The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims

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.

38 comments

  1. Sounds wonderful! E.B. White is a favorite author around here. When the kids were little, I had them do their copywork from sentences pulled from his books. I’m going to hunt this one down! Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    1. What a great way to get kids to learn! I shall remember that trick! I hope you manage to find this, Susan – it’s truly fantastic, and I think it would make you love him even more.

  2. Oh, Rachel, I noticed this in the Oxfam shop the other day and didn’t even pick it up. If only I’d known – bet it’s gone now!

  3. I was eager to see your review of Sim’s book when I saw it on your sidebar, Rachel. It was worth the short wait. You have given such a thorough and exciting review, I know The Story of Charlottes Web will soon be sitting in my hands.

    What an interesting man E.B. White was. I knew a little about him, but, this sounds so well written and researched. Charlotte’s Web is one of mine and my younger daughter’s favorites. I don’t know how many times we read it aloud – even more that she read it herself. It is sometimes harder to write children’s literature than adult fiction, so, it is interesting to read of how Charolotte came about, and, I imagine, the other barnyard creatures.

    Well done! Thank you.

    I hope you are out Irene’s way; safe and sound, Rachel.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the review Penny, and that it’s convinced you to get a copy of your own!

      I love hearing about what an impact childhood literature has had on people – and I’m so pleased that a book has been written to explore the genesis of such an iconic children’s book.

      I’m prepped and ready Penny!! We’ll just have to wait and see what Irene brings!

  4. So glad to know about this book. One of my favorite lines from Stuart Little is “Sometimes (often?) people with decayed teeth have sound ideas.”

  5. I’m not surprised that Susan had her children use E.B. White’s sentences for copywork. For generations, American college students kept a copy of William Strunk and E.B. White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE for help with writing papers. People often referred to the handbook as STRUNK AND WHITE, as in “I don’t know how to correctly annotate that reference–I’ll have to look it up in Strunk & White.” I was probably out of college when I first learned that the E.B. White of Strunk & White was also the author of CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

    1. I’m so intrigued to hear this, Deb – I’d never come across it before. It sounds like something I’d love to have to hand though, especially if White is witty about grammar usage!

  6. E.B. White also is half of Strunk & White.

    You made me curious, so I checked. White had one son, whose widow and 2 children, w/ families, still live in Maine.

    1. I read about that book in the biography – I had never heard of it before! I’m so interested to see how popular it is in the US. I shall check it out.

      Yes, they all stayed in the area which is lovely.

  7. Did it talk at all about Trumpet of the Swan? I liked Stuart Little and I loved Charlotte’s Web a lot, but Trumpet of the Swan is easily my favorite. Louis’s father is still one of my favorite characters in all of literature, and I love all the clever ways Louis manages his problems.

    Even if not, this looks wonderful!

    1. No, not much at all unfortunately – I haven’t read that and hadn’t heard of it before I read this – it obviously wasn’t much of a hit in England! I shall track it down!

  8. This sounds fantastic! I read Charlotte’s Web as a child and liked but never particularly loved it and then was haunted by White in my late teens when The Elements of Style was the touchstone of every English course (though, since you’re familiar with my shocking grammatically incorrect writing, it clearly never made much of an impact). But I do adore well-written biographies, regardless of the subject!

    1. Oh it really is, Claire! I really want to read this grammar book now everyone is talking about it! And you are not shockingly grammatically incorrect!!

  9. I hadn’t heard of this so thank you very much for the tip! I do know about EB White somewhat. I’m another one who grew up with Elements of Style. And of course I have my old copies of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. I clearly remember reading out loud The Trumpet of the Swan to a friend’s daughter and having her hang over my shoulder, rocking against me in fascination. It sounds a bit priggish to call these books wholesome, but they are so big hearted and expansive. White was a wonderful writer and never afraid to keep things simple.
    Wonderful review. Hope you are doing all right with Irene!

    1. You are very welcome Nancy, I am glad you like the sound of it! Big hearted and expansive is a wonderful way to describe White’s writing – this biography has given me the nudge to read more widely of his work and revisit his childhood classics. I’d love to read his children’s books to my nephews. I am doing fine with Irene thank you – not much to see here in northern Manhattan. All a bit of a drama over nothing but I am glad of it.

  10. Wonderful! I have found you thanks to Annie at Knitsofacto (one of my favourite blogs for content and depth) and I love what I have found. Yes, I shall but you on my list of favourites.

    If you are interested I am organising a giveaway around Jane Austen… if I manage to juggle things correctly in my everyday life I should be posting tonight or tomorrow.

    Sorry for this shameless plug; I simply think it might be something fairly close to your bookworm heart.

    1. Hello! it’s lovely to meet a new reader and I’m so glad you like what you’ve found here! Not a problem at all – thanks for letting me know. I will come and check you out!

  11. I can’t remember if you’re back in England yet. If not, are you battening down the hatches with the approach of Hurricane Irene? As someone whose home still bears some scars from Hurricane Katrina, my thoughts and prayers are with you & all the millions of people in Irene’s path.

    1. I’m still in New York, Deb, but am totally fine – my end of Manhattan didn’t really suffer and I seem to have slept through the worst! Thank you for your concern though!

  12. Avidly read your review because literary biography is on my mind at the moment too, and I agree with what you said about pitching it correctly. I’ve abandoned more literary biog’s than novels because they are either too trashy or too academic. I’ve not read White’s work but my daughter’s are familiar with Charlotte’s Web and they love the films of Stuart Little. Once again you have made me want to read a book I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. Somebody should be paying you for this!!

    1. Hi Nicola – yes, the worst type of literary biography are the painfully dry academic ones. I want a nice mixture of analysis and personality and this one does it perfectly. I am convinced you would very much enjoy this! Oh thank you – I wish they would!!

  13. Charlotte’s Web was a favorite of mine both as a child and as an adult classroom teacher. I always fight tears when I read about Charlotte’s death when I read it aloud. This book was always the centerpiece of a whole Unit that I taught all about spiders. We had so much fun collecting webs, making them, reading other literature about spiders and finding all about them.
    Your review of White’s Biography very intriguing. I love to find out the story behind the story. Thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention.

    1. Oh goodness, Janet – I can’t get through the bit where Charlotte dies without sobbing either – I bet reading it aloud to a class was torture!! How wonderful that you managed to weave it so effortlessly into the curriculum and I bet many young pupils of yours were touched by Charlotte as a result. I hope you get hold of the biography as it is truly magnificent!

  14. What a lovely, lovely post you have written here. Charlotte’s Web is my favorite childhood book ever; I received my first copy in 1969 when my family took a trip to Europe for the summer. I read it over and over and have read it many times since. I love the part of your post where it says White didn’t want to talk down to children, because he surely didn’t. I’m always amazed at the quality of vocabulary he uses; this book could easily be a story for adults. Teachers want to say it’s about friendship, but to me it’s even more powerful in its handling of death. It was the first time I cried over a novel, the first time I really understood the separation that death brings to those left behind. This, at the tender age of 8. But, he gives us hope. He shows us love. I will always treasure this. You ‘should’ read The Trumpet of The Swan, as well, it’s my second favorite then Stuart Little.

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