Weaving 'Charlotte's Web' In his new book, The Story of Charlotte's Web, writer Michael Sims traces the life of E.B. White. From White's childhood in suburban New York and rural Maine, to his adult years as a New Yorker writer, Sims shows how White's experiences in nature shaped his classic novel.

Weaving 'Charlotte's Web'

Weaving 'Charlotte's Web'

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In his new book, The Story of Charlotte's Web, writer Michael Sims traces the life of E.B. White. From White's childhood in suburban New York and rural Maine, to his adult years as a New Yorker writer, Sims shows how White's experiences in nature shaped his classic novel.

IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Where is papa going with that axe? It is probably one of the most famous opening sentences in all of literature, and if you're between the ages of eight and 80, you probably recognize that line. It's the first line of "Charlotte's Web."

Written by E.B. White, the book was published in the '50s, but it hasn't lost any of its appeal, and even now the story of Wilbur the pig, his impending murder and the spider who comes to his rescue, continues to be read by kids and adults all over the world.

Talking animals and spelling spiders may not sound like the writings of a naturalist, but in his new book, my next guest argues that it was E.B. White's observation and appreciation of nature and its kinship with animals that makes "Charlotte's Web" so appealing.

Michael Sims' new book is called "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic." He joins us from WQED in Pittsburgh. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MICHAEL SIMS: Thank you, my pleasure.

FLATOW: How did you get interested in "Charlotte's Web," to devote a whole book about it?

SIMS: Well, the project really got out of hand. I originally thought I would do a natural history of children's animal stories, all those talking animal stories like "The Wind in the Willows" and "Winnie-the-Pooh," and I started with Charlotte and Wilbur, and I never got any further because I just became really preoccupied with E.B. White's personality and how he went about this project.

FLATOW: You know, when most of us think about E.B. White, we don't usually think of him as a naturalist. But you discovered from his writings that he really was.

SIMS: That's one of the things I'd always enjoyed about him a lot, was he always wrote about nature - I don't mean everything he wrote, but he constantly returned to nature throughout his life. And even in his early, unsigned writings for The New Yorker, he was exploring the city and writing about urban natural history, even in the late '20s.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Michael Sims about the story of "Charlotte's Web" and his book. Now, I guess the first big thing you understand, and it's a nice thing to discover from reading your book, is that he really did have a farm with all those animals and characters on the farm, did he not?

SIMS: Yes, yes, we expect somebody like Philip Roth to base characters on people he knew in everyday life, but the fun thing is you discover that people such as E.B. White was basing his characters on in a sense his friends and neighbors every day around the farm and in the barn.

FLATOW: And so he did raise pigs, right?

SIMS: He did raise pigs. He did have a beautiful barn. I was there again about six weeks ago or two months ago on the coast of Maine. And he had cattle and sheep. He was familiar with geese. He was familiar with the whole routine for decades. And their actual real lives is what inspired the story of "Charlotte's Web."

FLATOW: So Wilbur really was based on a real pig?

SIMS: There was a real pig. There had been several, but there was a particular one. White was also a wonderful essayist, as you know, and one of his now-classic essays is called "Death of a Pig," and it was about a pig that he had that he, being the farmer and in a sense the villain behind "Charlotte's Web" was really E.B. White, because he was the man who was going to kill the pig.

Even though this pig was doomed for slaughter in the fall, when it got sick, he did everything he could to save its life, and he failed, and the pig died, and yet it sort of stayed alive in his imagination.

FLATOW: And yet he - and you talk about it, he also showed the irony of that whole situation, saving a pig so you could kill it later.

SIMS: Yes, that was one of the things I like about White and one of the reasons he was congenial to spend so much time with, is he will admit the ironies of life. He won't try to solve things in the way that "Charlotte's Web" doesn't try to solve death, it just faces it as a part of life.

And so he admitted this was absolutely crazy that he felt so sad, and in the end he said he did feel a sense of loss when the pig died, not as if he'd just lost some future bacon but as if he had lost - he had dealt with a fellow creature who was suffering in a suffering world.

FLATOW: And the famous opening line of the book, you reveal to us that line - where is papa going with that axe - was added way at the end of his writing. It was not...

SIMS: Yes, yes. That's always an interesting thing for me, is to go into someone's work and discover how very hard they had to work and how long it took them to get to what seems inevitable to us. I mean, the story is so distilled and simple and straightforward. It took him forever to get there. And Fern herself wasn't even added until the last draft.

FLATOW: And it is - and you say you say in your book it is a terrific - one of, if not the best opening line of a novel.

SIMS: Oh, I think it's wonderful, and I agree with something you said the other day, that it sounds like something in a Hitchcock movie.


FLATOW: I wrote that on my blog, yeah, it's true.

SIMS: I saw that, yes, very "Psycho."


SIMS: You know, you worry where the crazy mother is in the other room.

FLATOW: And that's the joy of this book, is that it's really not a kids' book, I mean, or it speaks to kids as an adult about the reality of life. You know, Charlotte is a spider that eats - just munches on flies during the whole book, you know, as if this is what they do.

SIMS: I love that, yes. He just - that was one of his complaints about Disney. He said, you know, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse are amusing, but there's no reason for them to be a duck or a mouse. It has nothing to do with what they actually do. They drive a truck around or whatever. And he said his characters emerged from real animals he knew, and that's why he wanted to do very careful research to get it right behind the scenes.

FLATOW: And that's a good intro for me, a good segue because...


FLATOW: ...we have actually we actually have a little snippet of E.B. White reading a little bit from "Charlotte's Web" about the scene where Charlotte and Wilbur are talking about what goes on in her web.


E.B. WHITE: My name, said the spider, is Charlotte. Charlotte what, asked Wilbur eagerly. Charlotte A. Cavatica, but just call me Charlotte. I think you're beautiful, said Wilbur. Well, I am pretty, replied Charlotte. There's no denying that. Almost all spiders are rather nice-looking. I'm not as flashy as some, but I'll do.

I wish I could see you, Wilbur, as clearly as you can see me. Why can't you, asked the pig, I'm right here. Yes, but I'm nearsighted, replied Charlotte. I've always been dreadfully nearsighted. It's good in some ways, not so good in others. Watch me wrap up this fly.

A fly that had been crawling along Wilbur's trough had flown up and blundered into the lower part of Charlotte's web and was tangled in the sticky threads. Fly was beating its wings furiously, trying to break loose and free itself.

First, said Charlotte, I dive at him. She plunged head-first toward the fly. As she dropped, a tiny silken thread unwound from her rear end. Next I wrap him up. She grabbed the fly, threw a few jets of silk around it and rolled it over and over, wrapping it so that it couldn't move.

Wilbur watched in horror. He could hardly believe what he was seeing, and although he detested flies, he was sorry for this one. There, said Charlotte, now I knock him out so he'll be more comfortable.

FLATOW: And that's E.B. White reading a bit of his own book, from "Charlotte's Web," and we've got that from audible.com. You can actually download that and get that copy of him reading it at Audible.

And he - and the thing that you point out in this book and that it is obvious from reading "Charlotte's Web" is that E.B. White pulls no punches here about what real life is about.

SIMS: Yes, it's surely the only children's book, at least by that time, in 1952, that had a heroine who calmly killed other creatures right in the front of the audience, right in the main stage. I mean, it was just - when he read that spiders anesthetize their prey to paralyze it, he does an immediate quick spin on that and decides, what the heck, let's put that in too. It's amazing.

FLATOW: Well, it's amazing because the beauty is in the details here. And you point out that E.B. White puts in the great details about how nature works, even the name of the spider, right? Tell us about the name.

SIMS: He had originally thought her name was going to be Charlotte Epira(ph), which he thought was the scientific name, and he learned that Cavatica was an older name for the same species. And he - when he put together her name, Charlotte A. Cavatica came from Aranea Cavatica, which was her scientific name, and it's now changed. The form has changed, as taxonomy always evolves, to Araneus Cavaticus.

So he changes it and reduces her genus name to a middle initial, and suddenly her species name becomes this beautiful, jaunty, Italian surname, and you have Charlotte A. Cavatica, a Dickensian memorable sort of name.

FLATOW: And he goes through the - he has the spider tell us about all the body parts and all the anatomically correct things that we would learn in nature, as if this were a science class taught as a kids' book.

SIMS: It's really strange that he will have her list the parts of the leg, you know, the femur, the patella, the metatarsus and all this. And he, in the passage you just read, he made a note carefully and emphasized it when he learned that spiders are usually nearsighted.

He had very carefully asked himself questions, such as when they - when the web material, the filament comes out of the spinneret, the web-producing organ on the bottom of the spider's body, does it have to touch the object that is attaching to you, or can the foot move it? And so there, he just says silken thread unwound from her rear end, and she looped it around. And so there - even behind all that was page after page of very careful, detailed research in five different science books that I know of.

FLATOW: Amazing. And even in his research, you write that he noticed a real spider laying an egg sac and brought it home with him...

SIMS: Yes.

FLATOW: ...with some interesting results.

SIMS: Yes. I think that's my favorite part of the book, is that he's carrying slops out for the pig every day in the barn, the replacement pig for the one that died. And he keeps walking under this spider web, and he watches every day. And eventually, he sees a round object in it and goes up and examines it and realizes that the spider has created an egg case, and is filling it with eggs. So then he doesn't see her again after that. And at this point, he doesn't yet understand that that this species of spider dies after laying eggs. So he doesn't see it for a while. And then he has to go back to New York City, to the other end of this loop of his life from rural Maine to urban New York.

And he cuts the spider - the egg sac down, takes it with him, puts it on his bureau in his apartment in New York and forgets about it, until one day he's combing his hair, and he sees this movement on the desk. And the next thing you know, spiders are coming out of these little holes in a box that he had put the web case in, and - the egg case. And they're beginning to climb out and spill across the bureau. And because he's E.B. White, unlike me, he thinks this is very cool.


SIMS: And then, they gradually begin to create the little ballooning filament that enables them to fly off wherever, to trust the wind and chance. And so they begin to fly around the room, and he thinks that's cool, until the maid absolutely flatly refuses to work around a spider refugee camp. And they had to go.


FLATOW: Great story. 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Michael Sims. His new book is "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic." It's great. It's a lot of fun to read. And I have to admit, I had not read "Charlotte's Web" before I read your book, and I read it first. And it is a classic. And it is still being read by adults, correct?

SIMS: Oh, constantly. I mean, it's being taught in so many literature classes. And I'm glad that I was able to put you onto the book, considering over the years how many books you put me onto.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. I'm glad I could return the favor.


FLATOW: We're talking about "Charlotte's Web" this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, with Michael Sims. Let's see if we can get a phone call in before the break. Amy in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. Hi, Amy.

AMY: Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

AMY: I read "Charlotte's Web" when I was eight, which was 1977, and I loved it. And I just thought it was fabulous. And the spiders eating, you know, spider eating the flies didn't bother me at all. What - I did not see Charlotte dying at the end.


AMY: I just didn't see it coming, and it really did me in. I just sat in my little rocking chair sobbing, and my mother found me crying and crying. And she said, what's the matter? I said, Charlotte died. She was, like, oh.


AMY: You know, maybe she thought she should have warned me about that. But, you know, I read "The Trumpet of the Swan" out loud to my kids, but I can't read "Charlotte's Web" out to the - out loud to them.

FLATOW: Because of the ending.

AMY: Because I know it will get me.

FLATOW: Right. Good point. Michael, even E.B. White had trouble with that, did he not?

SIMS: He did. That's a wonderful story, Amy. And I agree, E.B. White had a version of that, when he was doing the audio, many years later. The producer later said that it took him 17 takes to read the death scene of Charlotte. And finally, they would walk outside, and E.B. White would go, this is ridiculous, a grown man crying over the death of an imaginary insect. And then, he would go in and start crying again when he got to that moment.

FLATOW: Wow. And I - but that's true - again, that's true to how nature works. He didn't...

SIMS: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...he did not try to, you know, to cover it up.

SIMS: And before people call in, I just want to mention, I know a spider's not an insect.


FLATOW: An arachnid.

SIMS: An arachnid.

FLATOW: OK. It's OK. But - so he, you know, he could have had Charlotte live forever, just as, you know, as you say, if it were a different kind of novelist and a different - maybe some other person writing it, that would have been a happy ending. But he lived on a farm. He watched life and death. He watched spiders eat other insects. He - that was a natural way for things to happen on a farm.

SIMS: Yes. And he also - he had lost both his parents, and he'd experienced the normal amount of loss. But he was also a melancholy sort of person, and he saw the brevity of life as another reason to revel in today and enjoy being alive and awake and conscious today. And so both those themes are completely interwoven.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You say in your title, he was eccentric. What do you mean by that?

SIMS: Well, that subtitle is too long...


SIMS: ...I admit. I said eccentric because - well, the word originally just means off-center, the origin - the Greek origins of it. And if ever there was a human being born off-center, it was E.B. White. He simply could not - that was, I think, why Henry Thoreau was his favorite writer. He could not follow in an established path if his life depended on it. And so he had his own quirky way. He was very fierce and funny hypochondriac. He liked to spend a lot of time alone. He loved working with animals, as much as possible. Even in New York City, even in writing for The New Yorker to begin with, he was off, you know, exploring what rats were doing in some alley.

FLATOW: And that's an interesting part, because that's reflected in the book. The rat is not a fantasy rat. He acts like a rat in the book.

SIMS: Yes.

FLATOW: He's not a - he's not reformed in the book.

SIMS: And that's something I love, too, is that White doesn't pretend to like rats. In fact, Templeton comes out better than the real-life rats did in his life because in - he had always felt they were a plague on his life as a farmer, as many farmers do. And I grew up in rural eastern Tennessee, so I'm familiar with this theme. And during World War II, he would shoot rats and pretend at that moment they were Nazis.

FLATOW: Wow. All right. Well, that's...

SIMS: He's a quirky fellow.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, that's - I can't top that one with anything to say.


FLATOW: So let's go to the break. That's a great - good, natural break. Talking with Michael Sims, author of "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and Birth of an American Classic." If you'd like to discuss it with us, our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri and leave your comments on our Facebook site, SciFri, and our website at sciencefriday.com. Stay with us. We'll be back with more questions and answers after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about "Charlotte's Web" and the man behind it, E.B. White. My guest is Michael Sims, author of "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to tweet us, you can tweet us @scifri. Also leave some messages at our Facebook and our website, sciencefriday.com. Why was he called Andy in - his nickname - not E.B. or anything like that?

SIMS: Well, he started at Cornell in 1917. And for a long time, Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder of Cornell, had left a sort of legacy there that he didn't intend to, which is that any young man who was an undergraduate at Cornell with the surname White would get nicknamed after Andrew Dickson White and be called Andy. And E.B., whose given names were Elwyn and Brooks, understandably was quite happy with being given a new name.


SIMS: I don't think he wanted to go around being called either Elwyn or Brooks, and he adopted Andy and began to introduce himself that way. And even his wife, Katharine, the great New Yorker editor, Katharine White, called him that all his life.

FLATOW: Hm. 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people, lots of questions. Let's go to Mike in Wichita. Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Hi. Michael, I've got a question about the title of the book. I'm a teacher, and one of the things we do is we take vocabulary from a story, and we ask questions about it. And the title of...

FLATOW: Oh, good.

MIKE: ..."Charlotte's Web," my question is: What did E.B. White mean by web? Because web can be, well, a spider's, but it can also be a plot, like in what a tangled web we weave. Or it can mean a connection of people or characters. And as my kids discuss that, well, do you have thoughts? What do you think E.B. White meant by web?

SIMS: I think that's a wonderful question. That's why a love call-in. It is so completely unpredictable. I - he was very well-educated, and he was educated in an era in which Latin and Greek were still very much part of the program. And he was very familiar with the Greek and Latin mythological tales of spiders as the weavers of destiny. And the whole idea of Arachne, where they get the word arachnid from, was that Arachne was a weaver who was so cocky about her wonderful skill, that the gods turned her into a spider.

And fate - or the makers of fate are often seen as a kind of spider and weaver. And so he was very familiar with all that. So I really think he was implying a lot of these things, because you see a lot of different uses of references to spider webs over the years in his writing. He once said that democracy is like a spider web in that it stretches and returns to its original place, because that's its kind of resiliency. And so he had - was long preoccupied with the web as a symbol.

He definitely saw this not only as how she wove the web, but as she rewove Wilbur's destiny. And so I think you're on the right track in asking all of this together, because I really think, clearly, from looking at his papers that he meant all of those at once.

FLATOW: All right. Mike, thanks...

MIKE: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: ...thanks for calling. Good topic. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Lots of people are, you know, are recounting their experiences with this book, and it's really very interesting to hear their comments, and as you say, on a talk show, anything can happen. And we...


FLATOW: ...our listeners are (unintelligible). We like that. Let's go to Ed in Birmingham, Alabama. Hi, Ed.

ED: Good afternoon, Ira. Thank you very much for having me on. I just wanted to ask Michael if he would consider writing his next book out of the great natural history of children's stories about talking animals, about the "Freddy the Pig" books by...


ED: ...Brooks. You know those books?

SIMS: I do. In the '90s and around early in - about a decade ago, they were reissued. All of those books were reissued. I own all 26. I own "Freddy the Detective" in Japanese. So you're talking to the right person. I'm clearly pathologically nerdy and...


SIMS: So I'm...

FLATOW: Well, you're on the right show, at least.


SIMS: Oh, my God. These are my people.


SIMS: I definitely have always planned to include "Freddy the Pig" if I do that. Walter Brooks comes up in the E.B. White book, because he wrote some for The New Yorker, and he wrote the original stories about Mr. Ed, the character that became Mr. Ed. And so he has another pig who's very smart and interesting, and the stories are very funny and literate. So he's a good point in here.

And actually, I'm the only person I know of who has noticed this, because it's my particular brand of nerdiness. But Walter Brooks, in one of the previous pig novels about eight years before "Charlotte's Web" was published, had a spider write a bunch of words in a web. And the - it does not play an important role in the book. It's interesting and an amusing scene, but it had definitely been done before.

FLATOW: Do you think he knew about it?

SIMS: I don't know. I know that he - that Brooks wrote for The New Yorker some. White read widely in children's books. The books had been coming out since 1927. I couldn't find that he knew or not. But he does a totally different thing with it, of course. But it was just interesting to find that it was - it had already been done.

FLATOW: All right, Ed. Thanks for calling. Good question. Good suggestion. What is the most surprising to you when you went through all the archives of E. B. White and "Charlotte's Web"? What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

SIMS: I think it's that - I think it's why I'm drawn to this corner in general, and why in the lot of my books, I'm writing about how our imagination responds to nature in one way or another.

And I think my favorite moment in all of the research and writing was I was sitting in the archives at Cornell going through his papers, and I find one where he's making various notes on - that he's learned from different science books about how spiders live. And he discovers that some streamside spiders in a field would build a web low enough that, occasionally, a small fish would get caught in it. And on this piece of paper, he skips two or three lines, and he begins to turn that into dialogue. And it's that scene in the book, where Charlotte recounts it as having happened to one of her cousins. And Wilbur's skeptical, and Charlotte goes, I have some very remarkable cousins.

And I think that's my favorite moment, is you can see the creation right there. You can see the imaginative leap from nature to literature.

FLATOW: Right. And he thought so much of it, that there's an illustration in the book, if I recall, of the fish...

SIMS: Yes.

FLATOW: ...being caught in the spider web.

SIMS: Yes. Garth Williams, in his wonderful illustrations, had to deal with White giving a lot of advice, including this, that E. B. White send him the call numbers for these science books. He would say, check out volume three, page 217. The illustration at the top, Charlotte looks very fetching.


FLATOW: Do you think that could have been today? In a day like this, there might have been a follow up, you know, to your - for - or can you just say - just to say it's a great novel. Nothing could be better. Don't ever try to top this one.

SIMS: I think it wound up meaning so much to him, that he wound up - for example, in this, the pig suffers, but does not die, unlike the one that had died. And Charlotte is very much a writer - although, as someone pointed out, she's also sort of a publicist...


SIMS: ...for Wilbur. I think it was my publicist who pointed that out, actually. And Charlotte is someone who changes the world with only a few words. And I think by the end, he had identified so fully with her, that I don't think he was going to bring her - bring any of those characters back. I think he felt it was as finished as a myth. It was full circle.

FLATOW: And, you know, you see the quality of the writing. And we know about the elements of style and the writing, and there is not a wasted word in this book.

SIMS: Yes. It's wonderful to see - if you look at all the drafts and the false starts, the difficulty the man had getting off the ground, so many variations and versions, so much crossed out, it's beautiful to watch and very inspirational for me as a writer to see someone that you think of as such a model for writing having just as much trouble as the rest of us have, and just stacking up the paper, throwing away hundreds of pages to get to this beautiful, distilled fable.

FLATOW: And it's an illustration of what a craft and how difficult and what artistry is involved in writing, you know? You just don't sit down...

SIMS: Yes.

FLATOW: ...there once and put on paper.

SIMS: Yes, yes. And it's exciting for me to see that, to watch the creation process evolve, and then also to see what - it was sort of like a hands-on craft. I mean, it was in pencil and ink. He wrote largely - a lot of it in long hand. The whole first draft was in pencil. And it just feels more like it was connected to the whole history of literature. It's like the way that Lucretius wrote 2,000 years ago.

FLATOW: Hmm. Mm-hmm. So where do you go from here? Another book?

SIMS: I'm already absolutely obsessed with a book about Henry David Thoreau and what he was doing at Walden during those two years: how he got there, what he left out, and the emotional mess of his life that had, in part, led him to go there.

FLATOW: Wow. Another nature's theme for you.

SIMS: Another nature and myth literature, another imagination responding to nature. For some reason, I do not know why, that's my corner.


FLATOW: It could - as we used to say, it could be worst.


FLATOW: It could be worse. It really could.


FLATOW: And, you know - and I can see it's - the way you write it. This is, you know, it's a joy to be able to write about things that you love and that be your occupation, that this...

SIMS: It really is. It really is. A potential...

FLATOW: Yeah. Are you going to go live - are you going up to the pond, to live there? Or how do you understand...

SIMS: Not to live there, but I will be there many times. I've been there a few times in the past, and I'll be there a bunch of times as a write this. I've - to my great embarrassment, I've become one of those dorm-room, follow-your-bliss posters. It's very embarrassing.

FLATOW: Well, there's nothing wrong that...


FLATOW: ...if you can do it, right?

SIMS: Yeah, so far. Yeah.

FLATOW: So far?

SIMS: Check with me in two years. Who knows.


FLATOW: Well, we will see - if that's about how long it'll take, we'll have you back in two years. That'll be delightful.

SIMS: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Talking with Michael Sims, author of "The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic." This is - if you've ever read "Charlotte's Web" and you're interested - and I'm now hooked on this book, and I just read it this week. This is a great book, "Charlotte's Web," and it's a great commentary by Michael Sims, the author. Thank you for taking time to be with us, Michael.

SIMS: Thank you. My pleasure.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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