‘Where's Papa Going with that Axe?’ Reading Charlotte’s Web in the Age of Trump

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Cover of the first edition of Charlotte's Web

Charlotte’s Web and I came into the world in the same year: 1952. That was the year that a hotel in Las Vegas drained its “whites-only” pool after Sammy Davis Jr. swam in it. Charlie Chaplin was denied re-entry into the U.S. after a trip to England because of suspected communist sympathies and reportedly said that he would not go back “even if Jesus Christ was the president.” The women’s movement in the U.S. was not yet in sight although Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex had been published three years earlier.

Seven years after its publication, I read the book. The impact, after cutting my literary teeth on books featuring banal and goody-goody children like Dick and Jane and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, was profound and lasting. Fern, the feisty little girl who, in the very first chapter, physically assaults her father to prevent him from going out to the barn with an ax to kill the runt piglet who will be of no economic value to him, was the first character in a book whom I ever loved and wanted to emulate.  

Without drawing any attention to herself, Fern plants herself on a stool in the corner of the barn and listens to the farm animals having their daily chats. She understands their speech and appreciates the drama of their multicultural, or at least inter-species, community. Her only mistake is casually sharing with her mother, as they are washing and drying the breakfast dishes together, the barnyard gossip. Mrs. Arable becomes concerned about her daughter’s mental health and she seeks professional advice from their trusted family doctor (in the era before we physicians became but “providers”) who does not share her worry and says sagely that “if Fern says the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her.”

I was so taken by Fern when I was about her age that I began keeping a notebook in which I recorded, each day, the behavior of the bedraggled urban pigeons and sparrows who frequented the feeder on my window, hoping that if I watched and listened carefully enough I too would begin to hear and understand their language. And, six years later, my friend and I picketed Woolworths in our town every Saturday, protesting the inhumane treatment of the painted turtles and hamsters they were selling, until they gave up in shame and got rid of the entire pet section. It was the first, and only, unquestionably successful political action of my life. I must give credit to Fern, and of course to her creator, E.B. White, without whom this would never have happened. 

On a recent visit to my son and his family, I read Charlotte’s Web to six-year-old Emma who was entranced. We snuggled and read chapter after chapter. Emma was glued to my side and, like me at that age, took for granted that Fern could save Wilbur’s life and that, if Fern listened carefully, the drama of life in the barn cellar could be revealed to her in all its glory and complexity. I got a bit choked up as Fern stood up for truth and justice and I cheered internally when her father gave in to her logic, and, of course, to her promise to take on the hard work of the care and feeding of an underweight growth-retarded runty piglet. But it was Charlotte, the aging, wise, compassionate but completely unsentimental spider, whose commitment to protecting Wilbur, against all odds, from the injustices of farm life who spoke directly to my heart now that Charlotte and I have lived in this soiled world for 65 years.

Coming into grandparenthood in the age of Trump is overwhelming. Like Charlotte, I desperately want to protect my vulnerable and utterly adorable little piglets from the increasingly brutal world that is America in 2017. Wilbur is born with a “pre-existing condition” which makes him worthless until Charlotte who, as she says, lives by her wits and has to be sharp and clever lest she go hungry, declares to the world that he is “SOME PIG.” Wilbur, when he first meets her, worries that their friendship is a gamble because she is fierce and scheming but “she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” I don’t know that I can rise to her level of fearlessness and her brilliance in empowering, to use the wretched language of 2017, Wilbur and convincing the world of his “radiance” but I hope to be like her in any small way I can. Charlotte Cavatica, c’est moi. Or, to step out of the world of literature and into the politics and diction of today—Je suis Charlotte.  

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