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MALS Alumni Book Club

Monday, February 26, 2024 6:30pm to 8:30pm

Registration required; please contact mals@reed.edu.

Celebrated as a classic of children's literature, Charlotte's Web is also a surprisingly complex adaptation of the pastoral mode, which represents tensions between innocence and experience, simplicity and complexity, and nature and culture, dating back to Hellenistic poetry. Charlotte's Web invites the reader to think not only about who has rights, but also what is right in a community, from the household to the barnyard, to the county fair. An analytical approach might examine, for example, axes of difference within the text, the narrator's contrasting representations of a child's innocent view of "fairness" and a parent's understanding of economic necessity, and the power of imagination to create new relationships to place and those who share it.

E.B. White's nostalgic depiction of a small farm in Maine inspired another mid-century classic: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), an exposé of the destruction caused by agricultural pesticides promoted by the chemical industry and unchecked by governmental oversight. Both authors wrote for The New Yorker, and were renowned as virtuosically careful stylists and environmental advocates; Carson actually asked White to cover the DDT hearings for The New Yorker in 1958, but he encouraged her to pitch the story herself. The editor was impressed: "We don't usually think of The New Yorker as changing the world," he told her, "but this one time it might." The power of language is a central theme for White as well. His hero is a talking piglet whose spider friend, Charlotte, weaves messages into her web to save his life: "With the right words," White writes, "you can change the world." We will discuss this premise and its significance to the longstanding humanistic inquiry at the heart of the MALS program.

Faculty guide: Sarah Wagner-McCoy, Associate Professor of English and Humanities.

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