Charlotte’s Web is one of those children’s books that elicits nostalgia well into adulthood, a timelessness undoubtedly linked to its status as a literary Rorschach test. In her original 1952 New York Times review, Eudora Welty claimed the book was about “friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.” Such a comprehensive array of themes is a lot to expect from a slim work of children’s literature, no doubt, but E.B. White delivers. Zuckerman’s farm is such an all-encompassing microcosm of human experience that one can superimpose any number of adult topics over the well-worn narrative: the death of a mentor, the dissolution of a relationship, the realization of one’s mortality, the fear of becoming obsolete.
At one point or another, the book has meant all these things to me, but in 2017—in the midst of unemployment—it took on an unexpected significance. Spending hours a day alone, entombed in the echo chamber of my own thoughts, I had lots of time to mourn the talents I did not have and the skills I never developed. I often wondered whether I had any pragmatic value, fearful of what the future would hold if I couldn’t carve out a niche for myself in the job market. When I found Charlotte’s Web in my closet and reread it on a whim, it gave me inordinate comfort. Wilbur had no worth in any measurable sense; he was so useless that Fern’s father had no qualms about hacking him to death with an axe. Yet, Charlotte helped him. He didn’t need to prove his worth because he was her friend, something tremendous in its own right.
This dose of nostalgia was a much-needed reminder of the inherent value of plain, naked decency. It was then Charlotte’s Web became my personal anti-capitalist manifesto, a rallying cry that I have a self entirely separate from what I do or do not contribute to the American workforce.
Nostalgia is having its heyday in current media, everything from 90s sitcoms to classic board games re-tooled and mass marketed for a 21st-century audience. I’ll admit I’m getting a little exhausted with reboots, but their appeal isn’t lost on me; nostalgia is an enclave of total security, a transhistorical respite conjured from starry-eyed recollections of childhood that filter out the bad bits. Isn’t it natural to long for a Pavlovian calm born from rose-colored memories in times of great stress? Living with a constant, gnawing sense of inadequacy is an ailment common to millennials, and one I felt intensely when I reread Charlotte’s Web.
I quit my job in September of 2017, although calling it a job is a misnomer. I was never an employee. It was a freelance gig with zero benefits that paid $13 an hour while requiring a master’s degree. I wrote countless how-to articles against my better judgment. Topics included how to give a dog a rabies shot without a vet, how to use a chainsaw without professional training, and how to ignore the symptoms of depression. Things came to a head when I sent my supervisor an article about a man who became paralyzed cracking his own back to demonstrate why publishing “How To Crack Your Own Back” was irresponsible. She told me to write the article anyway. Instead, I quit.My generation is returning to our heroes, but not to the ones found in ancient texts. We’re returning to more contemporary idols that speak to us.
This brand of quasi-job is not uncommon for millennials; Anne Helen Petersen discussed it in the BuzzFeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” in which she spent over 7,000 words breaking down my generation’s tenuous relationship with the workforce. The piece resonated quickly, prompting follow-up articles like Tiana Clark’s “This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like,” which extrapolated on how burnout affects specific subsets of the American population. In her broad take on the subject, Petersen naturally pointed fingers at the two major economic crashes that occurred while millennials were coming of age: the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s and the housing crisis in 2008. This created a workforce where we competed for positions with recently laid-off applicants whose decades of experience dwarfed our summer internships, resulting in most of us patching together a hodge-podge of low-level, part-time work to make ends meet.
I was no different. After finishing graduate school and learning of the nearly comically unattainable nature of stable jobs in higher education, I struggled to find employment outside of academia. For years I took the brand of low-paying, demeaning gigs commonly tolerated by financially-strapped millennials.
The problems that permeated millennials’ early years are getting worse. It’s no wonder rates of childhood anxiety and depression are skyrocketing at record rates. I’m unsurprised the term “Late Stage Capitalism” has taken off online, unbound from its theoretical roots to become a catchall phrase for the absurdities of the system. There are news stories about couples who park outside the ER after their child ingests laundry detergent, preferring to watch for symptoms rather than risk financial ruin over a potential non-emergency. There are tales you hear about the pharmacist with stage-4 bladder cancer who took medical leave only to be fired when higher-ups scoured his performance to find reasonable grounds for termination in the form of a small infraction about leaning on medicine cabinets. There’s the existential terror of global warming, fueled by corporations that produce a disproportionate 71 percent of fossil fuel emissions. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, and frankly outright terrifying.
A child’s job used to simply be to grow up. This means developing a sense of self, defining personal ethics, and learning how to form meaningful relationships. These are lessons I learned from Charlotte’s Web and re-learned as an unemployed adult. While my job was belittling, it was at least a job, and I took solace in the fact I was supporting myself. Without having some achievement to tout, I was unsure of who I was. Charlotte and Wilbur reminded me that there’s an invaluable self beneath your accomplishments. As a child, the book encouraged my best qualities: kindness, compassion, a sense of humor, joy, and gratitude. I was still all those things now. The book allowed me to see myself through Charlotte’s compassionate eyes rather than the computing gaze of Zuckerman.
There’s a subtle hidden meaning to the first words Charlotte weaves into Wilbur’s web: “Some Pig.” This phrase is as dismissive as celebratory. Note the difference between, “Wow, that’s some pig!” and “Oh, that’s just some pig.” Wilbur is the latter. He’s a kind, big-hearted soul with an unabashed appreciation for joy and an unbound gratitude for his loved ones, but he doesn’t come endowed with any obviously advantageous skills. Yet, we are as invested in his well-being as Fern and Charlotte. Just before Charlotte passes, Wilbur asks why she saved his life when he did nothing for her.There’s a collective sense we’re coming of age at the end of something, experiencing the irreparable loss of American stability.
“You have been my friend,” replies Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.”
This feels radical in a system where basic rights are contingent on employment. A friend of mine used to work at a homeless shelter and told me the disregard for the dispossessed is so callous in our society that homeless Americans can’t reasonably be considered citizens. The world of Charlotte’s Web—full of unquestioned charity—feels aspirational, a welcome reminder all living beings have inherent value. We lift up one another, shine light on what would otherwise be a dark existence of birth, life, and death. This, in and of itself, is invaluable. Reading the book at a time when I was becoming increasingly fed up with the system, the message felt incredibly powerful.
Not all nostalgia is rooted in such sweet, soft matters. The late Svetlana Boym, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, wrote on nostalgia in Atlas of Transformation. She expounded on how nostalgia can swing in both progressive and regressive directions, identifying two types: restorative and reflective.
The former, Boym warns, can breed monsters. It’s mistaking one’s fantasy of a bygone era as reality, resulting in the desire to restore a time and place that never existed. It does not think of itself as nostalgia, Boym writes, but as truth and tradition. This flavor of nostalgia fueled the age of Trump, whose assurances spoke to the insecurities of a sizable demographic of older Americans fearful that a changing world would threaten their well-being. Some fear of change among the aging is understandable; does anyone want to go gently into the good night of their own obsolescence? But Trump’s campaign team harnessed the sinister side of nostalgia, convincing a massive portion of the population to scapegoat various imagined boogeymen for the supposed degradation of the country: immigrants, feminists, intellectuals, scientists.
Reflective nostalgia, however, is far less menacing. It’s a self-aware brand of nostalgia, one that doesn’t always take itself quite seriously. It can be ironic, funny, and irreverent. It knows, Boym says, affective memories cannot and should not prohibit critical thinking. Reflective nostalgia does not oppose progressivism. In fact, it can even support it as it’s an effective tool for assessing the present. The fantasies of the past, Boym tells us, often give us insight into what’s missing in the present and can in turn shape the future.
My generation’s nostalgia is not always serious. As Friends reaches its 25th anniversary, countless people have pointed out that the show has aged poorly. Our nostalgia, however, is not all rooted in things like Friends. There is a more serious, sincere, and ultimately more important side to the millennial proclivity to long for the past. It’s the longing I had for Charlotte’s Web and the longing some may have for Harry Potter or The Little Prince or The Giving Tree. It’s the longing that’s made the regurgitation of timeless comic book heroes for the big screen an endlessly lucrative endeavor.
I took a seminar in literature my junior year of college where we read all the classic epics: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh. My professor warned us the world was on the verge of chaos, citing global warming, increasing economic turmoil, and brewing civil unrest as evidence. It was important we learn these works, he said, as epics help define the meaning of heroism in times of hardship.
My generation is returning to our heroes, but not to the ones found in ancient texts. We’re returning to more contemporary idols that speak to us. The American Gilgamesh could be Spiderman. He taught us great power means great responsibility, an invaluable lesson when you come of age in an increasingly oligarchic world power. Just as the comforting words of Charlotte’s Web felt political to me in 2017, popular narratives that dotted millennials’ youth are taking on timely meanings as we revisit them in possibly apocalyptic times.
We need these stories to sustain ourselves. There’s a collective sense we’re coming of age at the end of something, experiencing the irreparable loss of American stability as we watch the country descend further into radicalism, violence, and gross inequality. We mine the meat of our longing for the past to choose our path into the future. The message we take away, I feel, is ultimately positive; our nostalgia can resist nihilism, aligning us with charitable heroes rather than those who would fiddle as Rome burns. It offers us a welcome reminder of the inherent value of life, advocating for all that is still worth saving in our troubled world.