Friday, June 03, 2011

230 (2011 #35). The Story of Charlotte's Web

by Michael Sims

I picked up the advance reading copy of this book, scheduled to be released June 7, at the Texas Library Association meeting in Austin in April.  It's a biography of E. B. White, author of the children's classic and 1953 Newbery Honor Book, Charlotte's Web.

The first two parts (approximately the first half) of the book document White's life pre-Charlotte, from his birth in 1899 through his purchase in 1933 of the farm in Maine where he wrote his books.  Part one is called "Elwyn" (White's given first name) and takes us through his early years at his family's home in Mount Vernon (where Elwyn spent many hours caring for and observing animals in the stable), until he left for Cornell in 1917.

There, he picked up the nickname of "Andy," the title of part two. It was interesting to learn that White was one of the first writers (in 1925) of The New Yorker magazine, and that he met his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, there, as well as James Thurber (with whom he wrote a book).  The New Yorker was a staple in my parents' reading and my own, growing up.

Roughly the last half of the book is in part three, entitled "Charlotte."  It covers the years from 1933 on, including the publication of his first children's book, Stuart Little.  It was interesting to read how White became interested in spiders, and the immense amount of research he did to learn about them and make Charlotte realistic.  As Sims says in his introduction (pages 3-4):

So perhaps it isn't surprising to learn that, while composing his most popular book, E. B. White was obeying a cherished maxim:  Write about what you know.  He knew his characters from the barns and stables where he spent much of his childhood and adulthood....His return to a barn in adulthood ignited smoldering memories of the stable in his childhood home...By creating a fictional hybrid of the most enchanted settings from both childhood and adulthood, White..."discovered, quite by accident," he explained, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows."
Author Michael Sims covers the years after the publication of Charlotte's Web in October 1952 (through White's death in 1985) in a single short chapter.  (I had not really made the connection until then that he was the White of Strunk & White, published in 1959.)  Clearly, the emphasis of Sims' book is on White's masterpiece, and the life events that contributed to its creation.

Sims did extensive research (documented in 27 pages of end notes and an eight-page bibliography), including White's papers at Cornell University, White's alma mater. It's clear Sims admired his subject.  However, I feel the word "eccentric" in the subtitle, "E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic," is rather misleading.  I did not find White to be eccentric at all.  Very shy, yes; quiet, low-key, perhaps, but not really odd or strange. 

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I received an advance reader's edition from the publisher.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

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