How E.B. White Spun 'Charlotte's Web'

The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims
The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
By Michael Sims
Hardcover, 320 pages
Walker & Co.
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

In a poll of librarians, teachers, publishers and authors, the trade magazine Publisher's Weekly asked for a list of the best children's books ever published in the United States. Hands down, the No. 1 book was E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Now, a new book called The Story of Charlotte's Web explores how White's masterpiece came to be.

One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention. Weeks passed until one cold October evening when he noticed that the spider was spinning what turned out to be an egg sac. White never saw the spider again and, so, when he had to return later that fall to New York City to his job as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.

Weeks later, a movement on that bureau alerted him to the fact that tiny spiderlings were making a Great Escape through the air holes. White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.

Thus was hatched the idea for Charlotte's Web, White's magical meditation on the passage of time, mortality and the great gift of finding a "true friend" in this world. However, as Michael Sims tells us in his wonderful new book called The Story of Charlotte's Web, there was also a much longer incubation period for White's classic — a period that began with his isolated childhood as the youngest of seven children; the snappy creative bustle of the New York newspaper world in the 1920s, which gave White his career and his writing role models; and White's own lifelong struggle with anxiety. That anxiety was soothed, in part, by writing and by the company of animals (except, that is, for rats — take that, Templeton!). If you love Charlotte's Web — and, please, if you don't, just get help now! — 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.

Michael Sims' other nonfiction books include In the Womb: Animals and Apollo's Fire. He has edited several anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian fiction and poetry. i i

hide captionMichael Sims' other nonfiction books include In the Womb: Animals and Apollo's Fire. He has edited several anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian fiction and poetry.

Dennis Wile
Michael Sims' other nonfiction books include In the Womb: Animals and Apollo's Fire. He has edited several anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian fiction and poetry.

Michael Sims' other nonfiction books include In the Womb: Animals and Apollo's Fire. He has edited several anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian fiction and poetry.

Dennis Wile

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. White was encouraged to attempt children's fiction by his wife, Katherine White, who was the fiction editor of The New Yorker and a regular reviewer of children's literature. She had urged him to write his first children's book, Stuart Little, which was published in 1945 and had taken him over six years to write.

White also took inspiration from the 1920s newspaper columnist Don Marquis, who wrote acclaimed stories about a poetic typing cockroach named Archy. White was adamant that, like Archy, his fictional animal characters should not be cute but should remain true to their predatory and, in the case of Wilbur, their manure-loving, messy nature. The notes that White made for Charlotte's Web — some of which Sims reprints here — show a multitude of false starts and cross outs. White finished the first draft of the novel in 1951 and then let it sit for a year.

He said in a letter to his patient editor: "I've recently finished another children's book, but have put it away to ripen (let the body heat out of it). It doesn't satisfy me the way it is and I think eventually I shall rewrite it pretty much." When Charlotte's Web finally came out in October 1952, most of the reviews were laudatory, except for one written by Anne Carroll Moore, the influential children's division librarian for the New York Public Library. Years earlier, Moore had panned Stuart Little and now she slammed Charlotte's Web for leaving the human character of Fern "undeveloped."

White's own later estimation of his work is, perhaps, most touching. In old age, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's, White liked to have his own essays and books read to him. Sometimes, White would ask who wrote what he was listening to, and his chief reader, his son Joe, would tell him, "You did, Dad." Sims says White "would think about this odd fact for a moment and sometimes murmur, 'Not bad.' "

Excerpt: 'The Story Of Charlotte's Web'

The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims
The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
By Michael Sims
Hardcover, 320 pages
Walker & Co.
List Price: $25

My wife and I were in Maine, standing in the barn that had belonged to E. B. White and chatting with the current owners, when I backed up to get a better view for a photograph and hit my head on something. Turning around, I saw a heavy old rope dangling in front of me, and I glanced up to where it was looped through a ring attached to a beam over the barn doors. Then I realized what I was staring at.

I turned to the South Carolina couple who had bought the White farm after his death in 1985. "Is this—"

Mary and Robert Gallant smiled and nodded. "Fern and Avery's rope? Yes."

"So it was real too."

I was in the barn that had inspired Charlotte's Web because, a few years earlier, I had been reading E. B. White's collected letters when I ran across his reply to a letter from schoolchildren: "I didn't like spiders at first, but then I began watching one of them, and soon saw what a wonderful creature she was and what a skillful weaver. I named her Charlotte."

"Wait a minute," I said aloud to the empty room. "There was a real Charlotte?"

This question was my first step toward discovering the story behind Charlotte's Web. Was there a real Charlotte, I wanted to know, or was White merely performing in this letter? As I traced the inspirations, discoveries, and research that White brought to one of the most acclaimed children's books of the twentieth century, I soon learned that there had been numerous Charlottes and Wilburs and Templetons in his life — but that there was indeed a particular clever spider who helped inspire the book.

Robert and Mary Gallant showed us the barn cellar, where White kept the pigs that inspired Wilbur. We saw the stalls for sheep and cattle, the doorway that had held the webs of countless orb weavers, the path through the woods, the rocky pasture with its view of Allen Cove and misty Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island. We stayed for a while in the boat house down by the water. As I sat at the plank table White had built, I noticed that a patterned brown spider hung motionless in a web to my right.

Many novelists admit that their characters are inspired by real individuals, but it seldom occurs to us that the authors of children's fantasy might make the same confession. Yet examples abound. Brave and levelheaded Alice was based upon the young Miss Liddell. The name of the Dodo in Wonderland reflects Lewis Carroll's stuttering trouble in pronouncing his true surname, Dodgson. Christopher Robin was not only a real boy but actually often played inside a large hollow tree on the Milne property — and Eeyore is gloomy because a broken wire in Christopher's toy donkey made its head hang low. Most of the characters in Beatrix Potter's stories she drew from life as well, because she spent her days with rabbits and ducks on Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.

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. He knew a barn's earthy smells and sounds, the variety of its animal population. Charlotte's Web was hardly a simple report from the barn, as White claimed, but it grew from his experiences there with many animals. His return to a barn in adulthood ignited smoldering memories of the stable in his childhood home in Mount Vernon, New York. By creating a fictional hybrid of the most enchanted settings from both childhood and adulthood, White became one of the rare authors who solve what the American critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman once called "the standing problem of the juvenile-fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole."

White's attitude toward nature, with its unblinking response to the inevitability of death, strikes me as realistically hardheaded despite being wrapped in anthropomorphism. A farmer who wrote children's fantasies needed both ways of thinking. During my research I became fascinated by other aspects of White's personality as well. From childhood to old age, he was 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.

Charlotte's Web is about animals because throughout his long life animals were E. B. White's favorite acquaintances. He had plenty of friends; he got along well with editors and other colleagues; he was happily married and a proud father, stepfather, and eventually grandfather. But he liked to spend as much time as possible around nonhuman creatures. "This boy," wrote White about himself as a child, "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.

The book for which most people cherish him fits into a long-standing tradition in literature — tales of animals who think and speak like human beings. From Aesop's ungrateful eagle through the trickster fox Reynard in the Middle Ages, from the autobiography of Black Beauty in the nineteenth century to the quest of Despereaux in the twenty-first, talking animals have accompanied us throughout history. Folklore around the world laments our loss of innocence in the golden age of humanity, when we could speak with our fellow creatures. In Charlotte's Web this lost era is childhood.

"Remember that writing is translation," White wrote to a student while composing this tale about the animals in his barn, "and the opus to be translated is yourself." The Story of Charlotte's Web explores 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. He knew that empathy is a creative act, an entering into another's reality. Empathy and curiosity happily coexisted in his spacious imagination. He studied the lives of spiders for a year before writing his novel. "I discovered, quite by accident," he explained, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows."

White himself emphasized that biographical writing is always a matter of interpretation — and he was wary of it. As I wrote this book, I became aware that, although I was determined to portray Elwyn Brooks White as accurately as possible, he was also becoming a character in a particular story I wanted to tell. I invented nothing; to the best of my ability, I misrepresented nothing. But by focusing on particular aspects of his career, such as his interest in natural history and farming, I have produced an account inevitably biased toward this facet of his life. His writings about government and civil rights, for example, find little room here, and beyond his childhood I don't explore his relationship with his family in depth. I hesitated over presuming to refer to White by his first name, but this is a personal book about his intimate daily life, so in childhood I call him Elwyn and in adulthood Andy — the latter a nickname he acquired at Cornell and kept for the rest of his life. This book is a biographical narrative distilled from hundreds of sources, but at every stage I tried to keep in mind that these people did not know what was going to happen next.

More than a quarter century after his death, E. B. White lives in our cultural dialogue. Some of his personal essays are canonized anthology standards, and to the connoisseur of the genre he stands beside Montaigne. Students underline every axiom in The Elements of Style. Charlotte's Web is better known than Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn and usually described as "beloved." How beloved? Charlotte's Web has already sold many millions of copies; in annual summaries of bestselling children's books in the United States, often it still outsells even Winnie-the-Pooh. For Publishers Weekly, a poll of librarians, teachers, publishers, and authors, asked to list the best children's books ever published in the United States, set Charlotte's Web firmly in first place. A 2000 survey listed Charlotte's Web as the bestselling children's book in U.S. history, with Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan both following in the top one hundred. As of 2010, Charlotte's Web has been translated into thirty-five foreign languages. Thus every day somewhere in the world, countless children and adults are opening the book and turning to the first page and reading in English or Norwegian or Chinese or Braille:

'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast...

Excerpted from The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims. Copyright 2011 by Michael Sims. Reprinted by permission of Walker & Co.

Books Featured In This Story

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 Classic

by Michael Sims

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