Charlotte’s Web and Lincoln: a Photobiography

E.B White’s book, Charlotte’s Web, tells the story of a piglet rescued from death from its owner by the owner’s daughter, Fern. Fern appeals to her father’s sense of justice, pleading with him that, to kill the piglet just because it is a rant would be most unfair.

Wilbur, the piglet, thus survives and lives an adventurous life, later being sold to the Zuckermans, on whose firm he develops a friendship with a spider named Charlotte, who saves the life of Wilbur again when the owner tries to slaughter him over the Christmas season.

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Russell Freedman’s picture book Lincoln: a Photobiography tells the story of the life and times of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Using pictures to augment the writings, the book traces the life of Lincoln from childhood to his eventual rise to the pinnacle of US politics – the US presidency. Pictures give a story an extra angle of believability and are an important addition to the words of the text.

While Charlotte’s Web is a fictional account, Lincoln: a Photobiography is a factual account of the life of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the US. Charlotte’s Web, in telling the story of Wilbur, the pig, illustrates the theme of discrimination, as depicted in the life and activities of Wilbur. From the very day of his birth, Fern’s father declares Wilbur unfit to live due to his small stature and sickliness.

The picture, on the other hand, portrays Abraham Lincoln as a person who endures a lot of hardships and discrimination, battling discrimination against himself, and discrimination against those whom the constitution gave him power to lead – for instance African Americans suffering under slavery.

In Charlotte’s Web, as stated earlier, the theme of discrimination manifests itself in the life of Wilbur. At birth, Mr. Arable marks Wilber for death due to his perceived illness; Wilbur was not supposed to live since he would not bring any returns (profit) to the owner.

As Fern questions why her father heads for the pigsty with an ax, her mother explains, “One of the pigs is a runt. It is very small and weak. It will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it” (p 1).

This statement leaves Fern mortified and highly disturbed, and she rushes after her father to protest at what she felt to be a serious case of injustice. Fern begs for the life of the pig, promising to look after him, and his father backs down and lets Fern keep the pig as her pet. Wilbur grows to become an active and healthy pig, defying the prognosis that Fern’s father and mother had defined for him at birth.

This clearly is a statement by the author against discrimination based on appearance. The author encourages the reader to develop a culture of giving persons the benefit of doubt, instead of condemning them quickly without getting to know them.

In Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman portrays a Lincoln who encounters much derision and mocking due to his looks. Lincoln grows to a very tall stature, and thus his gangly frame attracted much negative discussion (p 1). He grows in a society the places premium value on looks.

Lincoln, however, overcomes this primitive judgment of one’s character based on looks and successfully pursues his educates to become a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln came from a very poor background, a factor that weighed heavily on his life as he rose up the societal ladder as a lawyer and a congressional representative. He rarely talked about his background (p 8).

Lincoln was of the view that one’s background should not be a factor for success as long as a person was determined to rise to the highest levels of the society.

An element explored by both authors is the futility of discrimination based on age, race, gender, looks, and even class. A common thread in both stories is the fact that the individuals discriminated never chose to be of the specific age, race, gender or other such social constructs.

When Fern is pleading with her father for Wilbur’s life, and her father states that he wants to kill the pig due to the fact that it was runt, Fern states that “The pig couldn’t help being small” (6). This statement pricks the conscience of her father who decides to let his daughter have it her way.

Similarly, Lincoln did not choose to have his looks; therefore, any reference to his looks was invalid. Additionally, Lincoln did not choose his poor background, and Russell Freedman portrayal of Lincoln overcoming the circumstances of his poor background to scale the heights of American politics invalidates discrimination against a person based on the background, which the person had no control over.

Furthermore, in both texts the authors depict the golden rule of treating another person in the same fashion that one would like others to treat him/her. Fern asks her father whether he would have killed her for being small at birth – the very reason that Mr. Arable uses as justification for his intent of killing the piglet: “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” (3). She appeals to her father’s sense of justice, urging him to treat the piglet as if it were his own.

Fern, even in her young mind, knew that if her father would realize that his actions on the piglet could very well reflect his actions on a human being, he would not proceed and kill the innocent piglet. Her father later appreciates the fact that his daughter had a keen sense of justice, something he tells to his wife and son.

The America’s Civil War, which characterized Lincoln’s presidency, intended to reconcile the divergent views on slavery. The North was of the idea that slavery should become to an end, while the South wanted slavery maintained, at the very least in the southern states. Slavery is one of the highest forms of discrimination, and in the US, the slaves were of African descent, and were enslaved because they belonged to a different, supposedly ‘inferior’ race.

As president, Lincoln was highly critical of the unfairness and highly discriminative nature of slavery, where slaves labored from dusk until dawn, in deplorable conditions and at no pay. In the book Lincoln: A Photobiography, a prologue containing Lincoln views on slavery, presented in his own handwriting states that “As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master…” (Freedman ix), Lincoln, through this piece of writing, not only opposes to the institution of slavery that had become highly entrenched in the American economic, social and political fabric, but also urges Americans to view slavery in a different manner.

This prologue by Russell Freedman sees Lincoln urging Americans (and readers of the book at large) to put themselves in the position of the person(s) they are discriminating.

In this way, he urges them determine if they would be comfortable in such situations. Therefore, just like in Charlotte’s Web, the author urges the readers to eliminate discrimination by putting themselves in the situation of the people they discriminate.

Additionally, Wilbur, the pig, overcomes discrimination and isolation at a personal level and in a similar manner, Lincoln experiences hatred and much abuse from his contemporaries due to his political stands on slavery.

In Charlotte’s Web, fellow animals at the Zuckerman farm spurn Wilbur simply because these animals are envious of Wilbur’s cheerful nature. When he seeks to engage with the lamb, the lamb retorts, “… Go play by yourself! I don’t play with pigs” (p 28).

The Goose and Templeton the rat also reject his advances. However, Wilbur does not despair, and he eventually finds a fitting friend in Charlotte, the spider. Many of the farm animals feign a sense of urgency or lie that they are busy to avoid the company of Wilbur, an innocent victim of discrimination.

Through Wilbur’s refusal to be put down by these unrequited advances, E.B White communicates the message that the reader should always stand by their unique and genuine characteristics even in the face of discrimination, and such a stand is usually vindicated in the future. For instance, in Wilbur’s case, Charlotte’s friendship turns out to be most enriching, and Charlotte even saves his life.

In Russell Freedman’s Lincoln: A photobiography Abraham Lincoln comes under a lot of vitriolic attack from all manner of persons for his opposition to slavery. Freedman posits, “During the Civil War he was the most unpopular president the nation had ever known” (5).

When Lincoln warns his fellow Congress representatives that the American nation could not survive with one half supporting slavery and the other half opposed to it, they accused him of predicting disintegration of the nation, and earned even more enemies, simply because of his position.

However, President Lincoln did not waver in his commitment to abolish slavery. In the face of huge odds, Lincoln perseveres and abolishes slavery by the end of the four-year Civil War (Dirck 23).

Freedman communicates to the reader the virtues of being firm in one’s conviction, that in the end the virtuous person will become validated, as Lincoln has been, occupying Folk hero status among the Americans today for his virtuous and firm leadership during the Civil War.

In contrast, however, both authors deal with the ultimate gain of fighting against discrimination differently. E.B White mainly tackles discrimination at the personal level. Beginning with Fern, White portrays her as the hero who stands up for the right to life of a pig deemed as worthless by its owner (45).

Similarly, Wilbur’s ability to remain true to his character (despite rejection from friends at the farm) tackles discrimination at a personal level. Russell Freedman, on the other hand, tackles discrimination at a professional and political level. Abraham Lincoln as a president comes under heavy criticism for his political stand on issues like slavery.

In conclusion, both E.B White and Russell Freedman tackle the issue of discrimination and racism. As discussed in the essay, White tackles discrimination at personal level while Russell tackles discrimination at professional level. Noteworthy however is the interconnection between the two – that having convictions at a personal level informs the reaction of a person at professional level.

For instance, Abraham Lincoln was able to stand against slavery at a political level because he was against it even at a personal level. Therefore, through their different works, the authors have spoken against all forms of discrimination and its ills.

Works Cited

Dirck, Brian. “Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.” Perspectives on Political Science 39.1 (2010): 20-27.

Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. New York: Clarion Books, 1987. Print

White, Brooks. Charlotte’s Web. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952. Print