Charlotte.”

White had at first thought the book’s inspiration, a spider he had seen firsthand on his farm in Maine, was a gray cross spider of the genus Epeira. But after reading Comstock and consulting Gertsch, he came to name her Charlotte A. Cavatica, for Aranea cavatica, a species of barn spider. (In the book, one of Charlotte’s 514 offspring takes the first name Aranea.)

The Museum figured in Charlotte’s appearance, too. White sent Gertsch’s American Spiders as a picture reference to the book’s illustrator, Garth Williams. One of the letters from the book’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, to E.B.’s wife, Katharine, even mentions that Williams was “on his way to the Natural History Museum” to make sketches. At that time, there was a Hall of Insect and Spider Life on the Museum’s third floor.

As far as possible in a fantasy, White used his research to remain true to Charlotte’s 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.

“I will not be going back to the barn,” she said. Wilbur leapt to his feet. “Not going back?” he cried. “I’m done for,” she replied. “In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t even strength enough to climb down into the crate. I doubt I have enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground…Come now, let’s not make a scene.”

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 Sims in The Story of Charlotte’s Web. “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.” 

A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.