The best measure for children’s literature is how well that literature holds up when you’re an adult.
By this measure Charlotte’s Web is among the very best children’s books written in English.
Engrossing, with characters utterly convincing — so utterly human, those animals — Charlotte’s Web towers above most children’s books as a profound explication of life and death. (This theme comes through, in a heartbreaking but important way, even for young children.)
A few weeks before Charlotte’s Web first appeared, the author E.B. White, in a letter to his editor Ursula Nordstrom, explained how he’d come to write Charlotte’s Web, and I enjoyed reading his explanation very much:
I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.
A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.
Lesbian pulp? Golden Age? Who knew?
Those photos come from Yale University’s Beinecke Library, Room 26, the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” Lesbian Pulp Novels, 1935-1965.
The Yale Library blog on this subject reads, in part:
The genre’s so-called Golden Age was but a small segment of the paperback phenomena that swept America during and after World War Two. Beginning with Pocket Books’ 1939 birth, paperback publishers capitalized on their established magazine distribution networks to sell pulp fiction on rotating racks in drugstores and gas stations around the country. The postwar paperback trade was, in some ways, an organic continuation of the pulp press—penny dreadfuls, comic books, and magazines of sensational serialized fiction—that had flourished fitfully from the turn of the century. Yet it is an error to read postwar paperbacks as merely derivative. Small enough to fit into a back pocket, these slim fictional volumes were nothing short of a new cultural medium. They were printed and sold cheaply, so readers could, in pulp author Ann Bannon’s estimation, afford to enjoy a book on the bus and leave it on the seat. The content, however, was enthralling enough to make the tiny tomes worth holding onto. Though sometimes reprints—resulting, incongruously, in The Iliad jazzed up with a breathless blurb and a sultry dame—postwar paperbacks were often original novels that heralded the birth of new genres.
Richard Purdy Wilbur — American poet and literary translator, second Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1987), two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1957 and again in 1989), New York City native who published his first poem when he was only eight-years-old — was born March 1st, 1921.
He is 93 years young today.
A good argument can be made that he is America’s greatest living poet.
He’s a formal (sometimes neo-formal) poet whose language is modern and almost always intelligible — a relative rarity in that bucal-fecal carnival called modern poetry.
The following is a poem of his I first read many years ago, one that’s remained among my all-time favorites — a lesser-known poem, every line of which rhymes — about a toad upon whom a freak accident falls. What’s always moved me most about this poem is the dignity that Richard Wilbur gives to his little guy:
Death of a Toad
A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
Low, and a final glade.
The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
As still as if he would return to stone,
And soundlessly attending, dies
Toward some deep monotone,
Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia’s emperies.
Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
To watch, across the castrate lawn,
The haggard daylight steer.
Have you ever had a Blue Blazer? Not unlike my ex, they burn a little going down.
Let me make you one:
We’ve discussed this passage before, but I thought this pig was Lynchian enough to post:
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!
Every once in a while, someone will send me a message denigrating my love of Shakespeare — a denigration which almost invariably comes from his antiquated language and their multicultural preoccupations. The fact remains Shakespeare is virtually bottomless — incontrovertibly the greatest writer the world has ever known — whose metaphors and verbal-poetic texture never, for practitioners, cease to astound.
But Shakespeare was not only a poet. He was a thinker.
For example, there is in King Lear a curious concern with numbers and mathematics.
King Lear, as everyone knows, is about madness — or, more specifically, the fear of madness and the redemptive power of love and charity as a kind of foil to madness — and many for this reason regard it as Shakespeare’s most “humane play.”
Yet interwoven among all this flesh-and-blood lurks the beautiful, bloodless world of math, which has a way of anchoring the unshakable sense that Lear’s brains are breaking free from their moorings.
Many, for example, have noted how the words “nothing” and “all” resound throughout the entirety of the play, and that both of those words can be represented by the symbol zero: 0
The round world, the globe, the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s obvious punning on “hole” and “whole” — these are all as well represented by 0.
In King Lear, Shakespeare is clearly concerned with the idea of nothingness and the finality of death, as, for example, when in Act 1, Scene iv, the Fool says to Lear:
“Thou are an O without a figure. Thou art nothing.”
In that same scene, the same fools says the following:
Fool: Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.
Lear: What two crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle, and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i’ the middle, and gavest away
both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er
the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away.
A crown is one kind of circle, and so is an egg.
The egg is nothing, as the fool recognizes: eat the hardboiled egg, and you have to empty rounds. (These empty rounds later become the gouged-out eye sockets of Gloucester, which Shakespeare unforgettably describes as “bleeding rings.” Shakespeare also deliberately deepens the description by having a servant say he will fetch egg-white to treat Gloucester’s maimed face [III.vii.106], and by having Edgar say that if Gloucester were to throw himself from Dover Cliff, he’d be crushed “like an egg.”)
Thus the bald head of King Lear suddenly takes on a newer and more complex meaning — an abstract, mathematical symbol: not only a crown but a kind of circle as well.
In this way, Lear’s nothingness — his descent into madness — becomes a universal nothingness, in an indifferent universe, with a chilling finality, and that is why when the blind Gloucester meets Lear, now legitimately mad, he says to — and about — him:
“O ruined piece of nature! This great world
Shall wear out to nought.”
Act 4, vi, 134-135
Bleak but beautiful — and unbelievably smart.