A naturalist in the metropolis


BIOGRAPHY: The Story of Charlotte’s Web, EB White and the Birth of a Children’s Classic, By Michael Sims, Bloomsbury, 307pp. £16.99

‘WHERE’S PAPA going with the ax,’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” With this masterly sentence, neatly juxtaposing cosiness and alarm, the New England writer EB White launched his enduring children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web(1952). Over the next 200 pages he took unexpected decisions: he ennobled two disliked creatures, the pig and the spider; wrought a miracle to save one but let death claim the other; and allowed Fern grow up, unlike those other child stars Pippi Longstocking and Peter Pan. By the end, Fern loses her ability to understand animal speech and is keen on a boy called Henry Fussy – any hope that this might be an exciting development seems cancelled by Henry’s finicky surname, but as readers, even aged 10, we had to admit that these outcomes – death, the seeping of childhood powers and the growth of fussy adult attachments – had the ring of truth.

At least the miracle remained – a sober miracle embedded not in fantasy but ordinary truth. It was a child’s first encounter with the New England spirit – observant, exacting, unsentimental, but spiritual.

It was years before I discovered that EB White was also an essayist and star of the New Yorker. One day I looked up on the New York subway to see this arresting (edited) quotation spun across the ad space:

“There are roughly three New Yorks. First, the New York of the man or woman who was born there. Second, the New York of the commuter – the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.”

That’s from his marvellous 1949 essay Here is New York, which became famous all over again after 9/11 because it ended with a shudder for the city’s vulnerability: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers . . .”. Discovering that this writer of rural children’s tales was an urbane, ironic chronicler of the world’s most restless city left me as confused as if his pig Wilbur had turned into Orwell’s pig Squealer, but Sims’s beguiling biography shows that there was really no conflict between the two Whites. He brought his naturalist’s eye to the metropolis, classifying its citizens as “animals in strange plumage, defending their territorial rights, digging for their supper”.

White was born in 1899, the youngest of seven children of a prosperous businessman. The family lived in upstate New York and holidayed in Maine. The young Elwyn was painfully shy, but his life seems charmed: at 27 he was appointed staffer at the New Yorkerand remained there his entire career. Not only was it the world’s wittiest, most stylish literary magazine but it also paid excellently and he met his wife there, the beautiful editor Katherine Angell.

With their joint income the Whites could buy a 40-acre farm in Maine while maintaining a large apartment in Manhattan – and that was during the Great Depression, before EB became a best-selling author.

I guess mid-20th-century America was the time and place to be a literary journalist. While enjoying the privilege of living “half in New York and half in Maine, with the romanticised freedom of farm life calling from behind the urban world’s honking horns and claustrophobic subways”, White had the time and financial security to tackle fiction at his own slow pace. He took six years on his first classic, Stuart Little, and four years on Charlotte’s Web. He would “rather wait,” he said firmly, “than publish a bad children’s book, as I have too much respect for children”.

Sims has written a telescopic, rather than encompassing biography. He opens with the toddler Elwyn peering anxiously at hatching eggs and follows through to the adult White peering at a spider’s web.

His book is novelistic in its scene-setting, and restrained, even deferential in tone. White emerges as a warm friend, father, and husband who suffered depression but had no nasty character traits. Katherine was seven years his senior – in 50 years of marriage was he ever tempted to stray? Sims draws a discreet veil over this and other questions. Given the current ubiquity of warts-and-all biographies, this decision feels old-fashioned, but also nicely-judged, a relief even.

Sims is excellent on the creative process of spinning Charlotte’s Web; his language is clear and humorous. You could safely give this book to an intelligent teen. White would approve, I think.

Bridget Hourican is a freelance writer and historian. Her book for children, The Bad Karma Diaries, was published earlier this year by O’Brien Press