Bringing a classic to life
While writing his delightful biography of E.B. White, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims gained a new appreciation for this childhood classic and its eccentric creator.
Do you remember reading Charlotte’s Web as a child?
Sadly, I didn’t read it in childhood, for two dumb reasons. First, I saw the cover and thought that it was about a girl and I wasn’t reading much about girls at the time. And second, I decided that I didn’t like the name Charlotte—although later my beautiful niece Charlotte changed my opinion of the name. So I was a teenager when I actually read Charlotte’s Web—and fell in love with it even at that late date.
I loved your vivid descriptions of young Elwyn’s adventures in barns and outdoors. What led you to write about his childhood in this almost novelistic way?
For me the theme of the book is the unpredictability of creativity. To recreate the unusual way that White’s imagination responded to the natural world, I had to take him out into it. His letters and essays provide all kinds of texture about his daily life, so I started with those. I also built on them from my other research and my own observations on numerous visits to Maine. For example, if White mentioned watching coots and loons on the cove, but didn’t describe them, it doesn’t matter; I’ve seen them there many times myself.
Your subtitle refers to E.B. White’s “eccentric life,” but he was a pretty successful writer and editor. What makes him so eccentric?
He was very successful, yes. I think that from early childhood White simply had to go his own way. The word eccentric comes from two Greek words meaning “off center,” and he was that way from birth. In young adulthood he was already nostalgic; he looked for nature in the city; he enjoyed being a husband and father and stepfather, but he spent most of his time in the company of animals. So by eccentric I mean, I think, that he was unconsciously original.
Why were Don Marquis’ stories about Archy and Mehitabel such a pivotal influence for White?
Marquis is at his best in these antic poems and sketches about a free-verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach in the Jazz Age. White read them when they were new, starting in 1916 when he was a teenager, and fell in love with Marquis’ combination of skepticism, humor and compassion. He kept reading them. Then in 1949 he was asked to write an introduction to them, and rereading the whole series helped kick-start Charlotte’s Web.
What was it like visiting the Whites’ farm in Maine? Did it look like Zuckerman’s barn?
Yes, it did. I found it surreal and thrilling. I enjoy literary pilgrimages; I’ve visited Green Gables and Darwin’s Down House and even the original Hundred Acre Wood. But walking through E.B. White’s barn, and hitting my head on the rope that Avery and Fern swing on, and seeing the barn cellar looking very much like Garth Williams’ illustrations of Wilbur’s home—those moments made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
E.B. White’s wife Katharine seems like an interesting and accomplished woman. Did she love farming and animals as he did, or was this something she tolerated in him?
Katharine White—she was Katharine Sergeant Angellwhen White met her, before her divorce—was a fascinating woman. At The New Yorker she was brilliant and formidable as editor of John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov and many other important writers. She liked animals and country life, but my general sense is that she agreed to move to the farm in Maine because she wanted her husband to be happy. Only later did he realize how much she sacrificed to move there.
I’m trying to imagine a connection between Charlotte’s Web and White’s The Elements of Style. Is there one?
Excellent question. Each represents White’s commitment to lucidity, to the elegance of simplicity, and demonstrates his argument that “style” is not a goal to be achieved but a side effect of a writer’s authenticity. Each book also began as a return to the past—to caring for animals in a barn as he had in the stable of his childhood; and to a favorite Cornell professor, William Strunk, whose homemade-style chapbook had come to White at an impressionable age, just as he became a busy undergraduate journalist on the Cornell paper.
You talk about the barnyard as “sacred space” for White. What can we learn from life in a barn?
White claimed that Charlotte’s Web is a straightforward report from the barn, but of course he himself was very sentimental about it as a place in which he had spent many great hours in contact with the most elemental aspects of life, with hunger and birth, with growth and death. He saw it as a miniature cosmos, but also as a place where he had always been innocently happy—on his own, nurturing an animal, minding his own business, thinking his own thoughts.
Is Charlotte’s Web still relevant for 21st-century children?
Very much so, I think. First, of course, it’s a wonderful story, a mix of humor and lyricism and heartbreak; and it was one of the first children’s books to deal with death, the great taboo for so long. But also, over most of the world, especially the United States, the second decade of the 21st century is far more urbanized than the mid-20th century, when the book was published. As I researched E.B. White’s drafts of Charlotte’s Web, I realized that as much as anything else he wanted to immortalize a sense of natural rhythms—days, seasons, birth, death. What could be more relevant for our nature-starved children nowadays?