Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On E.B. White and Charlotte

If The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims reads as much like a biography of E.B. White as the story of how White's most famous book came to be, it may be because White's whole life was about the writing of that single book. His boyhood interest in animals and nature in general laid the groundwork for Charlotte's Web. His development as a writer and the attention to detail he learned as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine groomed him for writing his masterpiece. His move to his Maine farm with his wife, Katharine, an editor at The New Yorker, inspired him and provided the opportunity for his imagination to soar.

White made other notable contributions to literature. His essays are still read today. His other novels for children, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the  Swan, are themselves classics. The Elements of Style, in which White revised and improved upon the work of his college professor, William Strunk Jr., remains a valuable resource for writers old and young. Yet White reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of his story about the spider who saved the life of a pig.

Sims gives his readers amazing detail about how the book came to be. An actual spider at White's farm inspired it. White devoted hours to studying that spider and others to observe their behavior. He poured over books about spiders. Maybe real spiders don't spin English words into their webs, but otherwise White wanted Charlotte to behave like a barn spider. He even insisted that, children's book or not, she must die after laying her eggs because that is what real spiders do.

Sims provides several examples of how White revised his manuscript over and over again, crossing out words and trying new ones in their place. He agonized over what to name certain characters and what Charlotte should say about Wilbur in her web. "Pig Supreme" was among the contenders until White settled on "Some Pig."

Anyone who has enjoyed Charlotte's Web, and that means millions of readers, will enjoy reading what Sims has to say about that book and the man who wrote it.

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