June 5, 2011


How E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web: A new book explores how the author of the beloved children’s book was inspired by his love for nature and animals (Chloe Schama, June 03, 2011, Smithsonian.com)

Not long before E.B. White started writing his classic children’s story Charlotte’s Web about a spider called Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur, he had a porcine encounter that seems to have deeply affected him. In a 1947 essay for the Atlantic Monthly, he describes several days and nights spent with an ailing pig—one he had originally intended to butcher. “[The pig’s] suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness,” White wrote. The animal died, but had he recovered it is very doubtful that White would have had the heart to carry out his intentions. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig,” he wrote in the essay.

That sentiment became part of the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web, published in 1952 and still one of the most beloved books of all time. Now a new book by Michael Sims focuses on White’s lifelong connection to animals and nature. The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic explores White’s encounters with frogs and field mice, rivers and lakes, stars and centipedes, to paint a portrait of the writer as a devoted naturalist—the 20th-century heir to Thoreau, perhaps. White once wrote of himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” Examining White’s regard for nature and animals, Sims unpacks the appeal of Charlotte’s Web.

Sims originally conceived of his book as a larger project, one that would examine how authors of children’s books, such as Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne, had been inspired by nature, but he came to focus entirely on White, he recently told me, because White’s preoccupation with the natural world outweighed that of most other authors. “Certain writers have an empathy for the world,” Sims said. “Their basic writing mode is personification. E.B. White is that kind of writer; he could animate a splash of sunlight.”

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Posted by at June 5, 2011 8:32 AM

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