The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 1 (2005)

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Charlotte's "Text": A Note on the Etymology of Web

J. T. Barbarese


J.T. Barbarese's fourth book of poetry, The Black Beach, selected as the winner of the Vassar Miller Prize, will be published in the spring of 2005 by University of North Texas Press. His adaptation of Euripides' The Children of Heracles appears in Euripides, 4, volume four of the complete works of Euripides in the Penn Greek Drama Series (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). His poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Boulevard, The Georgia Review, and Poetry, and his critical essays in Tri-Quarterly, The Sewanee Review, Studies in English Literature, and most recently in The Journal of Modern Literature. In 2004-05 he is a Fellow of the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, researching "The Gendering of Children," with specific reference to the tension between narrative and archetypal pattern in picture-story books.


The word for spider's web in Latin is textus; or to put it differently, the Latin textus is the root of our word text. In a sense any writer in English who creates a text-- also the root of texture, which is the quality that woven things possess--is creating a kind of web. One gets a sense, given this understanding of the lineage of text, of the aptness of the title, Charlotte's Web, as well as of the penultimate line of White's masterpiece: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." For Charlotte is both, of course. She is a good friend for all the reasons that the story supplies, and in a very practical sense Charlotte is undeniably a good writer--good, that is, at creating a web that is both textus and a conventional or traditional text.

Charlotte's web-writing--perhaps this is the best way to identify what she does--has all the qualities worth praising in a text: it moves people to do things and to take action, which in this case is the saving of Wilbur's life. Good writing is also instructive, practically if not morally: all who view Charlotte's web-writing are so startled that they suddenly take a new, steadier interest in Wilbur, who is Charlotte's subject. Whether any of the human characters actually learns anything in the sense of gaining greater insight into Wilbur is a matter of conjecture. Dr. Dorian's conversation with Mrs. Arable is an attempt to demystify human importance but seems frustrated in advance by the inevitability of our seeing ourselves as the center of a very small universe and, in Scott Elledge's words, by "the assumption that homo sapiens was created to have dominion over every living thing upon the earth" (303). In a sense this is one of the implications of Charlotte's web-writing: people are amazed, delighted, their curiosities liberated by having to explain what they cannot help but find profoundly interesting--an in this sense maybe they even learn something. As Mrs. Arable says, the remarkable thing is not the web but the spider who spins it. Just about everything said about Wilbur in the last four chapters--and especially in the county fair scenes -- includes some word or phrase taken from Charlotte's text: terrific, radiant, or humble. Charlotte's art is therefore also good writing because it does the minimum that we expect of good writing. It's clear, moving, educational, and entertaining.

Charlotte is also an artist in a different sense: she gathers her material from diverse sources, and many of those materials are discards. Writers listen to others; Charlotte listens to the silliest and most irritating constituency in the bar--the geese--and gets the word terrific from them after editing their text (oral, not written), and then incorporates it into her own. The provenance of the word humble (like radiant) is a trash heap raided by Templeton, but Some Pig comes straight from Charlotte. It's also noteworthy that the relationship between Charlotte's initial writing (some pig) and the three words that follow is that of thesis, or theme, to precept. The words that follow are the topics or examples that substantiate the theme. Why is Wilbur some pig? Because he is terrific, radiant, and humble. On consideration, moreover, this is the way all good expository writing--like advertising--works if and when it is effective. Large bodies of detail are telescoped into words or phrases that become the resolutions to dilemmas. A billboard from some decades back--"Indigestion?/Brioschi."--makes the point. Charlotte writes good ad copy.

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Writers also pick the oddest and most unlikely subjects to celebrate, and in some obvious sense Charlotte's Web is a sublime allegory about writing and writers, not how they make their choice of subject but how, once the choice is given or made, writers may succeed. The point is that a writer must first love his subject in order to make it "live forever"--Who knows, she says to Wilbur at one point, you may live forever--and in that sense, no matter what White said about why he wrote the book, his protagonist is E.B White, Shakespeare, Danielle Steele, or any writer who has found a subject, and approaches it with disciplined craft and real love. Nor is White the first to have drawn a connection between the labor of the writer and the spider, or the writer as spider. Walt Whitman, in "A Noiseless, Patient Spider," analogized the two roles in the 19th century:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

In the long run, though, as not only White but Whitman argues, the writer, like the spider, spins the lines that link his text to the world and world to text out of his own gut. The point of a text is to gather and re-present what is already there and hold it up in such a way that the illusion is reversed: not that the world supports the web, but the web the world.

Works Cited and Consulted

Elledge, Scott. E.B. White: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984.

Payne, Lucille Vaughn. The Lively Art of Writing. New York: Mentor, 1983.

Simpson, D. P. Cassell's New Latin Dictionary. New York: Funk &Wagnall's, 1960.

Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982, 564-65.

 

J. T. Barbarese


Volume 9, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2005

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"Charlotte's "Text": A Note on the Etymology of Web"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680