Jeannine Atkins: The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims
Some biographies have too many words for me. I don’t need to know all the names of ancestors, or what happened, say, on every Tuesday. And some biographies are sad. Why couldn’t A.A.Milne and his only son, Christopher Robin, just get along?
But E.B. White turns out to be the guy you want him to be, and The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims is just long enough.My only quibble is with the subtitle. Eccentric? Whoever wrote that title (my guess is that it wasn’t the author) clearly hasn’t spent much time around writers, where E.B. White would pass unnoticed.
I particularly loved reading about his childhood, when the beloved youngest child hung out in the stable in the home outside of New York City. He liked the smell of horses, and searching out spiders; he developed an early infatuation with eggs, which play a symbolic part in much of his writing. His parents started taking him to Maine in hopes of helping his hay fever, which probably got worse, but he didn’t care. He loved the lakes and woods. His dating life in high school wasn’t much as the few times he dared to ask a girl out he didn’t talk. College at Cornell, where he was first called Andy, a name that stuck, wasn’t much better. He wrote one girl a poem comparing her eyes to that of a dog, which he meant as a tribute.
He found himself as a writer working for the New Yorker and eventually fell in love with and married editor and writer Katherine Angell, whose first husband had come back from WWI with what the biographer calls “French ideas of marriage.” Michael Sims doesn’t dwell on the relationship, but chooses just the right scenes. When Katherine seemed in danger of dying giving birth to her and Andy’s one child, losing enough blood so that someone had to run out and get some from a taxi driver, a nurse asked Katherine, “Would you like to say a little prayer, deary?”
“Certainly not!” Katherine snapped, and I felt I got about all I needed to know about her.
We learn about E.B.White’s slow and thoughtful writing methods and his relationship with Ursula Nordstrom, who also edited books of Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I liked hearing about the year he spent studying spiders, and the year he took between a draft of Charlotte’s Web that began with the barn and a draft in which he added five chapters about Fern. He wrote “I kept the manuscript in a cardboard box like a kitten.” And out came the girl yelling at her father about injustice. It was fascinating to read about how facts White learned about animals helped develop the plot and the arc from spring to fall. He used details such as seeing a spider’s egg sac look to him like cotton candy, which of course connected to the fair.
This biography is full of wonderful quotes (how many times is “wonder” used in Charlotte’s Web, and how is it perfect every time?) that will make you want to reread the novel or perhaps, like me, read White’s essays. Apparently he, Katherine, and Joe read Little Women aloud at nights: I need to find if he ever wrote about that!
The biography ends with his stepson Roger Angell speaking at the well-attended funeral of a man who was perhaps happiest among animals. “If E. B. White were able to be here, he wouldn’t have been here.” He was a person who’d always choose the barn, and what a beautiful place he found there. Let me leave you with this from Charlotte’s Web: “It was the best place to be… with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”