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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 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. ...
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.
"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
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.
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.
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
Abbreviations for Frequent Sources 249
Selected Bibliography and Further Reading 289
Posted June 17, 2011
<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
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Posted December 31, 2011
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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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 22, 2013
Posted November 1, 2013
Even the authors don t know why something works and with kids books it is also the illustrations without them ?
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Posted June 20, 2011
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
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