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

( 18 )

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. ...

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

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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)
From the Publisher
"Immensely charming"—Boston Globe

"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."—Wall Street Journal

"Thorough...clear, direct and concise...a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White’s vision."—The Washington Post

"The Story of Charlotte’s Web is a paean to a great work and a window into the uniquely gifted man who created it."—Christian Science Monitor

"Sims offers an affectionate homage to E.B. White"—Entertainment Weekly

"An engaging, distilled, highly focused biography of White"—Salon

"Built on revealing glimpses"—USA Today

"A really lovely book"—Science Friday

"Unpacks the appeal of Charlotte's Web"—Smithsonian

"Goes back to Zuckerman's farm"—Vanity Fair

"A pocket biography"—Chicago Sun-Times

"Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone's time"—Monica Edinger, Huffington Post

 "An affectionate biography…Packed with the same kind of sensory detail its subject reveled in, this account is an honorable addition to the literature of letters."—Kirkus Reviews

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.

Valerie Sayers
Sims's research is thorough, his own prose clear, direct and concise: the ultimate homage. His book is a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White’s vision of "nature publishing herself."
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

Fifty-nine years after its publication, Charlotte's Web is the bestselling children's book in U.S. history. Hurray for that, because literature—juvenile or adult—doesn't get much better. In Charlotte's Web, a seemingly simple story about a pig whose life is saved by a spider, E. B. White managed, without pomposity, preachiness, or condescension, to encompass issues of mortality and the power of both friendship and the written word. Full review: Fifty-nine years after its publication, Charlotte's Web is the bestselling children's book in U.S. history. Hurray for that, because literature— juvenile or adult—doesn't get much better. In Charlotte's Web, a seemingly simple story about a pig whose life is saved by a spider, E. B. White managed, without pomposity, preachiness, or condescension, to encompass issues of mortality and the power of both friendship and the written word. (It's always struck me that it really wasn't "SOME PIG" but "SOME SPIDER"—a spider who could convey a convincing message in writing.) How did he do it? That's the question Michael Sims set out to answer in The Story of Charlotte's Web, which offers an engaging, distilled, highly focused biography of White.

Sims points out that White "knew his characters from the barns and stables where he spent much of his childhood and adulthood." The author, he says, "hadn't planned the book as a summary of what it felt like to be E. B. White, but by the last page it had preserved in amber his response to the world." In doing so, White was following his own advice to a student: "Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself."

Sims paints a portrait of a shy, slight boy who was prone to hay fever and "crippling second-guessing." Happiest out of doors, he loved eggs as symbols of life and manure for its part in the cycle of regeneration. Elwyn Brooks White showed an early proclivity toward writing and was heavily influenced by what he called "the ecstasy of loneliness" in Thoreau's Walden and the typing cockroach named Archy created by newspaper columnist Don Marquis. (Sims, who edited The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, discusses Marquis's impact on White in some depth.)

At Cornell, White picked up the nickname Andy as well as the imperative to "Omit needless words!" from Professor William Strunk, Jr., whose seminal handbook, The Elements of Style, White would later revise. Sims gives short shrift to the writer's time in New York and the range of his writings for The New Yorker and Harper's—material covered in greater depth, of course, in Scott Elledge's excellent full-bore 1984 biography, E. B. White. Unfortunately, in rushing through this period, there's some sloppiness, leading to contradictory statements about when White moved to Manhattan, the size of his apartment, and which of his first two books—The Lady Is Cold or Is Sex Necessary?—embarrassed his parents.

What Sims is hurrying toward is the meat of his story—life on the farm in North Brooklin, Maine, where White and his wife, New Yorker editor Katharine Angell White, eventually relocated. It was here that White, who considered himself "a full-time farmer and a gentleman writer, " confronted the morality of the farmer's dual role as caretaker and murderer and realized that "there was no bucolic innocence in farming." Upset over the death of a pig he had nursed, he wrote in an essay for Harper's magazine, "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig." In Charlotte's Web, he could make the pig live.

Recounting White's year of research into spiders and web spinning, Sims traces the fascinating, painstaking evolution of White's second of three children's books (after Stuart Little, before The Trumpet of the Swan) through false starts, rewrites, and illustrations by Garth Williams. He explains the import of several names, including Charlotte A. Cavatica, from the genus Aranea cavatica; verdantly symbolic Fern Arable; and the allusion to ancient Greeks in Arcadia in "Doctor Dorian." A chapter originally titled "Charlotte's Death" was changed, at his editor's wise urging, to "Last Day." Among the juicier morsels is the derivation of White's resonant last line—"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."—from a letter Katharine White wrote defending her husband after a literary brouhaha: "They are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both."

With clarity and lack of stuffiness worthy of his subject, Sims succinctly sums up Charlotte's Web's major themes: "Mortality stalked the scene from the first line: 'Where is Papa going with that ax?' The farm animals spoke with casual familiarity of trouble and death?. But overall Andy's theme was the joy of being alive, of reveling in the moment with visceral attention." Sims brings visceral attention to this beloved classic, highlighting its many joys. -—Heller McAlpin

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802777546
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 802,105
  • Product dimensions: 8.28 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Sims

Michael Sims is the author of the acclaimed Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, and editor of the recent Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories and The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime He lives in western Pennsylvania.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Translating Yourself 1

Part I Elwyn

Chapter 1 Enchanted 9

Chapter 2 Fear 19

Chapter 3 Trustworthy 33

Chapter 4 A Writing Fool 42

Chapter 5 Liebesträum 55

Part II Andy

Chapter 6 Olympus 69

Chapter 7 Interview with a Sparrow 86

Chapter 8 Crazy 96

Chapter 9 As Spiders Do 106

Part III Charlotte

Chapter 10 Dream Farm 127

Chapter 11 The Mouse of Thought 143

Chapter 12 Foreknowledge 157

Chapter 13 Zuckerman's Barn 169

Chapter 14 Spinningwork 175

Chapter 15 Paean 189

Chapter 16 Some Book 208

Chapter 17 Completion 226

Coda: After Charlotte 236

Acknowledgments 245

Abbreviations for Frequent Sources 249

Notes 251

Selected Bibliography and Further Reading 289

Index 297

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 18 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 17, 2011

    Excellent book about an excellent book

    <B>The Book Report</b>: The well-studied life of Andy and Katharine White, <I>The New Yorker</i>'s original power couple, would seem to be infertile territory for new and original uses of its rich, deep material. There have been books and books on the magazine, on the couple, on the people that they knew and the world they both created and lived in. But no one until now connected Andy, nature, and <I>Charlotte's Web</i>, arguably one of the 20th century's most influential children's books.

    Sims does this unusual job deftly, providing us with the bare facts of Andy's life, expanding upon those facets that serve his thesis that E.B. "Andy" White was less a social maladroit than a man in love with the natural world, and not greatly interested in most of the manufactured world around him; this slantwise perspective is what allowed the shy guy to see the story he would write, where others would merely have killed the pig for supper and brushed the web aside on the way out of the barn.

    Due attention is given to the work life and the marriage of the man, and since that's well-trodden territory, the author leaves it in bare-bones form. I agree with this decision because it lets him get to the more involving parts of the story: Why did Charlotte come to be? What forces shaped the story, where did they come from, and how did this book make its journey from brainstorm to commercial success? Here is Sims's strength: He never bloviates about His Ideas, he distills a prodigious amount of reading, thinking, and talking into a nuanced, interesting, and immersive read about a book that, I suspect, most of us remember quite clearly encountering for the first time.

    <B>My Review</b>: I disliked <I>Stuart Little</i> as a boy. I'd seen the dog give birth before I read it for the first time; I told my mother, "That story's stupid, she couldn't have had a baby that small alive." Mama looked at me a minute and said, "You're a very practical person, aren't you daaahlin?" (My mother was Southern.) She then gave me <I>Charlotte's Web</i>. I was forever changed. Death entered my world. I don't mean awareness of it; I mean the *experience* of death, when Charlotte dies, was completely and utterly real for me. Absence. Empty space where before was an important life. Re-reading the book, as I did three or four times, couldn't make death go away. Charlotte was gone, that was that, no way was she coming back and her daughters weren't her. It took some time to recover from this blow.

    And then several things happened: 1) I found out the same guy wrote this wonderful book as the dumb mouse-boy book. 2) I suddenly, in a great flash, realized that stories require readers to live, and even if Charlotte was dead, the story wasn't. 3) Maybe <I>Stuart Little</i> wasn't as bad as I thought it was, because the same guy told it! (Actually, I still think it's stupid, and I don't like it to this good day, forty-four years later.)

    So this book arrives from its publisher, all pretty and invitingly designed, and it's about the book that changed my worldview, and it's got that great new-book, ink-and-paper smell; well, what else to do but put down everything I was reading and all the chores I should be doing, curl up on my breezy, cool sunporch, and immerse myself in the story of the story I've adored for most of my life?

    I am so very glad that I did. I fee

    12 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 10, 2013

    Delightful little book

    As a childhood fan of "Charlotte's Web," it was fun to read about how the book came to be, as well as the continuing influence of E.B. White. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that most college students who write compositions, as well as many movie fans, will see how their lives have been touched by the gifted Mr. White.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    Sharkie

    Not very good but , made my teacher cry.

    2 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2011

    This is alot of money

    This is alot of money

    1 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2014

    I just wanna read Charlottes web!

    I wanna read the book! Not how E.B White got the idea... hmm... i hate it when you can't search a title up and get what you want, but... you can't get what you want... if it makes you mad & you wanna chat... type To keegan in the headline... and if you have any questions (appropriate may i add) i will answer them... 10 fun facts about me... hmm, where to start? I know! 1) i like to draw but im not that good at drawing 2)i am currently trying to get over my bf breaking up with me 3) i am switching schools for a year 4) i have 2 cats (dexter, and the boy we thought was a girl, gracie/crazy... the crazy nickname was my dads idea...) and 2 dogs, coda and nala ( we got both dogs from my uncle... and he loves disney movies) 5) hmmm, my nickname is turtle because im slow at everything 6) i have 1 sister and she is 5 years old 7) my name is keegan, and i am 15 years old 8) im amazing at football... ping pong... basketball... and tennis... and i sometimes play baseball 9) i play trumpet, clarinet, guitar, piano, sax, drums, a little bit of violin 10) i hate my life because right now, every one seems mad at me... even if i didnt do anythibg wrong... :-( Well there you go... my life in ten fun facts... hope you enjoyed it... i had a hard time deciding what to put down for the funfacts... have more... maybe some other time... it is 12:00 and i have an orientation at 6:00 tomorrow night... better get to bed

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2014

    Um

    What?????????????

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    Tigereyes

    Natureclan

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Books about books seldom please

    Even the authors don t know why something works and with kids books it is also the illustrations without them ?

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2013

    L

    J

    0 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2013

    an okay book

    It was a very ok book for m as my opion

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2012

    I love charlottes web!!!!!!

    I effing love this book daisy from east haddan ct

    0 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2012

    Rosemary,Febuary,2012

    Charlotte,s Web was my favorite book I ever read.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2011

    Awsome

    This is a great book

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2011

    awesome

    I love this book..its been my favorite in like the hole world since i was a littld girl..it made me cry the first time..and i still doo

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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