This is quite simply a brilliant book. Even if you don’t have the vaguest interest in E.B.White’s life or the genesis of Charlotte’s Web, I’m sure you’d still manage to find something in it to intrigue or delight you. Literary biography is a difficult monster to tackle; too much focus on the literary and you lose the people who want to know the juicy details of the life, and too much focus on the biography and you lose those who want to understand the writing process and how much of the writer went into the work. Michael Sims straddles the line between the two perfectly, and has created a sublime piece of writing that is heartfelt, humorous, fascinating and moving. I actually couldn’t put it down, and that’s a first for me when it comes to non fiction. I knew very little about E B White before I read this and now I am desperate to read more.
Sims begins with exploring E.B.White’s idyllic Edwardian childhood in a large house in Mount Vernon, a New York suburb. The youngest of seven children, Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 to prosperous, already middle aged parents, who were well educated and encouraged creativity and a spirit of adventure in their children. White’s next sibling in line was 5 years older than him and so from a young age he grew used to playing alone and retreating into a world of his imagination. Behind his house was a large barn for the family’s horses, as White grew up in a world that still largely used horse and cart as a means of getting around. White adored spending time in the barn with the horses, and developed a keen interest in the animal world, often preferring animals to people. Painfully shy, he found it difficult to form relationships, especially with girls, and the highlight of his year was always the family’s vacations to the beautiful Maine coast, where he was free to ramble in the stunning countryside and enjoy the natural world around him.
As he progressed into his teen and college years, White developed his love of writing into a successful talent, being published in juvenile magazines and college papers. On graduation, he moved around for a while, working in various jobs in New York while submitting stories and essays to a range of magazines. One of these magazines was a fledgling production entitled The New Yorker, and one of the young editors there, a Mrs Katherine Angell, was so impressed by his writing that she asked him to join the permanent staff. There began White’s writing career; as a columnist, satirist and essayist, he swiftly found himself becoming one of the nation’s most adored writers, with his gentle, witty and observant voice on all manner of topics, from New York to romance. In 1929 he married the newly divorced Katherine, beginning what would be a long and happy partnership.
After his marriage, E.B.White grew tired of New York and longed for a home in Maine, which was to him an enchanted land of unspoiled nature and glittering oceans. So, he and Katherine bought a farm at Allen Cove, a coastal town, and they proceeded to split their time between New York and Maine for the rest of their lives. White adored his farm, mostly because of how close it allowed him to be to his animals. No gentleman farmer, White insisted on doing the work himself, rearing his animals, caring for them, and finally killing them, something that never ceased to disturb him. The huge barn joined to the house was a place of comfort and solace, and it was spotting a spider in the barn that first gave him the idea for what would be his greatest legacy; Charlotte’s Web. Eager to write a book for children that did not talk down to them, and that did not infantilise or unrealistically portray animals and their motivations and behaviour, White spent five years agonizing over the writing of Charlotte’s Web. The finished article was ultimately a distillation of his admirably positive, curious and idealistic attitude towards life. Its success was instant; and no man deserved it more.
Sims goes into much detail about the genesis of Charlotte’s Web, and also of Stuart Little, which I haven’t read, exploring White’s writing process and interests in fascinating chapters that include how deeply White researched spiders in order to accurately portray Charlotte’s thoughts and actions. However, the greatest joy of the book is how sensitively, affectionately and movingly he brings White to life. An anxious and shy man, he lacked self esteem and was incredibly nervous in public. He constantly worried about his health and about what others thought of him, writing long letters to his wife about such incidents as preparing for his death when he found his face to be swollen before finding out it was just sunburn, and his worries about how terrible he thought his writing was. At the same time, however, he was incredibly courageous and daring, and loved to try new things, albeit when nobody else was watching. Loving, warm, loyal and hilariously funny, White never missed an opportunity to poke fun at himself and was a much adored friend to all he knew. He loved animals and children, and was never happier than when he was on his farm. However, he also loved the buzz of New York, writing one of his most famous essays, Here is New York, about its many delights.
Sims effortlessly weaves a tale of a contradictory, extraordinary and endearing man, whose love of life and of nature came together in Charlotte’s Web to create a book that reveals the beauty of its writer’s soul on every page. I felt rather bereft when I closed the pages, as I had come to love White and all that he had been. What a wonderful man he was, and what a fascinating life he led; the period details of New York, of life in a busy magazine office, and of the literary world the Whites inhabited totally absorbed me. This is a magnificent book that interested me on so many different levels. It really is one of the best non fiction books I’ve ever read, and I strongly urge you to read it and be transported into the world of one of America’s finest literary giants, whose heart was as golden as his beautiful prose.