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E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

by Michael Sims

Pub Date: June 7th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7754-6
Publisher: Walker

An affectionate biography examines the birth of an American classic.

As the subtitle indicates, Sims (Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, 2007, etc.) concentrates on White’s lifelong love of the natural world. He loved the family stable, writes the author, and roamed the undeveloped places in and around Mount Vernon, N.Y., as well as reveling in the rustic beauty of the Belgrade Lakes in Maine, where his family summered. White’s reading tastes revolved around the “true life” animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton and his ilk, and he was also charmed by the antics of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. White began writing early, first keeping a diary and then joining the child contributors to St. Nicholas, among whom also numbered his future wife, Katharine Sergeant. Sims also traces White’s New Yorker career, touching lightly on high points and drawing on his writings, both public and private, in which he often adopted the voices of animals. The author avoids the often-irritating tendency of literary biographers to foreshadow portentously from these early experiences, allowing readers to draw their own connections. His examination of the genesis and development of Charlotte’s Web—White worked desperately to nurse an ill pig back to health, knowing that if he was successful, he would end up killing it anyway—will thrill lovers of the novel. Sims quotes generously from White's working drafts, which were constantly in revision from the beginning. Descriptions of these pages offer both a fascinating insight into the writing process and crushing refutation of any claim that writing for children is easy.

Packed with the same kind of sensory detail its subject reveled in, this account is an honorable addition to the literature of letters.