- - Friday, August 12, 2011

By Michael Sims
Walker and Co., $24, 256 pages, illustrated

Readers looking here for insights into how E.B. “Andy” White created his classic children’s book “Charlotte’s Web” will first have to plow through (or skim) 11 chapters of Michael Sims‘ ruminations on White’s youth, farm life in Maine, city life in New York and the like - but the

latter part of the book is worth the wait. And, to be fair, Mr. Sims could argue that everything in White’s life, particularly his lifelong obsession with the natural world, contributed to his masterpiece.

Mr. Sims suggests that “Charlotte’s Web” may have had its origins in a 1947 Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Death of a Pig,” in which White recounted his and his son’s efforts over several days to keep a sick pig alive while meditating on its eventual slaughter if it survived. White “empathized strongly with the pig,” Mr. Sims writes. “On good days he had often felt a kind of kinship in its noisy appetite, seeing it as a healthy lust for life.” White was continuing to question the morality of animal husbandry when his publisher approached him in 1949 about producing another children’s book. (His first one, “Stuart Little,” had taken him six years to write.)

Writes Mr. Sims, “The doomed pig, and the relationship between humans and animals on a farm, kept running through his mind. … Already he envisioned the farm animals’ lives as much like his own, half comical and half melancholy. But how might a pig’s life be saved from the dastardly farmer’s plan?” Then White realized that, in fiction, he could contrive to save the pig - and his longtime observation of spiders in his barn suggested a solution.

White’s genius was such that he didn’t settle for imagining how spiders operate or for relying on experience, although he did steal a spider’s egg sac from Maine and take it to New York to monitor the hatching of the baby spiders. While the story of the pig and the spider gestated, White spent almost a year investigating spiders in science books. After he had completed a draft of his story, he set it aside for a year. When he returned to the manuscript, he wrote five more chapters, added the young girl Fern and, to avoid scaring away young readers, changed the title of the penultimate chapter from “Charlotte’s Death” to “Last Day.”

The chapters in which the author discusses the “scribbled-over, endlessly revised pages” of “Charlotte’s Web” from the Cornell University archives, coupled with excerpts from White’s published letters and other sources, are especially interesting. The author shows why the story actually started with “Where is Papa going with that ax?” rather than with “Charlotte was a big grey spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.”

White, Mr. Sims says, was determined that the creatures in his story should be “true to their nature”; he didn’t want to “twist their personalities into moral versus immoral decisions.” Charlotte was basically “a predator waiting patiently at the center of an architecturally dazzling fly-doom,” says Mr. Sims, and White “didn’t want to overemphasize her decision to try to help the frightened piglet.” As for the rat Templeton,” he would remain motivated by rodent selfishness, his help available only for a price.”

White ended the book, Mr. Sims says, on “the most positive aspect of life - that although death may be inevitable, so is the next round of living creatures, that because of the inevitability of death, we must revel in the moment.” White’s last paragraphs pulled together his themes: “the slow rhythms of the year, the seasons of a life, the endless recycling of living matter through new generations of spiders and lambs and, again and again, through manure, waste matter itself drawn back into the earth to become another generation of living creatures.”

A New York Times writer once denigrated White’s style as “hogwash, soft soap, and racket.” Katharine White rose to her husband’s defense: “They are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.” White himself adapted that sentiment for his closing tribute to the spider that had saved Wilbur’s life: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Mr. Sims quotes various reactions to the book’s publication in 1952, ranging from a librarian’s complaint (“Fern, the real center of the book, is never developed. The animals never talk. They speculate.”) to Eudora Welty’s enthusiasm: “What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure, and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passage of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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