Some Pig, Some BookANTHONY ESOLEN
A sense of such joy, mingled with wistfulness, is the charm of Michael Sims's splendid The Story of Charlotte's Web.
A sense of such joy, mingled with wistfulness, is the charm of Michael Sims's splendid The Story of Charlotte's Web. Mr. Sims seeks to discover how E.B. White, a longtime New Yorker editor, came to write the 1952 children's classic about how a word-spinning spider saves Wilbur the Pig from the butcher and teaches him the lessons of friendship. Mr. Sims traces White (1899-1985) back to his boyhood in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and his summers in a cabin in Maine. The young Elwyn – later in life known as Andy, Mr. Sims's name for him through most of the book – was a quiet child, the last of seven. He didn't like school, and he didn't read much. But his father kept a stable, and the boy loved it.
He tended geese and pigeons and chickens there. He chatted with the stable boy, and on sticky summer nights he slept in a hammock on the porch. In the winter he played hockey on the frozen ponds. His older brothers taught him how to use a knife and paddle a canoe. His father took him on long explorations into the woods, writing: "Oh, the joy, the joy of my little boy; we have lots of good times together." Summer mornings in Maine found Elwyn getting up before dawn, tiptoeing out of the cabin and down to the shore of Belgrade Lake, to canoe alone for miles, to bathe in the good cold water or to be ready to see or hear any wild thing that might turn up.
A fine stylist, Mr. Sims portrays these scenes with a beauty and an economy of language that would make the co-author of The Elements of Style proud. He is a worthy disciple, and his research was something of a pilgrimage. Mr. Sims tells of a visit to the home that White bought for his own family in North Brooklin, Maine. He goes into the barn and sees a rope looped through a ring overhead. "Fern and Avery's rope?" he asks his hosts. And we see in our memories, as Mr. Sims intends, the wonderful scene in which the children spend a full hour swinging on a rope from the hayloft of their uncle's barn, where Charlotte and Wilbur live. We are told exactly what it feels like, from the knot to sit on to the twisting of the rope as you sail. "Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will," White wrote in Charlotte's Web.
White certainly hung onto things. Mr. Sims cites a piece of youthful prose: "The beauty of the surrounding country makes tramping a pleasure," he wrote about the Maine he loved. "The bathing also is a feature, for the days grow very warm at noontime and make a good swim feel fine." The boy who wrote those words became the man who spent hours back in the barn, studying spiders and delighting in their ingenuity. As Mr. Sims details, White spent a full year learning about the various species of spiders, their feeding habits and what kinds of lines they spin so that he could write Charlotte's Web with the honesty the spider deserved. In an old volume called The Spider Book, by John Henry Comstock, he found a stylish name for his heroine, Charlotte A. Cavatica. (Aranea cavatica is her particular species of barn spider.)
Mr. Sims recalls for us that White's former English professor, William Strunk (the original author of The Elements of Style), used to grasp his lapels in front of his Cornell classes and bellow, "Omit needless words!" Strunk was right about that, but I am glad Mr. Sims did not scalpel out of his book all the things in White's life that did not bear directly on Charlotte's Web. He sees the man in the boy, and the boy in the man, devoted to "the conservation of beauty in prose." It's as if White were a bell and his biographer another, catching his life's resonance.
Mr. Sims thus gives us not only an engaging account of White's rise to literary prominence, through the New Yorker, but also his shyness, his awkwardness in love, his devotion to his wife, Katharine, and something else, something hard to identify but ever-present in the book, like the chirping of birds high in the trees at evening. White was not a religious man. But he was imbued with a sense of what Wilbur called "the glory of everything." Charlotte, writes Mr. Sims, "embodied the spirit of the barn, which [White] had once described as almost a sacred place, a stage for birth and death and the rhythms of life."
Fern and Avery are past. What our lives lack in piety we make up for in antisepsis. I won't see Fern suckling a piglet from a bottle or snuggling him next to her doll in a stroller. I won't see Avery come down the stairs with an air rifle and a wooden dagger. Does their father take them boating on a nine-mile lake? What's a father? Does their mother cook breakfast in the morning? What's breakfast? Who knows what Elwyn would grow up to be were he alive now? Urbane, cynical, crass, perhaps – a fine fit for what is left of his old literary magazine. But maybe – who knows? – he'd remind us that a porch, a kitchen, an attic, a barn, a lake, even a church, are not the worst places in the world to be.
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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