June 2011

Behind a childhood classic

By Michael Sims
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Before Harry Potter came along, Charlotte’s Web was the best-selling children’s book in America. Generations of kids found real magic in Zuckerman’s barn, through young Fern’s relationship with Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider. Charlotte’s Web set its talking animals alongside realistic lessons about the cycles of life and death in the barnyard, a naturalism that emerged from author E.B. White’s own farm in Maine and his lifelong fascination with animals.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims’ slice-of-life biography of E.B. White, focuses on those elements that directly contributed to the creation of Charlotte’s Web. The first section of the book is stunning, an almost novelistic recreation of the child Elwyn’s imaginative world. The youngest of seven children, Elwyn was shy and anxious, happiest when rambling alone in Maine’s lake country or watching chicks hatch in a barn. He was equally drawn to reading and writing about the natural world, becoming a published author at age nine with a poem entitled “To a Mouse.” Sims shows us how Elwyn’s childhood reading, from the animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton to Don Marquis’ comic verses about Archy and Mehitabel, influenced the writer White would become.

Sims’ imaginative re-enactment of pivotal scenes in White’s life is unconventional yet compelling. A wonderful example of this occurs when 26-year-old Andy (as White was known after college) peruses a magazine stand in Grand Central Station in 1925: Sims vividly details the covers of Film Fun and Time magazine before focusing his lens on Andy’s life-changing purchase of the first issue of The New Yorker. The staging of this scene helps Sims build out the literary and cultural contexts in which Andy becomes a professional writer, grounding the drama in solid historical research.

The adult Andy—successful New Yorker writer, married to editor Katharine White, dividing his time between Manhattan and a farm in Maine—is perhaps not so intriguing as the child Elwyn, until he becomes fascinated with orb weaver spiders, spending two years obsessively studying their habits in preparation for the creation of Charlotte A. Calvatica. Sims deftly handles the writing and publication of Charlotte’s Web, building thumbnail portraits of the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom and illustrator Garth Williams. But this biography is at its best in the barnyard, illuminating that “sacred space” E.B. White brought to life in his beloved children’s book.

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