Our Porcine Selves

November 15 | 2016

In “The Etiquette of Freedom,” the writer Gary Snyder reminds us:

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class.


Children’s literature may be among the only refuges for this idea. But even there, it doesn’t roam free. We think of the children’s classics as being full of animals with human attributes. Take Wilbur the pig, for instance, in Charlotte’s Web. With his spider ally, Charlotte, and his human ally, Fern, Wilbur plots to avert his own end in the slaughterhouse. We recognize the human in Wilbur, but do we acknowledge the pig in Fern? The strength of the bond between girl and pig suggests so. So does E.B. White’s knowledge of pigs.

In creating Wilbur, White didn’t just slip a human voice into pig’s trotters. Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, five years after White had written his essay “Death of a Pig.” In 1947 White was living on a farm, where he’d become familiar enough with pigs to chat about their “deep hemorrhagic infarcts,” not to mention their “coy little lashes.” White had purchased a pig with the intention of regaling it with food and then performing “first degree murder.” Instead he found himself “cast suddenly in the role of the pig’s friend and physician.” He knew the brute right down to the “pink, corrugated area” of its throat.

Wilbur came out of the farmyard as much as he did from E.B. White’s imagination. There’s got to be some pig in Wilbur, and in loving Wilbur, we recognize, albeit dimly, the even-toed ungulate in all of us.