Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The CANON: Charlott'es Web Revisted (Engl. 300)

I’m going to have to side with literary critic Bettelhiem on this one notion, and stand fast in my decision. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, albeit a lovely children’s story, offers little more than a simple moral and should be reconsidered in concern to the MSU canon. Charlotte’s egg sack spawned 514 baby spiders, a rat talks, and Charlotte’s last written words that ever will be seen are “Humble”. My point being, beyond the talking Pig, and other chatty animals, the story is charming, and that’s all it is.


While discussing the canon with Professor Sexson, he argued in favor of Charlotte’s Web. He said that, “It’s not often you find a best friend Like Charlotte, let alone a friend that can write well.” Dr. Sexson argues that Charlotte’s Web isn’t as straight forward and “preachy” as other classic children’s stories, such as the fairy tales of Brothers Grimm. Instead he elevates the status of Charlotte’s Web to that of a smarter children’s story which doesn’t preach down to its audience. Beyond the moral there exists an excellent story of friendship. However, like the story itself, Dr. Sexson’s argument is “charming”, but doesn’t hold up on its own.

There are various well written “chum” stories to consider, such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (which is on the list). The story also focuses on friendship, talking animals, and highlights story above the simplistic morals which so many lesser profound children’s books ardently preach. This in hindsight is a better proponent and defense for other texts, such as The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, another fine example of excellent children’s literature. I would place this book higher than Charlotte’s Web, because even though Charlotte is a nice spider, that can spell words well, the importance of words aren’t as meaningful as the story itself. Charlotte's Web gains value in the relationship and story of the characters. In the instance of The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo and Tock the ticking “watch dog” have grand adventures taking them through Dictionopolis and past the Mountains of Ignorance to save the Princesses, Rhyme and Reason. Beyond the words there exists a grander scale adventure of storytelling, one we mustn’t neglect; one which also encompasses the value and the relationship of its characters. We can appreciate the articulation and word play of this Alice and Wonderland styled adventure, always realizing that the story propels itself, and never succumbs to moralistic views, at least no more so than Charlotte’s Web.

Perhaps Charlotte’s Web does indeed hold itself at bay, and never transgresses to moralistic preaching, but as seen in the above examples “charming” just doesn’t negate Charlotte’s Web the right to be placed above other equally acceptable (if not more so) texts into the canon. To better make my point, I will reflect many modernists’ views of what defines a text as worthy of being canonized. One way would be in considering the work itself, as T.S. Eliot defined the timelessness of “traditional” qualities of texts, “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity” (Norton, p.1093).

Of course, when I was asked whether I think the author Steven King should be added to the Western Canon, my immediate response was that his massive body of work will become a lasting impression upon our literary historical mind, but for the time being, I do not believe his writings meet T.S. Eliot’s criteria of timeless endurance. As is the case of Charlotte’s Web. Perhaps, in the sense of Children’s literature, Charlotte and Wilbur have a head start on Steven King in reaching a canonical state, but I don’t see any criteria which allow Charlotte’s Web any greater claims to canonical fame than The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wind in the Willows. In fact, we could vary easily change the debate to a positioning one, rather than a discussion of alteration, between The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte's Web. My point is that we need to reflect on why they are there, and if they are truly suited for the position they maintain. For the sake of the arguement, and time, I will not digress to that arguement of positioning, but will leave it up to you to ponder.

The text that I believe stands T.S. Eliot’s test of time, would be Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. This book, like the other children’s works, is well qualified to replace the “charming” Charlotte’s Web. (My first argument "Something to Consider", as seen bellow, identifies reasons for being so.) Also consider it a strong element to feature a minority writer. For those who are overly concerned about repetition, as Mr. Rushdie’s Midnight Children, is also on the MSU list of books, don’t forget that James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and if you count them as one, the sisters Bronte all have repeated titles with their namesake on the MSU list of the hundred best books. Consider these repetitions, before you brush aside Mr. Rushdie. Whether or not we count Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, or any of the various other collected works as more than one, or as redundant, this too is up for debate. However, due to the vastness and profound properties of these works, I believe categorizing them as single units fits our purpose. I am not one to debate whether Shakespeare’s Tempest is better suited than Hamlet in any way or means, because both texts have had such a meaningful influence in my own life; that I would do Shakespeare, nor anybody else justice to argue that debate. The debate I can argue is: Charlotte’s Web is not well equipped enough to stand up against Haroun and the Sea of Stories when we hold each text to T.S. Eliot’s definition of a lasting “tradition”.

In finality, I ask you all to question why Charlotte’s Web should stay on the canonical list. Perhaps others will find faults in my argument, but in considering T.S. Eliot, “It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. And we do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but it’s fitting in is a test of its value—a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity” (Norton, p. 1093-4). The essence of Charlotte’s Web is well acknowledged, but it is a shade dimmer in literary vibrancy than the previously discussed texts. Nor can it distinguish itself with any great residing superiority from the other works I have contrasted it against. In reflection, I see no argument which supports its place among the canon.

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