Book review: The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims
A PIG. A spider. An eight-year-old girl. A conniving rat. This bald list of ingredients makes Charlotte's Web sound mundane, but from its exciting opening line, "Where's Papa going with that axe?", EB White's tale of barnyard life sucks readers in as nimbly - and irrevocably - as a spider's filaments do flies.
Michael Sims, author of the bestselling Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, has written the gentle loving book White deserves, for he was both those things, and more. White was one of the finest prose stylists ever, a man who, in his long career, working, most notably, for the New Yorker and Harper's, never composed a dud sentence.
On a trip to Maine, Sims toured the farm where White and his wife, Katherine, had spent most of their married life. He realised that everything described in Charlotte's Web was real - the rope swing, the layout of the barn and much more. He was inspired to write The Story of Charlotte's Web to explain how this book came to be written, and how White became the sort of man who was happiest watching animals.
White grew up in some splendour in Mount Vernon in Manhattan. From an early age he was and prone to long, solo sojourns exploring woodlands and meadows. "Often his mind stayed outside even when his body was in the house," writes Sim. White's favourite books were by naturalists such as John Burroughs, John Muir, and Ernest Thompson Seton. Soon he was writing, too. His first poem, which paid homage to a mouse he'd offered sanctuary, was published in 1909, when he was ten. After graduating from Cornell, White moved to New York and began submitting light verse and humorous pieces to newspapers and magazines. He was a huge fan of Don Marquis's Archy - poems "written" by a cockroach who typed by dive-bombing the keys, often featuring his feline friend, Mehitabel, who bragged that she'd been Cleopatra in a past life.
White met his wife when he joined the New Yorker. She was one of its most respected editors, and nurtured the fiction of writers from Mary McCarthy to Vladimir Nabokov. On the pages of the magazine, White developed a reputation as a chronicler of everyday life. "Finally he had a venue for airing his observations of the city's miniature dramas, its sparkling elevators and dustbin alleys, its quiet and largely unnoticed wildlife."
Fast forward to the 1940s, and the Whites were dividing their time between a farm in Maine, and a flat in Manhattan. In Maine, White tended the animals and working the land. His first book for children, Stuart Little, published in 1945, concerned a very tiny boy who was not a mouse, but looked exactly like one. It had been written over many years, mainly to entertain his family and local children. It was a huge hit, and marked the first time that White would collaborate with Garth Williams, thus launching the younger man on a stellar career of his own.
Sims describes how White's preoccupations on the farm bled into his work. For instance, White raised animals, but was always troubled about having to butcher them for food. "I do not like to betray a person or a creature," he explained.
He conceived his story about a pig and a spider as a celebration of friendship, though every now and again I find myself viewing it as a satire on the fine art of public relations. One of the reasons for its success is that, like its author, the novel never talks down to children, confronting them with everything from the life cycle of a year in farming to the way a spider sucks the blood out of its prey, and the death of the novel's title character.
Children loved the book, and so did critics. Eudora Welty deemed it "was perfect for readers over the age of eight or under the age of eighty". PL Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, cited the novel's "tangible magic". It is fitting, then, that there is so much to celebrate in Sims's book. His own descriptions of nature are evocative and subtle, and he probes at White's psyche without raking him over the coals. Fans of the New Yorker's heyday will find much to enjoy, and there is an enlightening introduction to such luminaries as children's book editor and "a promising young man named Maurice Sendak" .
Equally engaging are a wealth of small details - how Wilbur got his name, how Charlotte's species was selected, how White overcame his aversion to rats, to create the wonderful character Templeton, and even how he chose the words that Charlotte would spin to save Wilbur's bacon. White fans will savour this, as will anyone wondering how an author is made, and how a book comes to life.