|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Books That Made Us: Charlotte’s Web by Kerry Madden
August 24th, 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.
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.
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."
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.