My personally annotated copy of Charlotte’s Web is a sad-looking thing, a paperback edition that was already showing its age in 1990 when I plucked it off my classroom library shelf to use at a Princeton University summer seminar on classical children’s literature. Having never particularly cared for the book (too soppy), I figured an old copy would do me just fine. Twenty-one years later I’m still sorry. By way of a close reading, the brilliant Uli Knoepfmacher showed me just what an extraordinary book Charlotte’s Web is and, using that tattered paperback, I’ve been doing the same for my fourth grade students ever since.
This long personal history with one of America’s great children’s books caused me to approach Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web with a great deal of trepidation. I was somewhat assuaged after seeing that Sims had previously annotated one of White’s and my favorite poetry collections, Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but still wary. What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White’s opus that hadn’t already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better? Having read it I can now answer: plenty. Sims gives White and his story a bright new light —- refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well. Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.
Sims makes clear his path from the start — his focus is on the aspects of White’s life that connect to Charlotte’s Web. It may be that those more well-versed in his biography than I will feel there are missing parts, but I was most satisfied with the way Sims brought in details I knew such as White’s childhood love of nature and writing, his family, and his early love of Maine. And I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say Sims’ careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read — reviewing, for example, what else was in the editions of the well-known-at-the-time St. Nicholas Magazine to which the young White contributed. And his overview of the debate going on nature writing between those who were more scientifically-inclined (e.g. John Muir) versus those who went for a more dramatic and fictionalized approach (e.g William J. Long) was new and fascinating to me.
Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White’s development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine. He also gives us a lot about spiders, both general information and a history of White’s particular fascination with them. As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte’s Web — even though much of it was familiar to me, I was engrossed in Sims’ telling.
And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations. Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is not only for E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte’s Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction.