Preview: Michael Sims weaves tale of E.B. White in 'The Story of Charlotte's Web'


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Fortune not only smiled on E.B. White, it beamed.

Born into an affluent family, he regularly wandered through a barn and stables near his boyhood home in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and summered with his siblings and parents in Maine.

In his 20s, he began writing for The New Yorker magazine; later, he married the editor who hired him, Katharine Angell. A woman of refined literary taste, she nurtured his talent.

"They doted on each other in an old-fashioned reserved way. That love gave him a kind of another sort of protective place to be in and blossom," said Michael Sims, nature writer and author of "The Story of Charlotte's Web," a book that examines how White came to research and write the beloved children's classic.

Michael Sims

Where: Writers LIVE @CLP at Carnegie Library, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, followed by book signing.

Admission: Free, but registration is encouraged at www.pittsburghlectures.org or 412-622-8866.

The Whites worked at the magazine's midtown Manhattan office, shared a city apartment and spent as much time as possible at their picturesque farm on Allen Cove in Maine.

"He thought it was important to be in touch with the rhythms of life. He wanted to raise his own food," said Mr. Sims, who lives in Greensburg.

And the icing on this super-sized slice of cake? "Charlotte's Web" remains in print today. Plus, a landmark book White co-wrote with William Strunk, "The Elements of Style," remains a staple in English composition classes.

In his book, first published in June 2011 and just released in paperback, Mr. Sims details White's lifelong fascination with critters and creatures and shows how his early life profoundly influenced his imaginative response to nature.

"E.B. White had a romantic tenderness toward nature in a capital R, 19th-century way. He was knowledgeable, a part-time farmer and a hardheaded realistic person," the author said in a recent telephone interview.

Nature was White's first love but the importance of his lifelong partnership with Katherine Angell cannot be overestimated.

"Once he finally, slowly committed to Katharine, he just absolutely blossomed. She made a safe space for him to be half child, half romantic adult," Mr. Sims said.

Mr. Sims had read E.B. White's letters but was impressed by how much research the author conducted to learn about spiders so that the character of Charlotte matched nature's designs.

The barn at White's farm, Mr. Sims said, served as cocoon, research lab and theater. Fans of "Charlotte's Web" may be surprised to learn that White's first draft did not contain Ferrn, a character who figures prominently in the story. The book opens with her asking a question.

Some people think the spider, Charlotte, is a stand-in for White. But Mr. Sims believes the character that most closely parallels the book's author is Mr. Zuckerman, the farmer.

White's real achievement, he said, was to write the story from the viewpoint of Wilbur, the pig.

"It was a huge leap to write the story from the point of view of the victim," he said.

Besides reading White's letters, the author traveled to White's farm in Maine.

"I went to the barn that inspired all this. It's owned by a wonderful couple from South Carolina," who bought it in the 1980s because they are huge fans of E.B. White," Mr. Sims said.

Fortunately, there are no T-shirt stands or souvenir kiosks. Once a year, a couple of school buses packed with second-graders arrives and the children sit in the barn to hear a reading of "Charlotte's Web" in the place that inspired White to write it.

Mr. Sims prizes atmosphere and place, partly because he grew up in rural Eastern Tennessee, 70 miles west of Knoxville in the Sequatchie Valley. He was born at home and his family did not own a phone or a car. At one point, they lacked indoor plumbing, too.

"I tell that to college kids and they think I'm making it up for color, that my real life must not have been that interesting. They are sort of thunderstruck," he said.

As a teenager, Mr. Sims was stricken with juvenile rheumatic arthritis, confined to a wheelchair and homeschooled.

"I was told as a teenager that I would never walk again," he recalled, but he eventually outgrew the condition and regained his mobility.

During his period of confinement, he read constantly, used binoculars to appreciate the outdoors and studied field guides. He also joined Scholastic Book Club. Recently, on his Facebook page, he posted the covers of books he enjoyed during that stage of his life and people responded with enthusiastic nostalgia.

books

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published June 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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