E. B. White and Michael Sims
Michael Sims, who wrote the biography of Thoreau which is the subject of the previous entry, is the author of a biography of E. B. White, among many other books. It’s remarkable how often the name of E. B. White appears in my life. In a presentation at my church on Saturday by the executive director of a local conservation organization I heard this E. B. White quotation:
‘If the world were merely seductive,’ he noted, ‘that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.’“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I recall reading somewhere a comment by E. B. White to the effect that he didn’t enjoy interviews because people would hear that he could not speak as well as he wrote, and they would think he was a fraud. I’ve always thought of that as an important comment on the hard private work of writing and rewriting.
Charlotte’s Web is often seen as a story of a spider and a pig. But when E.B. White recorded a narration of the book,
he said something different: “This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself.”
And the way he describes it, Homer Zuckerman’s barn is a character
with its own, complex personality — smelling
of hay and manure, of grain and axle grease and new boots
and fish heads for the barn cats, but mostly hay,
which was a familiar smell to White. He grew up in a New York City suburb
at a time when people rode horses
and carriages, and his parents had a stable.
“His favorite thing was to care for animals,” says author Michael Sims.
“Chickens, ducks, mice, dogs of course.” Sims is the author of
The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature
and the Birth of an American Classic.
“In 1933, [White] and his wife, Katharine Angell, moved to Maine,
bought a farm and settled into a whole different
kind of life that brought back all of the favorite joys
of childhood,” Sims says.
And it was White’s experiences in his own barn that led him
to the story of Charlotte and her web. “One of the pigs
he was raising died,” Sims says, “and while he was carrying the
pails of slops every day to the replacement pig in the barn,
he noticed there was a spider attending its web every day,
expanding the web, rebuilding what had happened the night before,
and then one day he saw that it had spun an egg case.”
When White had to go back to New York City, he cut down
the spider’s egg case and took it with him.
Eventually the baby spiders hatched, and after that,
White finished spinning his now-famous tale.
And in 1970, he sat down in a studio to record the narration.
“He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book,
had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right,” Sims says.
“But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte’s death. And he
would do it, and it would mess up. … He took 17 takes to get through
Charlotte’s death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry.”