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E. B. White

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/1/1999

E. B. White Transcript

Brief Sound Clip 

That’s E.B. White reading the startling opening sentences from his 1952 classic, Charlotte’s Web. This is one of the most remarkable beginnings in all of children’s literature, and it reminds us that this book is about some pretty harsh realities. Indeed, the whole book is about saving Wilbur, the runt pig of the litter, from a quick and sure demise. Not since Jody had to sacrifice his pet deer, Flag, in The Yearling, or Bambi lost his mother to the hunters’ bullets, or The Little Prince kept his appointment with the serpent had death made such a sudden and unequivocal entrance in an modern children’s book — especially an American children’s book. In fact, in the post World War II world, with the final arrival of aspects of Freudian psychology on these shores, there was a real concern not to risk “traumatizing” children. And what could be more traumatizing, the argument ran, than depictions of death? Fairy tales came under attack and were sanitized or excluded from the reading lists. And then along came White in the early 1950s and changed the dynamics of what could or should be written for children about such subjects. In his unflinchingly honest approach to this material, he also created a work that appealed not only to children but to the adults who first read this book to children as, perhaps, the first serious chapter book that parents and children share together. Reading this book together is one of the indellible experiences of parenting because the book is perfectly pitched to both an adult’s and a child’s ears and sensibilities. But when they reach the death that finally arrives at the end of the book, both adults and children invariably “loose it” together. White brings parents and children to the point where they can experience grief together, which in itself is no small accomplishment for an artist. But White doesn’t stop there. He takes us further, to see that any death is part of a larger whole, and that even in its aching sadness, there are glimmers of life’s joyful promises: the barn will still smell of manure and straw, and a small, bright, new spider will drop into it. E. B. White, for whom clarity was a supreme virtue, died of Alzheimer’s disease today in 1985. And because of this book, that loss, every loss is somehow a little more bearable.

Posted in Authors, Literature