The Story of Charlotte’s Web

The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American ClassicThe Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims, Published by Walker Books, 2011. 320 pp.

There are a few books in the pantheon of children’s literature that become touchstones in our reading lives. Charlotte’s Web is surely among them and remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. The stark simplicity of the author’s name–E.B. White–gives us the illusion of knowing him personally.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web seems to be destined to be a classic itself. Michael Sims’ narrative opens with a personal scene–he and his wife were in the very barn that to some extent formed both the inspiration and provided the real-world research for the timeless story. From that intimate moment where the worlds of history and story fused, we are taken back to the simpler world where Elwyn Brooks White was born, the surprise baby of a large and prosperous family.

Sims provides masterful vignettes that reveal White’s quiet passions for expressing himself through words and his love of the natural world. This is not an exhaustive biography but rather a purposeful one. We see the young “En” first fascinated with a spider and patiently taming and watching a mouse explore a doll house. We watch as he revels in the antics of Archy and Mehitabel, knowing that stories with talking animals are in his future.

The New Yorker Magazine years are covered as White, now rechristened “Andy” in honor of the founder of his alma mater, Cornell, finds his voice as a writer and blossoms under the encouragement and editing of Harold Ross and Katherine Angell. As the relationship with the latter ripens into matrimony, enough details are given to satisfy the logical mind and appease the curious one without prurience.

It’s easy to forget that E.B. White’s literary life was well-established before he embarked on his first children’s book. An amusing anecdote reveals the response of his fellow New Yorker auteurs to Stuart Little: “I read that book of yours. I found the first part quite amusing–about the mouse, you know. but, I was disappointed that you didn’t develop the theme more in the manner of Kafka.”

Ursula Nordstrom, head of the “Department for Boys and Girls” at Harper, had no such complaints to make. E.B. White’s happy suggestion of a young illustrator who had done some recent work at The New Yorker gave Garth Williams his entree into the children’s book world and set the stage for even more impressive work on White’s next book, published a mere (!) seven years later.

Charlotte’s Web was constructed as carefully as the titular web. White was not willing to suborn the natural world to his narrative–he researched spiders and their webs tirelessly. This work not only validated his approach but prompted ideas that further enhanced the story. Sims does not belabor the revisions and tweaks that are part of any writer’s process but he does shine the light on a few that represent important creative breakthroughs.

One of the most satisfying scenes in this story unfolds as White visits Ursula Nordstrom with a small package: “I’ve brought you a new manuscript.” Nordstrom is “surprised and delighted” and then the author reveals that he has brought her the only manuscript. He made no carbon copy. The busy editor, worried she might somehow lose this precious charge, sits down at once to read it. “Where is Papa going with that axe?” The rest of the days appointments are wiped from her mind.

The universal appeal of Charlotte’s Web unfolds as everyone falls in love with the story from the publisher reps to Eudora Welty to P.L. Travers, who, as the creator of Mary Poppins, knew a thing or two about magical realism herself.

Through The Story of Charlotte’s Web, we have a sense of knowing how this boy became this man, how this man became this writer, and how this writer became the author of Charlotte’s Web. We feel like we have begun to understand at least one aspect of this complex and quiet man and are grateful to have enjoyed his company for 244 pages. Some book, indeed.

– Reviewed by Ellen Myrick