"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell, as though nothing bad could ever happen again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
– E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web”
Not long ago my girlfriend and I began reading to each other late at night from E.B. White’s children’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” It was a book we remembered fondly from our childhoods, and by reading it aloud we may have hoped to recoup some of the lost comforts of that time: the comfort of having someone you loved sit beside you in the vulnerable half-hour before sleep; the comfort of being lowered into the night on a silken line of
narrative. And because we were reading as well as being read to (we took turns on alternating nights), we were also experiencing a pleasure associated with parenthood, experiencing it in a tidied-up way, since neither of us was likely to interrupt the reading to ask what a
certain word meant, or why someone would want to kill a little pig, or for a drink of water.
I was the first reader, and I remember thinking, as I launched into prose, that here was a perfect children’s book: simple, concrete words; short sentences as finely balanced as vintage hand tools, dialogue that sets character as well as situation and compels even the most droning reader to put some feeling in his recitation. The story announced itself with a forthrightness that is almost taboo in contemporary adult fiction, though it was more common in the last century. A little pig, the runt of his litter, is saved from slaughter by a girl named Fern, who then raises it as a baby. She names it Wilbur. When Wilbur gets too big to keep around the house, he is sent to live in a barn belonging to Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman.
At first he is lonely. Then one day Wilbur makes a friend. She is Charlotte A. Cavitica, a common gray barn spider. Charlotte is shrewd, loyal and
possessed of an unusual literary facility. This last quality proves instrumental in saving Wilbur’s life. When Charlotte learns that Zuckerman plans to butcher the pig come Christmastime, she embarks on an elaborate PR campaign, spinning Wilbur’s praises — “SOME PIG,” “TERRIFIC,” “RADIANT” — into her web. (Fittingly, she copies the words from magazine ads.) Everyone takes this for a miracle, although one or two people are sufficiently perspicacious to note that the miracle consists of a spider’s being able to write. After a triumphant appearance at the County Fair, where he is awarded a special medal, Wilbur’s safety is assured. Charlotte dies, but Wilbur rescues her egg sac so that her children and grandchildren will live on in the barn.
My initial impression of “Charlotte’s Web” was of how nice it was. I don’t mean this pejoratively. Niceness connotes blandness and ineffectuality
(calling someone “a nice guy” isn’t much of a compliment these days), but it can also mean sweetness, decency, a sense of rightness, things we want to impart to our children. At first glance the world of “Charlotte’s Web” seems very nice: A small child prevails upon her father’s conscience and saves the life of a small, weak animal. A bond arises between them. There is mercy here, and love, in forms that children can understand. Children can be brutal, but they also have a strong sense of justice. What bothers Fern most about the pig’s impending slaughter is how unfair it is: “If I had been very small at birth,’” she asks her father, “Would you have killed me?’” I can’t remember what I felt reading this passage as a child, but as an adult I smiled ruefully. I smiled because I recognized the logic of Fern’s argument. The ruefulness came in because I know how feeble such logic is in the “real,” the grown-up, world — where small animals and small children are killed all the time. So perhaps the niceness I discerned in White’s book really is the same thing as ineffectuality or, more accurately, fragility. Perhaps all children’s books convey a vision of reality whose poignancy comes from the grown-up’s knowledge and the child’s suspicion that the vision is based only on wish.
White himself seems to acknowledge this. Imbedded in his description of Zuckerman’s barn — a description whose loving enumeration of horses’ sweat and cows’ breath, axle grease and harness dressing evokes mood as wonderfully as one of James Schuyler’s nature poems — lies the idea of refuge. The barn’s peaceful smell makes one feel “as though nothing bad could ever happen again in the world.” But the phrase also contains a recognition that bad things have happened already and will probably happen again. Wilbur is snubbed by the other animals. The same people who feed and care for him turn out to be plotting his death. Even Fern, who used to take Wilbur for rides in her doll’s baby carriage and watch him raptly in his pen, gradually grows more interested in boys. Alongside its niceness, “Charlotte’s Web” presents the reader with instances of thoughtless cruelty, hypocrisy and betrayal. “Jesus, people are awful!” I burst out when my girlfriend revealed the plans for Wilbur’s slaughter. “Yup, they sure are,” she said.
Her response echoed the matter-of-factness with which White introduces the darker elements of his story. It may not even be fair to call those elements dark. The revelation that Wilbur’s owner plans to kill him is frightening, but neither Wilbur nor Charlotte bears any grudge against Zuckerman. This, they understand, is what people are like. Zuckerman, his wife and Lurvy, their hired man, are genuinely nice people, and they genuinely like their pig. They simply view him the way farmers have always viewed pigs. With the appearance of Charlotte’s messages, their good-natured utilitarianism turns into awe and pride. When Wilbur gets his medal, the Zuckermans hug each other for joy. The irony of this scene, in which people do cartwheels over an animal they were prepared to convert into ham and bacon, is one of the rewards that White seems to have planted in his text especially for the grown-up reader.
Another such reward is Templeton, the sour, skulking, gluttonous rat who nests under Wilbur’s trough and helps save his life. White gives him the
book’s choicest monologues, arias of cupidity and spleen. (Templeton, after a nocturnal jaunt through the fairgrounds: “What a night! What feasting and carousing! A real gorge! I must have eaten the remains of thirty lunches. Never have I seen such leavings, and everything well-ripened and seasoned with the passage of time and the heat of the day. Oh, it was rich, my friends, rich!”) If the Zuckermans are good people who almost do something
bad, Templeton is a miserable creature who ends up doing something good. He does so without ever deviating from his essential rattiness. Charlotte doesn’t enlist Templeton in her rescue operation by appealing to his better nature. He doesn’t have one. She appeals to his secretiveness, his fondness for garbage (including scraps of magazines), his voracity, his greed.
But then, Charlotte, too, has her darker traits. Like any spider, she is a predator, and Wilbur, who is the book’s embodiment of simple niceness, is at first appalled by her bloodlust. A more conventional children’s writer might have forced Charlotte to renounce her savagery (today, she would turn vegan). White’s spider remains in character to the end. What changes is Wilbur’s, and our own, perception of her: our growing awareness of the tenderness and loyalty that coexist with her biological cruelty. Where Templeton recalls Dickens’s captivating grotesques (the rat is like a teetotaling Krook), Charlotte puts one in mind of the ambiguous, worldly female characters of Henry James, who fly beneath the reader’s moral radar and so expose what an unreliable instrument that radar is.
Of course, I didn’t see this as a child. I loved Charlotte for much the same reasons Wilbur does, and I wept at her death, which takes place on the
abandoned fairground that was the scene of her greatest triumph. It was the first time I remember crying at something I’d read in a book, my first
experience of fiction’s inexplicable power to reach inside a reader’s heart or brain and call down thunderstorms of emotion. At a time when everything children read, watch or play with is subject to jumpy adult scrutiny, it’s odd that no one has thought to slap a warning sticker on “Charlotte’s Web”: Caution, this book may make your child feel.
One answer may be that, while “Charlotte’s Web” is genuinely sad, it is not traumatic in the way that Bambi can be for many young children. What makes Bambi so horrifying is the death of Bambi’s mother, which occurs while he is still a defenseless fawn. The scenario is too reminiscent of small children’s deepest fears. Although Charlotte isn’t Wilbur’s real mother, she certainly functions as one, offering him the love, instruction, protection
and unqualified acceptance that are the existential attributes of motherhood. But Charlotte doesn’t die until she has made sure that Wilbur will be able to survive without her. This is probably what makes her death less upsetting to young readers. And it may be what makes it so moving to an adult. In Charlotte’s death I saw the death of my own elderly parents, who had nurtured me to maturity and died when I was grown. Re-reading Charlotte’s death as an adult, I teared up once more.
A psychoanalyst once told me that the point of having children, psychoanalytically speaking, is that it gives you a chance to reenact your childhood while simultaneously viewing it with the clarity of an adult. To me this seems like a frivolous (and potentially disastrous) reason for having kids, but it may be a good reason for re-reading a book like “Charlotte’s Web,” and especially for having it read to you aloud. Lying in the glow of the night lamp, listening to the rhythms of a loved one’s voice, you feel the same anticipation, at once calming and enlivening, that same eagerness for what happens next. You laugh when Wilbur tries to spin a web of his own; you rejoice when he gets that medal; you cry (at least I did) when he gets his first wondering look at Charlotte’s children. Another part of you is responding with a connoisseurship born of years of reading and living, enjoying White’s unhurried storytelling, his vital characterizations, his irony and poetry. And all the while another part of you may be watching yourself take in these various kinds of pleasure. It is like seeing the child you were meet the grown-up you have become, in a place of mutual comfort and enjoyment.
Peter Trachtenberg is the author of "The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning" and "7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh." His new book, "Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons," is forthcoming in November. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he's an assistant professor of creative writing.More Peter Trachtenberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)