E.B. White is one of the most beloved American authors of all time, best-known for his children’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Author Michael Sims has undertaken the task of delving into and revealing important facts from White’s past in The Story of Charlotte’s Web. Here, we talk to Sims about the iconic author and his classic book.
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What inspired you about White that you undertook a biography?
Originally I had the idea that I would write a sort of natural history of some of my favorite children’s animal stories—Rabbit Hill, The Cricket in Times Square, The Wind in the Willows. I’ve always been fond of the Dr. Dolittle turf, and I feel that a key part of my childhood was going out into the yard and woods with Rabbit Hill in one hand and a field guide in the other—sympathy meets education, a marriage of affection and curiosity.
So I began that book by researching E.B. White. And his essays and letters provided so much wonderful detail from his daily life, so much evidence of how this story evolved from the very texture of his daily life on the Maine farm, that I found myself unable to resist expanding this part of the story into a book of its own.
White is so timid that he sometimes has to write his wife, Katharine, notes signed by his dog, Daisy, to get his point across. It strikes me that this very habit of making animals talk is responsible for Charlotte's Web.
Yes, that particular quirk, while indicating how timid he could be about expressing his deeper emotions, seems very much a part of his usual approach to life. He automatically personified the animals around him, even New York sparrows, and sometimes even spoke through them. You see it in his letters, his essays, even his unsigned paragraphs for The New Yorker. Especially in his young adulthood, [E.B.] White was very timid about romance. Also, both he and Katharine came from families that were not very demonstrative. But I don’t want to read too much into those letters, because they were also just a way of being playful.
Do you ever wonder if White could have written Charlotte’s Web had he not made "the most beautiful decision of his life" in marrying Katharine?
I think Katharine was the major influence in his life. She believed passionately in his talent as a writer and worth as a person. Each seems to have considered the other brilliant and talented and amusing. You can’t overestimate the importance of mutual admiration and entertainment value in long-term romance.
Very shortly after they married, White wrote Katharine the poem “Natural History” that I reprint in the book, in which he portrays himself as a spider attaching “one silken strand to you / For my returning.” And again you see him using animals to convey important emotional revelations.
As you saw in my book, even the famous ending of Charlotte’s Web—the line about Charlotte being both a good friend and a good writer—White adapted from something that Katharine had said about him.
Would you mind describing your first memories of reading Charlotte’s Web?
Well, this is embarrassing. As a small child in the 1960s, at a rural school in eastern Tennessee, in a small town that even today doesn’t have a real bookstore, I waited with great excitement for the arrival of the Scholastic Book Club and Weekly Reader mail-order book shipments. I think that’s where I first saw Charlotte’s Web. But I resisted the book for a couple of silly reasons. First, I brilliantly deduced from the cover that it was about a girl named Charlotte, and I wasn’t reading many books about girls. How did I miss the spider? Did I think the web was metaphorical? I don’t know. And second, as a child I didn’t like the name Charlotte…
But fortunately I’ve never gone through a phase in which I didn’t read children’s books. So when I ran across the book in my teen years, I was still open to its magic and fell in love with it. Over the years I must have read it eight or 10 times before I read it again twice while writing this book. From the first I admired its emotional immediacy and also its sort of ecstatic response to consciousness, a lyrical celebration of being alive. I discovered it about the time I discovered Walt Whitman, and they remind me of each other.
I loved the ending of the book, but felt curious about what will come next. Do you think you may ever write another biographical account of White's latter years?
I originally conceived this book as a full stand-alone story in itself. Concentrating on his interest in nature, I didn’t write a full biography of White. I just decided I had to go back to where I thought the story of his best book really began—in the stable of his childhood home. So, while the book concentrates on his imaginative response to nature, it does cover more than half his life.
But I found that two things happened. First, when I completed the book a few months ago, I hated to say goodbye to E.B. and Katharine White, and also to their farm, in 1953, a year or so after the publication of Charlotte’s Web. She lived another quarter century, and he lived eight years after her death. He wrote a lot during this time, including The Trumpet of the Swan.
Joe married a beautiful young woman and became a father. Lots of real life crowded the years. I realized I felt that I had told the story of Charlotte’s Web but only half the story of E.B. White.
And second, a number of people have, to my surprise, been asking me this same question: Will there be a second account to round out the story of this wonderful writer and fascinating man? So let’s just say that I’m seriously considering it.