The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

3.7 19
by Michael Sims
     
 

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As he was composing what was to become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White was obeying that oft-repeated maxim: "Write what you know." Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats—White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours. Painfully shy his entire life, "this

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Overview

As he was composing what was to become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White was obeying that oft-repeated maxim: "Write what you know." Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats—White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours. Painfully shy his entire life, "this boy," White once wrote of himself, "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." It's all the more impressive, therefore, how many people have felt a kinship with E. B. White. With Charlotte's Web, which has gone on to sell more than 45 million copies, the man William Shawn called "the most companionable of writers" lodged his own character, the avuncular author, into the hearts of generations of readers.

In The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims shows how White solved what critic Clifton Fadiman once called "the standing problem of the juvenile-fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole" by mining the raw ore of his childhood friendship with animals in Mount Vernon, New York. translating his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into an al-time classic. Blending White's correspondence with the likes of Ursula Nordstrom, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, the E. B. White papers at Cornell, and the archives of HarperCollins and the New Yorker into his own elegant narrative, Sims brings to life the shy boy whose animal stories—real and imaginery—made him famous around the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this spry biography of Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985), Sims (Apollo's Fire) immerses himself in White's oeuvre and channels his lucid prose style. Juxtaposing details from White's essays and letters with his own research and sprinkling the text with White's gimlet-eyed quotations, Sims depicts the author (who lived in suburban Mount Vernon and summered in Maine) as a melancholy wunderkind. The deeply sensitive, meticulous White—"plagued by wild anxieties and indefinable nostalgia" all his life—grew up admiring naturalist writers like Ernest Thompson Seton, and contributing animal stories to St. Nicholas children's magazine. Sims breezes past White's college years, focusing instead on his introversion and romantic-washout status, while also devoting attention to his blossoming as a staff writer and cartoon-captioning whiz for Harold Ross' New Yorker. According to Sims, White drew inspiration from Don Marquis' anthropomorphic cockroach and cat, as well as from wife-to-be Katharine Angell, and fellow writer James Thurber. Not until his 50s, after years in the city and on his small Maine farm, did White utilize these formative influences for Charlotte's Web. Admirers of White's essays and luminous children's literature will be delighted by this amiable chronicle. 8p b&w insert. (June)
Boston Globe

Immensely charming
Wall Street Journal

A fine stylist, Mr. Sims portrays these scenes with a beauty and an economy of language that would make the co-author of The Elements of Style proud.
The Washington Post

Thorough...clear, direct and concise...a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White's vision.
Christian Science Monitor

The Story of Charlotte's Web is a paean to a great work and a window into the uniquely gifted man who created it.
Entertainment Weekly

Sims offers an affectionate homage to E.B. White
Salon

An engaging, distilled, highly focused biography of White
USA Today

Built on revealing glimpses
Science Friday

A really lovely book
Smithsonian

Unpacks the appeal of Charlotte's Web
Vanity Fair

Goes back to Zuckerman's farm
Chicago Sun-Times

A pocket biography
Huffington Post Monica Edinger

Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone's time
Library Journal
Sims (Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form), as a droll observer of the natural world and editor of the annotated edition of one of E.B. White's formative influences, Don Marquis's Archy and Mehitabel, is uniquely qualified to write what is a biography of Charlotte's Web as much as it's a biography of White. White's childhood fascination with the world's smaller denizens and his literary career, including his storied history at The New Yorker, are traced by Sims to their climax in the germination of the plot for Charlotte's Web. Like Beatrix Potter, whose children's stories about anthropomorphized animals were written a half-century before, White consciously avoided moralizing and instead attempted naturalistic faithfulness. Although his children's books were extremely successful and tourists flocked unbidden to his Maine farm each year for his birthday, he longed for solitude throughout his life and felt the greatest connection with animals; Sims successfully argues that Charlotte's Web unintentionally became a "summary of what it felt like to be E.B. White." VERDICT Scholars of children's literature as well as fans—child and grown-up alike—of either White generally or Charlotte's Web in particular will enjoy this biblio-biography.—Megan Hodge, Randolph-Macon Coll. Lib., Ashland, VA
Kirkus Reviews

An affectionate biography examines the birth of an American classic.

As the subtitle indicates, Sims (Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, 2007, etc.) concentrates on White's lifelong love of the natural world. He loved the family stable, writes the author, and roamed the undeveloped places in and around Mount Vernon, N.Y., as well as reveling in the rustic beauty of the Belgrade Lakes in Maine, where his family summered. White's reading tastes revolved around the "true life" animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton and his ilk, and he was also charmed by the antics of Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel. White began writing early, first keeping a diary and then joining the child contributors to St. Nicholas, among whom also numbered his future wife, Katharine Sergeant. Sims also traces White'sNew Yorkercareer, touching lightly on high points and drawing on his writings, both public and private, in which he often adopted the voices of animals. The author avoids the often-irritating tendency of literary biographers to foreshadow portentously from these early experiences, allowing readers to draw their own connections. His examination of the genesis and development ofCharlotte's Web—White worked desperately to nurse an ill pig back to health, knowing that if he was successful, he would end up killing it anyway—will thrill lovers of the novel. Sims quotes generously from White's working drafts, which were constantly in revision from the beginning. Descriptions of these pages offer both a fascinating insight into the writing process and crushing refutation of any claim that writing for children is easy.

Packed with the same kind of sensory detail its subject reveled in, this account is an honorable addition to the literature of letters.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802777546
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Publication date:
06/07/2011
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
8.28(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.09(d)

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