It is hard to imagine a literate American who has not encountered E. B. White, and harder to imagine one who has not been charmed. Parents swipe their children’s copies of the classics “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan” to reread after lights-out. College freshmen still find William Strunk and White’s delightful 1959 “The Elements of Style” on required reading lists. Generations have read his stylish essays in the New Yorker, and 26 years after his death, the White bibliography continues to grow: The subject of several biographies and memoirs, he is fascinating in part because his literary wit and fame are complicated by his legendary shyness and hypochondria.
His instinct for privacy did not, however, prevent White from cooperating with Scott Elledge’s comprehensive 1984 biography, published a year before White’s death. A reader might be forgiven for asking whether this new book is necessary, even as White and James Thurber once asked, in a 1929 collaboration titled “Is SexNecessary?” The answer, of course, is yes: While “The Story of Charlotte’s Web” does not add earth-shattering revelations, its account of White’s death and his work’s continuing life are a fitting echo to the resolution of “Charlotte’s Web.” The new study is unabashed homage from a writer interested in connecting White’s lifelong need to situate himself in the natural world to his determination to write with painstaking precision. In exploring those two habits of being, Michael Sims seeks to explain why we feel the complicated way we do when we read White, and why his vision of a now-receding America, one that paid close heed to nature, still feels crucial.
“The Story of Charlotte’s Web” devotes nearly its entire second half to the most popular of White’s children’s books. The first half, a broader investigation of his work and life, wisely intersperses choice lines from White himself. It is delicious to read the adult White describe his childhood self as a “writing fool” who has “been tapering off ever since.” The young writing fool, Elwyn White, was a paradox: He biked, swam and roamed in the dark of night yet was fearful of moonlight streaming in his window. Often more comfortable with animals than with people, Elwyn rambled through the suburban stables of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and the woods of Belgrade, Maine, where his family vacationed, his animal encounters as central to his early poetry and essays as they would be to “Charlotte’s Web.” Though Sims says that White was “not a particularly bookish child,” by the age of 11 he had published in St. Nicholas, the famed magazine that also ran juvenilia by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner (Sims is especially good at putting White’s work in context).
In a 1940 New Yorker piece, White invoked a child’s “mystical inner life” and “nature publishing herself through the ‘I.’ ” It is this mystical sense of life that he communicates with seeming effortlessness in his essays and stories, but Sims reminds us what a struggle that “effortlessness” entailed. White became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1926, when he was still in his 20s, and the glimpses here of the young magazine meeting the young writer, by then known as Andy, are delightful. But during his happy 48-year marriage to New Yorker editor and writer Katharine Angell, White found writing to be as much of a torment as a consolation. Though he had to write early in his life to understand his place in the world, he eventually wrote only when he felt like it.
The other requirement was living close to nature. In 1933, the Whites bought 40 acres on the coast of Maine, and as he and Katharine juggled their city and country lives (Sims is also good on the subjects of class and money), “Charlotte’s Web” began to take shape in its barn. Though much of its fame rests on the forthright and unsentimental way the story faces death in the natural world — not to mention the farmyard world — Sims makes it clear that White contemplated the story for years and did scrupulous research before he committed a word to paper. Upon finishing a draft, he set it aside for almost a year and, when he took it up again, revised extensively (the opening chapters, in which young Fern saves the pig Wilbur from her father’s slaughtering ax, were not added until then).
Though Sims begins this account with an attempt to inhabit Elwyn’s consciousness (“Why were those leaves rustling? Was that a twig snapping?”), he soon abandons such you-were-there techniques for a more enjoyable voice that separates the biographer from his subject. If some of the passages about White’s narrative methods remind us why it’s more fun to read fiction than a study of how it’s done, younger writers in particular may find this description of process bracing. Sims’s research is thorough, his own prose clear, direct and concise: the ultimate homage. His book is a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White’s vision of “nature publishing herself.”
THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB
E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
By Michael Sims
Walker. 307 pp. $25