The Pig That Inspired Wilbur

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

#Pig appreciation post #GarthWilliams #Wilbur #Charlottesweb 🐷🐽

A photo posted by Yvonne Su (@yiban49) on

One of the best things I’ve read in our archives this year is a personal essay from E.B. White, who famously went on to publish Charlotte’s Web in 1952. The January 1948 Atlantic Monthly essay, “Death of a Pig,” is an affecting account of White’s attempt to save a pig from a slow and agonizing illness. But the story also has some darkly funny scenes, such as White attending a “colonic carnival.”

[T]he enema, though ineffective, was not as difficult as I had anticipated. I discovered, though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.

The pig that White tried to save has some strong parallels to his book’s main protagonist, Wilbur the pig, who is saved from slaughter. Gerald Weales, an English professor and drama critic, touched upon that connection in The New York Times in 1970:

[The death of the pig is] made ironic by the fact that the pig had been bought to act its part in the “tragedy” of the spring pig fattened for winter butchering. Since literature is not life, White set out in “Charlotte’s Web” to save his pig in retrospect, this time not from an unexpected illness but from its presumably fated “tragedy.”

White himself was elusive when it came to that connection. In September 1952, a few weeks before publishing Charlotte’s Web, his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, asked if he would explain the motivation behind writing the book. White responded with this letter, which begins:

E.B. White with his dachschund, Minnie.
A trusty dachshund also plays a role in
“Death of a Pig.” (Wikimedia)

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.

How White ended the letter:

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.