By Harvey Freedenberg
E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
Book by Michael Sims(Walker & Company, $16,320 pages, Paperback)
Last October marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Charlotte’s Web, one of the most popular children’s books of all time.
With sales of more than 45 million copies and translation into 23 languages, E.B. White’s novel about a remarkable gray spider whose preternatural skill at spelling saves the life of a timorous pig named Wilbur has enchanted generations of both youngsters and adults.
Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is both a well-researched and informative profile of the author and a thoughtful portrait of this captivating story’s creation.
From his earliest days growing up as the youngest of seven children in an upper-middle-class household in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Elwyn Brooks White (known as “Andy” beginning with his days at Cornell University) was fascinated with the natural world.
“The companionship of animals was more important than anything else he could think of,” Sims writes.
When Elwyn was 6, his family began spending an extended summer vacation in a cabin alongside Messalonskee Lake, near Belgrade, Maine, “trading the din of the New York station for birdsong and fresh pine-scented woodland.”
White’s deep affection for Maine lay at the core of his identity. In 1933, he and his wife, Katherine Angell, an editor at The New Yorker, the magazine White joined in its early days and where he spent much of his career, purchased a 40-acre farm near the Maine coast.
From the first, he was no gentleman farmer. In 1938, he moved to Maine full time, while continuing to pursue his work as an essayist for The New Yorker and magazines like Harper’s that brought him (along with his updating of his teacher William Strunk’s classic writing text, The Elements of Style), well-deserved fame in the literary world.
As a teenager, Sims recounts, White became fascinated with the work of Don Marquis, a popular columnist for the New York Sun, who created a memorable pair of nonhuman characters: Archy, a cockroach who wrote poetry on the columnist’s typewriter at night, and Mehitabel, a cat who “became Archy’s foil and partner in literary crime.”
In giving birth to his own cast of articulate animals, White frankly acknowledged his debt to Marquis, even contributing an introduction to a posthumous collection of the writer’s work.
According to Sims’ account, these threads – a passion for the farming life and a fascination with animal protagonists – coalesced in the writing of Charlotte’s Web. White already had tasted success in the world of children’s literature with the 1945 publication of Stuart Little, a novel about a little boy the size and appearance of a mouse.
He began work on the second novel in 1949, but was in no rush to bring it to a conclusion. “I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children’s book,” he said while working on Stuart Little in 1939, “as I have too much respect for children.”
Sims describes, in ample detail, White’s painstaking research into the world of spiders, as thorough as if he had been writing a scientific textbook instead of a children’s novel. This was not some casual effort, tossed off by a serious writer eager to make a quick buck.
That same attentiveness also is evident in the care White devoted to ensuring the Garth Williams’ pen-and-ink illustrations that enhance the reading experience were just as he wanted them.
One of the qualities that accounts for the enduring appeal of the novel is the frankness White brought to its telling.
“There was no bucolic innocence in farming,” Sims observes, as he highlights the paradox between the warm care White gave his animals and his knowledge that some of those same pigs and sheep were destined to end up on the family’s dinner plates.
In Charlotte’s Web, the charming spider says of her prey, “I don’t really eat them. I drink them – drink their blood. I love blood.”
White shares his intimate familiarity with the eternal tension between the beauty of the natural world and its cruelty and violence in a way that’s honest without terrifying young readers.
A book like Charlotte’s Web has earned its enduring popularity because it’s much more than a simple tale designed to amuse youngsters for a time, only to be quickly forgotten. Its universal and timeless themes – life and death, friendship, loyalty and compassion – guarantee it will be treasured as long as children are enchanted by the magic of books and the joy of reading.
Michael Sims has written an entertaining, insightful companion to a cherished novel that will deepen the appreciation of anyone who enjoys this delightful story.