AUGUST 24, 2011
SOMETIMES A BOOK COMES ALONG and you feel so lucky that somebody pressed it into your hands to read that you read it right away.
When I was in fourth grade at Saint Cecilia’s in Ames, Iowa, my teacher, Miss LeClair, told me I was a good writer. This was news to me. I had been struggling with latitude and longitude, long division, and Father Joseph Sullivan’s decree that girls could not wear pants to school, only dresses, even in snowstorms. According to my teachers and parents, I was “quiet, pleasant, shy, very tall, well behaved, and excellent at cleaning kitchens.” I imagined a long and dull life of dresses, algebra, and scoured pots and pans.
But when Miss LeClair told me I was a good writer, the doors and windows cast open to let in sun, wind, and relief. I went home that day, grabbed one of my father’s yellow pad notebooks, and headed out to go notice things. I tasted the hard green apples (surprisingly sour) in Sarah Campbell’s backyard. I watched the puffy white clouds slung in the sky over Ames. The smell of fresh cut grass made me wonder if my mother was making manicotti for dinner that night — a rare treat. I listened to my brothers riding Big Wheels up and down Clark Street. As I felt the wind and sun on my face and reveled in the newly discovered art of paying attention, I knew I had found something to do with my life. I called my essay “The Five Cents.” I had meant to write “The Five Senses,” but I wasn’t much better at spelling than I was at longitude and latitude. Still, Miss LeClair gave me hope.
This summer, I read a book that also gave me hope, Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. It is, of course, aboutCharlotte’s Web, but it’s also about how a little boy named Elwyn grew up to become the writer E.B. White. In this lovingly rendered portrait, Sims details a life of careful listening, insatiable curiosity, and empathy toward all living creatures from people to spiders to pigs (the exception being rodents, which is why Templeton, the rat, made for such a hilariously greedy character).
White was still a child when his father, Samuel, brought the whole family for a two-week stay at Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade, Maine. The White family bunked in a cabin with a sign that said “Happy Days.” As a young teenager, White made a pamphlet for his friend, Freddie Schuler, called “Belgrade Lake & Snug Harbor,” a handwritten account of his Maine summers and an attempt at capturing “the conservation of beauty in prose.” Sims describes White’s love affair with this place, and its lasting effect on his consciousness:
Elwyn crept through the dark and aromatic marsh, past croaking frogs and unexplained scurries, to the boulders, beyond which distant lights shone on the water. There was this short and slight boy, who would run blocks to avoid a bully but who felt safe in the natural world when no other people were around, would shed his clothes and slip into the black water. Quietly, so as not to attract attention, he swam in the darkness, floating under the stars, unafraid.
Romantics will appreciate the details about White and his wife, Katharine Angell, his co-worker and editor at the New Yorker. As a couple, they lived half the year in New York and half the year in Maine. Sims describes their slow courtship, their creative partnership, and their daily routines, including running the farm, raising a family and, of course, their work:
Exposed above Allen Cove, the house encountered strong winds, but with its thick walls and broad plank floors — it had been built around 1800 — it felt secure even in a snowstorm. They set up ground-floor studies across the hall from each other, his in the northwest front room and hers in the southwest, where he continued to write for and she continued to edit for the magazine that had brought them together. Late mornings, after farm chores were done and the rural postman had driven up with their daily array of fat envelopes containing books and manuscripts, both settled down to work.
White was fortunate to have, for his editor, the vivid Ursula Nordstrom. In addition to editing Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Nordstrom’s roster of authors includes Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak, and Munro Leaf. Witty, talkative, and obsessed with her work, she believed passionately in the importance of good literature for children without idealizing either children or the world of adulthood into which they were headed.
Sims’s biography stoked my interest in White. After finishing “The Nature of E.B. White,” I turned to some of White’s letters and was delighted to discover a letter White wrote about how he came to write Charlotte’s Web:
As for Charlotte’s Web, I like animals and my barn is a very pleasant place to be, at all hours. One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story that you know, a story of friendship and salvation on a farm. Three years after I started writing it, it was published. (I am not a fast worker, as you can see.)
He also never believed, according to Sims, that any book was going to sell; he offered his barn as storage for unsold copies of Stuart Little, which was never needed. White said, “I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children’s book, as I have too much respect for children.”
Charlotte’s Web fans will be delighted to peruse the manuscript revisions and edited pages that Sims includes in his book. Characters were named and then renamed in the six years it took White to complete it. That slow and steady pace in particular is what I’ve come away with in reading about the life of E.B. White. In our crush to stay relevant as children’s authors, our urgency to publish, I wonder if we are doing our books a disservice by not allowing them to distill a little longer. I know it’s a different age, but I think White was on to something by allowing his books, like his farm animals in Maine, to gestate a while.
The final line of Charlotte’s Web is one I had long forgotten but immediately remembered upon reading:
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
It could also be said that E.B. White was both a true friend and a good writer. So is Sims, who has opened the doors and windows in his gentle and wise biography about a man who gave us Charlotte, Wilbur, Stuart, and so many beautiful stories.