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The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B.…
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The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in…

by Michael Sims

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Charming book about the extraordinary life of the author of Charlotte's Web and all that went into crafting such a wonderful book. Guess what I'll be reading next? ( )
  Luke_Brown | Sep 10, 2016 |
How E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web
By Chloe Schama
The Smithsonian
June 2, 2011

Not long before E.B. White started writing his classic children’s story Charlotte’s Web about a spider called Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur, he had a porcine encounter that seems to have deeply affected him. In a 1947 essay for the Atlantic Monthly, he describes several days and nights spent with an ailing pig—one he had originally intended to butcher. “[The pig’s] suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness,” White wrote. The animal died, but had he recovered it is very doubtful that White would have had the heart to carry out his intentions. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig,” he wrote in the essay.

That sentiment became part of the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web, published in 1952 and still one of the most beloved books of all time. Now a new book by Michael Sims focuses on White’s lifelong connection to animals and nature. The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic explores White’s encounters with frogs and field mice, rivers and lakes, stars and centipedes, to paint a portrait of the writer as a devoted naturalist—the 20th-century heir to Thoreau, perhaps. White once wrote of himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” Examining White’s regard for nature and animals, Sims unpacks the appeal of Charlotte’s Web.

Sims originally conceived of his book as a larger project, one that would examine how authors of children’s books, such as Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne, had been inspired by nature, but he came to focus entirely on White, he recently told me, because White’s preoccupation with the natural world outweighed that of most other authors. “Certain writers have an empathy for the world,” Sims said. “Their basic writing mode is personification. E.B. White is that kind of writer; he could animate a splash of sunlight.”

The seeds of White’s fascination with nature were planted early, according to Sims’ account. The youngest of his seven siblings and painfully shy, Elwyn Brooks White was “miserable when more than two people at a time looked at him.” Of fragile health, he suffered from hay fever, in particular, which led one doctor to recommend that his parents “douse his head in cold water every morning before breakfast.” In search of fresh country air, his family would travel most summers to a rustic lakeside camp in Maine. Young Elwyn also scoured the nearby woods and barn of his boyhood home in Mount Vernon, New York, acquainting himself with farm animals and assorted critters. Gradually, Sims says, Elwyn “became aware that animals were actors themselves, living their own busy lives, not merely background characters in his own little drama.”

As an adult White found communion with only a few select humans, most of them at The New Yorker—his wife, Katharine Angell, an editor at the magazine; its founder, Harold Ross; and essayist and fiction writer James Thurber, another colleague. In fact, White’s preoccupation with nature and animals became a kind of shield in his adult life. “He hid behind animals,” Sims writes. During his college years, White tried to woo one of his Cornell classmates by comparing her eyes to those of the most beautiful creature he could summon: his dog, Mutt. Years later when Angell announced she was pregnant with their first child, he was struck speechless, so he wrote a letter to her “from” their pet dog Daisy, describing the excitement and anxiety of the dog’s owner. “He gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling,” wrote “Daisy,” “and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels.” In one of his early New Yorker pieces, White interviews a sparrow about the pros and cons of urban living, an issue that would preoccupy the writer as well.

Columns for The New Yorker were White’s bread and butter, but he had already written one children’s book before Charlotte’s Web. Published in 1945, Stuart Little is the story of the adventures of a tiny boy who looked like a mouse. White, who once admitted to having “mice in the subconscious,” had been fascinated by the creatures for decades and had made them the subject of his childhood writings and stories for family gatherings.

Apparently, he was just as taken with spiders. Fifteen years before penning Charlotte’s Web, spiders informed one of White’s romantic tributes to Angell, a poem in which he describes a spider “dropping down from twig,” descending “down through space” and eventually building a ladder to the point where he started. The poem concludes:

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.

In the fall of 1948, while doing chores in his barn in Brooklin, Maine, White began to observe a spider spinning an egg sac. When work called him back to the city, he was loathe to abandon his small friend and her project and so he severed the sac from its web, placed it in a candy box, and brought the makeshift incubation chamber back to the city, where it lived on his bedroom bureau. Several weeks later, the spiders hatched and covered White’s nail scissors and hairbrush with a fine web. “After the spiders left the bureau,” Sims writes, “they continued to scurry around in [White’s] imagination.”

Upon publication, Charlotte’s Web, a story of a clever spider who saves a pig, had obvious appeal to children, but adults heralded it as well. In her review for the New York Times, Eudora Welty wrote that it was “just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” Pamela Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins series, wrote that any adult “who can still dip into it—even with only so much as a toe—is certain at last of dying young even if he lives to ninety.”

White lived to the age of 86. Though admired for his essays, his fiction and his revision of William Strunk’s Elements of Style (still a widely used guide to writing), it is Charlotte’s Web that keeps his name before the public, generation after generation. Some 200,000 copies are sold every year, and it has been translated into more than 30 languages. The book repeatedly tops lists compiled by teachers and librarians as one of the best children’s books of all time.

Looking back on the success of Charlotte’s Web a decade after it was published, White wrote in the New York Times in 1961 that writing the book “started innocently enough, and I kept on because I found it was fun.” He then added: “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around. Animals are part of my world and I try to report them faithfully and with respect.”
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"The story behind a novel (or any book), as Michael Sims knows, is the story of a writer and what a writer knows. He quotes E. B. White: 'Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.' Given this tacit permission to look behind White’s work at White himself, Sims is also aware that White is being interpreted as a character in the story being told in the biography. So, cutting through several levels of White’s life as a child, as a New Yorker editor, essayist, grammarian and family man, he opts to focus on White’s interest in natural history and farming. . . . Sims’s valuable study is insightful and delightful."—Iain Finlayson, THE TIMES (London)

"Michael Sims's biography encapsulates E. B. White's life and times, portrays his personality and sensibility, and depicts in detail the locations-- from Maine to Manhattan-- which inspired his writing. It is an elegant and evocative brief history, replete with fascinating material on topics ranging from children's periodicals to arachnology."—Alison Kelly, TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

"Sims provides an elegant homage to the creative process. . . , while highlighting the empathy the author had for the human condition. . . . White found his place in the chaotic, thrilling offices of The New Yorker. Sims depicts the atmosphere of those city days, White’s friendship with James Thurber and his falling in love with Katharine Angell as elegantly as he does White’s other existence on the farm by Allen Cove, Maine. . . . Sims’s cameos of White’s collaborators are vivid; the publishing world of the time is caught in amber. Although this is not a conventional biography, much is gleaned by study of White’s imaginative response to the world around him, and the writer’s faith in clarity, honesty and directness."—Rebecca K. Morrison, THE INDEPENDENT

"There is so much to celebrate in Sims's book. His own descriptions of nature are evocative and subtle, and he probes at White's psyche without raking him over the coals. Fans of the New Yorker's heyday will find much to enjoy. . . . Equally engaging are a wealth of small details—how Wilbur got his name, how Charlotte's species was selected, how White overcame his aversion to rats, to create the wonderful character Templeton, and even how he chose the words that Charlotte would spin to save Wilbur's bacon. White fans will savour this, as will anyone wondering how an author is made, and how a book comes to life."—Lee Randall, THE SCOTSMAN

"[E. B. White] was, according to Sims, a melancholy child, 'plagued by wild fantasies and indefinable nostalgia', with a 'vague sense of yearning and loss'. He was, in other words, perfect writer material. . . . In Charlotte's Web, according to Sims, White 'preserved in amber his response to the world'. Amber doesn't come from nowhere. Sims traces the roots of the novel. . . . Sims gets closest to describing White's true genius when discussing the characteristic tone of his work for the New Yorker, with its 'lushly textured observations and playing with language' and its 'ability to recount a passing experience and overlay it with both thoughtful irony and a kind of uncluttered clear-sightedness'."--Ian Sansom, THE GUARDIAN

"It is, of course, about Charlotte's Web, but it's also about how a little boy named Elwyn grew up to become the writer E.B. White. In this lovingly rendered portrait, Sims details a life of careful listening, insatiable curiosity, and empathy toward all living creatures from people to spiders to pigs (the exception being rodents, which is why Templeton, the rat, made for such a hilariously greedy character). . . . Charlotte's Web fans will be delighted to peruse the manuscript revisions and edited pages that Sims includes in his book. . . . That slow and steady pace in particular is what I've come away with in reading about the life of E.B. White."—Kerry Madden, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

"Tightly focused biography, written in a lucid prose worthy of White himself, and steeped in the kind of sensory detail that was White's professional bread and butter. The focus on White as the author of Charlotte's Web gives the book shape and flow but is not limiting. Sims traces direct influences, of course, such as his lifelong affinity for animals and the natural world, his childhood reading, and his early interest in writing, not to mention his deep-seated nostalgia and melancholia. But within that focus Sims tells a remarkably full story of White's life, covering his childhood, college years, New Yorker career, marriage to Katharine Angell, and self-reinvention as a Maine saltwater farmer—in sentence after faultless, graceful sentence. . . . Simply terrific."—Martha V. Parravano, HORN BOOK

"Intriguing. . . . Sims illuminates an era of journalism and essay-writing through the war. His style also sings in tune with White's lyricism, especially in descriptions of nature and the farm."—Nicolette Jones, SUNDAY TIMES

"Sims's valuable study is insightful and delightful."—THE TIMES

"Entertaining. . . . This is the biography its subject seems to have deserved. Gentle, occasionally whimsical, and always respectful, it is a glimpse into the life of a man whose status as one of the children's classic authors is assured."—Virginia Blackburn, SUNDAY EXPRESS

"White's attention to detail is mimicked by Sims, who often devotes pages to the important people in White's life and gives context to the utmost detail. . . . Sims' book, although occasionally dense, has exhaustive anecdotes about White's life and will most likely rekindle many love affairs with the beloved story."—Kate Mead, SUNDAY STAR TIMES (New Zealand)

"Wonderful. . . . Sims' lively and detailed excursion into the mystery of how White's classic came to be is a perfect read for this season: full of grass and insects, pigs and summer rain. . . . The first two-thirds or so of The Story of Charlotte's Web recounts White's life up to his 50s, when he began writing his masterpiece. Good as it is, the final section of Sims' book is the real revelation—not only about the influences on Charlotte's Web, but about just how hard it was for White to write despite the fact that his style always seemed effortless."—Maureen Corrigan, "Fresh Air," NPR

"A full, engaging account . . . . Sims includes wonderful anecdotes, such as how White settled upon Charlotte's surname (and the other characters' names), and how closely White collaborated with Garth Williams on the marvelous illustrations. Sims also includes drafts of White's cross-outs and false starts, revealing the author's rigorousness at every level. . . . The Story of Charlotte's Web unfolds in a way that White might have appreciated: It ambles, pauses to observe the smallest details, and takes its time. Best of all, this book is likely to encourage readers to experience the pleasures of White's novel all over again."—Carmela Ciuraru, LOS ANGELES TIMES

"Compelling. . . . A wealth of colorful information. . . . With this well-focused overview, Sims illuminates White's complicated creative life and the events that led to a timeless tale that will stand for generations to come as testimony to his passion for nature."—Rosemary Goring, SUNDAY HERALD (Scotland)

"Quotidian memories have given us more great works than we can count. . . . Michael Sims illuminates one such tale inspired by E. B. White's childhood spent playing in barns and stables. His return to farming as an adult recalled those memories, but it was his new-found understanding of his role as nurturer and beneficiary of the animals he raised, as well as his awareness of mortality, that made the tale great. Memories are a rich source for writers, but as White himself explained in the epigraph to Sims's book, 'Real life is only one kind of life--there is also the life of the imagination.' "—Stacey Mickelbart, THE NEW YORKER

"A fitting echo to the resolution of Charlotte's Web. . . . Sims seeks to explain why we feel the complicated way we do when we read White, and why his vision of a now-receding America, one that paid close heed to nature, still feels crucial. . . . . Sims is especially good at putting White's work in context [and] also good on the subjects of class and money. . . . Younger writers in particular may find this description of process bracing. 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.' "—Valerie Sayers, WASHINGTON POST

"For every reader who grew up adoring the E.B. White classic Charlotte's Web (and is there really a reader among us who did not?), this summer holds a treat in store. The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims retraces White's path in writing the book and, in so doing, helps us to understand how so truly 'artless' a work of art was created. . . . The Story of Charlotte's Web is a paean to a great work and a window into the uniquely gifted man who created it."

—Marjorie Kehe, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, "Editor's Choice"

"Engaging, distilled, highly focused. . . . Sims traces the fascinating, painstaking evolution of White's second of three children's books . . . . 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, BARNES & NOBLE REVIEW

"[I approached] Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web with a great deal of trepidation. . . . What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White's opus that hadn't already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better? Having read it I can now answer: plenty. Sims gives White and his story a bright new light—refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well. Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone's time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte's Web and its author. . . . I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say Sims' careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read. . . . Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White's development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine. . . . As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte's Web—even though much of it was familiar to me, I was engrossed in Sims' telling. And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations. Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web is not only for E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte's Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction."—Monica Edinger, HUFFINGTON POST

"Michael Sims goes back to Zuckerman's farm to weave the story of Charlotte's Web."—VANITY FAIR

"Joy, mingled with wistfulness, is the charm of Michael Sims's splendid The Story of Charlotte's Web . . . . 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. He is a worthy disciple. . . . Mr. Sims recalls for us that White's former English professor, William Strunk (the original author of The Elements of Style), used to grasp his lapels in front of his Cornell classes and bellow, 'Omit needless words!' Strunk was right about that, but I am glad Mr. Sims did not scalpel out of his book all the things in White's life that did not bear directly on Charlotte's Web. He sees the man in the boy, and the boy in the man, devoted to 'the conservation of beauty in prose.' It's as if White were a bell and his biographer another, catching his life's resonance. . . . Mr. Sims thus gives us not only an engaging account of White's rise to literary prominence, through the New Yorker, but also his shyness, his awkwardness in love, his devotion to his wife, Katharine, and something else, something hard to identify but ever-present in the book, like the chirping of birds high in the trees at evening. White was not a religious man. But he was imbued with a sense of what Wilbur called 'the glory of everything.' Charlotte, writes Mr. Sims, 'embodied the spirit of the barn, which [White] had once described as almost a sacred place, a stage for birth and death and the rhythms of life.' "—Anthony Esolen, WALL STREET JOURNAL

"[Sims] explores White's encounters with frogs and field mice, rivers and lakes, stars and centipedes, to paint a portrait of the writer as a devoted naturalist—the 20th-century heir to Thoreau, perhaps. White once wrote of himself, 'This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.' Examining White's regard for nature and animals, Sims unpacks the appeal of Charlotte's Web."—Chloë Schama, SMITHSONIAN

"Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web is built on revealing glimpses of how 'reality and fantasy make good bedfellows,' as White himself wrote. . . . Accomplishes Sims' goal to explore 'how White translated his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into a book that has had astonishingly broad appeal across age groups and national boundaries.' . . . Sims draws a portrait of White as 'painfully shy, terrified of speaking in public or before a microphone——yet hugely ambitious and willing to try almost anything when no one was looking. Afraid of commitment and romance and confrontation, he hid behind animals even in his early love poems and letters to his wife.' Sims traces White's lifelong fascination with spiders, mice and pigs, from his privileged childhood in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y., to his salt-water farm in Brooklin, Maine, where 'rather than a gentleman farmer, Andy liked to pretend that he was full-time farmer and a gentleman writer.' . . . In the best part of the book, Sims traces how much endless rewriting as well as research on spider-web construction went into Charlotte's Web. White's handwritten drafts, at Cornell's archives, are filled with words that are crossed out, entire scenes that are deleted, and notes to himself in the margins, ordering: 'Fix. Make Better.' The Story of Charlotte's Web should encourage re-readings of Charlotte's Web."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

"Sims recounts the wellsprings—familial, psychological, environmental, historical, educational, emotional and every other 'al' you can think of—about the little novel that tells how a spider named Charlotte saved a pig named Wilbur from being rendered into bacon. Mr. Sims, author and editor of many other books, does more than that. Besides providing a pocket biography of White, he explains what writing Charlotte's Web meant to the author and what reading it means to its young readers, things that are two sides of the same coin. . . . Mr. Sims' writing captures White's affection for his creatures and fits the mood of his subject nicely: 'Flotillas of fat black coots . . . . Chittering squadrons of barn swallows.' . . . . Mr. Sims carefully documents White's creative process."

——Roger K. Miller, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  meadcl | Feb 28, 2015 |
If "The Story of Charlotte's Web" by Michael Sims reads as much like a biography of E.B. White as the story of how White's most famous book came to be, it may be because White's whole life was about the writing of that single book. His boyhood interest in animals and nature in general laid the groundwork for "Charlotte's Web." His development as a writer and the attention to detail he learned as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine groomed him for writing his masterpiece. His move to his Maine farm with his wife, Katharine, an editor at The New Yorker, inspired him and provided the opportunity for his imagination to soar.

White made other notable contributions to literature. His essays are still read today. His other novels for children, "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," are themselves classics. "The Elements of Style," in which White revised and improved upon the work of his college professor, William Strunk Jr., remains a valuable resource for writers old and young. Yet White reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of his story about the spider who saved the life of a pig.

Sims gives his readers amazing detail about how the book came to be. An actual spider at White's farm inspired it. White devoted hours to studying that spider and others to observe their behavior. He poured over books about spiders. Maybe real spiders don't spin English words into their webs, but otherwise White wanted Charlotte to behave like a barn spider. He even insisted that, children's book or not, she must die after laying her eggs because that is what real spiders do.

Sims provides several examples of how White revised his manuscript over and over again, crossing out words and trying new ones in their place. He agonized over what to name certain characters and what Charlotte should say about Wilbur in her web. "Pig Supreme" was among the contenders until White settled on "Some Pig."

Anyone who has enjoyed Charlotte's Web, and that means millions of readers, will enjoy reading what Sims has to say about that book and the man who wrote it. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jan 29, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Sims has written a biography of E.B. White that reads like a story. He doesn't focus on White's relationships with people as much as his relationship with nature, natural science, farming and writing. E.B. White, known as Andy, shines through these pages as a shy, insecure man with such an affinity for animals and writing that you can't help but admire and like him. The book covers White's life from birth to death, his early jobs, his career with The New Yorker, his wife, and his writing. It's a very enjoyable, informative book and I know I'll be reading Charlotte's Web again soon, as well as my favourite of his, Stuart Little.
1 vote katylit | May 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Sims does an excellent job portraying T.H. White's fascination with nature and how it contributed to his writing.
  2wonderY | Dec 28, 2011 |
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But real life is only one kind of life-- there is also the life of the imagination.
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To the amazing Dr. Patterson
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The coachman said the eggs would never hatch.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802777546, Hardcover)

A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011
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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:22 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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 is 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 this book the author 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 all 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 narrative, the author brings to life the shy boy whose animal stories, real and imaginery, made him famous around the world.… (more)

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