After my father died, I set myself the goal of reading all the books he’s sent me before this year ends. I started with this biography of E.B. White. I wanted so much to share my thoughts on the book with my father, so I did what I would have done if he were still alive: I wrote him a letter, which I am excited to share with you now.
I just finished The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, which you sent me for my birthday or maybe Christmas (or perhaps no reason at all) last year or the year before that. I have the letter you sent with it in my filebox, I’m sure. I began to read the book once, making it past the forward and into the first chapter, but I couldn’t overcome my love-hate relationship to nonfiction. It wasn’t until we moved to Mount Vernon and I could imagine walking down to Summit Avenue past the corner where E.B. White’s boyhood home stood or perhaps still stands, that I felt compelled as if by some giant magnet to finish reading it. I marked the cross-streets where the house once stood and, as soon as the weather warmed up, I looked for it. There weren’t really any remnants of the barn–just a garage that’s seen better days, but here is a photo of E.B. White’s childhood home as it is today:
Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY
Sims’ style is breezy and rich like good travel writing—he clearly has tried to inhabit White and bring him back to life. He is an unabashed fan and doesn’t hide behind the mask of professional distance, doesn’t force himself to be critical just for the sake of seeming “fair and balanced” or “provocative.” I imagine Elwyn Brooks White growing up in a Vincent Minelli version of Mount Vernon full of sledding hills in winter and lush lawns and carriages in summer. There used to be a vaudeville theater on Gramatan Avenue! Was it next to Maggie Spilane’s? Or on what’s now the “dodgy” end, past the roundabout with the fountain where rundown barbershop polls are frozen next to delis selling lotto tickets and greasy kabobs? You’d think I would have seen a decayed facade… I did see Lincoln Elementary School, probably on the same grounds where Elwyn went to school in the 1910s—one hundred years ago!—but now as a sterilized 1970s brown brick building.
Equally engaging was Sims’ account of young Elwyn—redubbed Andy by his Cornell frat buddies after a beloved college founder, Andy White (no relation)— entering the literary world. Andy’s first publications were poems and essays of a nature-writing variety sent to the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. In my History of Reading and Readers class at library school, one of my classmates researched the publication history of Saint Nicholas, the first American magazine for and by children. I felt a twinge of proud librarian expertise at the recognition of the name. (I did learn something at my fancy school.) Sims documents with a historian’s precision but a fan’s devotion the literary culture of New York in the 1920s, detailing the newspapers, satirical rags, and high literary magazines that populated the newsstands in Grand Central station during that golden age of American print. He imagines–apocryphally, but who cares?–Andy picking up the first issue of The New Yorker at the news kiosk next to Grand Central’s globe clock with early morning light streaming in from the high, rounded cathedral windows. Having seen the streaks of light across the marble floors, I could fill in rest: the wooden benches (all removed now to discourage the homeless) that once filled the hall, the train schedules (that still exist) flipping over with mechanical clacking like clockwork dominoes, the newsboys in caps and knickers, the ladies in cloche hats carrying portmanteaux or parasols. And Andy, who was too skinny to be drafted in World War I, delighting in this cheeky new upstart magazine, The New Yorker, and deciding—to hell with his advertising job!—he would submit something.
Publishing seemed so open back then. Although there were more daily publications, there seemed to be freer reign. Perhaps fewer writers were available than today, since comparatively fewer people were highly educated or went to college? Perhaps Sims was exercising a bit of biographical determinism by making Andy’s rise to a writing career seem simpler than it was. Or perhaps the 1920s and 1930s really were a scrappier time when an adolescent America was hungry for taste-makers and experimentation, and where print reigned supreme in the media kingdom, despite the oncoming storm of Talking Pictures? I was left feeling both invigorated, as a writer, by E.B. White’s origin story and a little despairing: “if only publishing were still that simple…”
The descriptions of New York bustle, which Sims recreates from historical research and copious close readings of Andy White’s regular “Comments” columns from years of New Yorkers, drew me further into his story. Again, I saw yesterday’s New York waving behind today’s. Yet Andy White himself regularly sought refuge from the city, eventually moving to a farm in Maine, near where he’d vacationed as a boy. This farm and his childhood barn and love for animals of all kinds, particularly birds, cows, and dogs, spawned Charlotte’s Web. That’s the contention of Michael Sims who quite convincingly uncovers references to animals—especially spiders—in Andy’s early writings dating to childhood and his New Yorker days. It’s the animal-lover side of E.B. White that I identify with least. As much as I can appreciate natural beauty when confronted with it and enjoy anthropomorphism in literature, I don’t feel the same connection with animals that lead E.B. White to spend a year researching the life and death of barn spiders. Nor can I easily put aside my disgust and enmity for the mouse that seems to be living in our stove when I read about young Elwyn taming a mouse who used to visit his childhood bedroom in Mount Vernon, eventually inspiring Stuart Little. The brilliance of Charlotte’s Web and White’s writing is that he made Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton and farm life real for children all over the world. Reading Charlotte’s Web at age 6 or 7, I did learn–at least morally– to respect and empathize with spiders and pigs. Recently, my librarian friend Angie’s 9-year-old son explained to me that he has decided to be a vegetarian because of Wilbur.
As I wrote two years ago upon seeing the real toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, the literature of childhood resonates with people in a visceral way that is hard to describe and analyze. That makes Sims’ biography all the more impressive to me. He captures the frenzy, excitement, and setbacks of the writing and editing process, and he includes reproductions of White’s manuscripts. As the chapters get closer to the publication and success of Charlotte’s Web, the reader experiences emotional reactions of recognition—“Aha, finally, this is the part I know!”—and revelation—“I didn’t know that! So that’s how it happened.” When influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore panned Charlotte’s Web as she had panned Stuart Little, I felt professional shame on behalf of all librarians!
I finished the E.B. White biography alongside a visit to the Morgan Library’s exhibit of manuscripts and draft drawings from The Little Prince, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1942 as an expat in New York. I was struck by how similar both men were in their writing processes and beliefs about how to write for children, yet how different their personalities seemed to be. Saint-Exupéry was a daredevil who felt restless in Manhattan and wrote the French military for special permission to reenlist as a pilot in North Africa. Just as his novel was taking off, he disappeared during a solo recon mission over the Sahara dessert in 1944 at age 44. By contrast, E.B. White suffered from hay fever and sinus problems throughout his life and went through periods of chronic and possibly psychosomatic illnesses, yet he lived into his 80s and died at home in Maine in 1986. Saint-Exupéry never fully mastered English but was part of the French expat community in New York, which eventually lead him to meet the wives of two American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, who ended up publishing Le Petit Prince, first in French then a few months later in English, here in New York. It wasn’t until 1945 that the novel was reprinted and more widely distributed by a French publisher, Gallimard, in France. By then, Saint-Exupéry was already missing over the Sahara, leaving only his ID bracelet and some plane parts behind. This broken bracelet sat in a display box at the Morgan Library, making me wonder if Antoine had in fact evaporated like his Little Prince and traveled back to his home planet.
The two authors never met, although they could have, in theory. Surely E.B. White was summering in Maine in 1942-43 while Saint-Exupéry was busy sketching elephants inside boa constrictors in a rented house on Long Island. Michael Sims’ biography mentions that E.B. White’s wife, Katherine Angell White, a long time fiction editor for The New Yorker, where they met, reviewed The Little Prince for the magazine. In her brief review of the novel, Katherine quoted their young son, Joe White, as saying somewhat critically that: “The author seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way.” In contrast, E.B. White seems to write about childhood in a grownup way. He peppers Charlotte’s Web with sly vocabulary lessons; Charlotte is always defining words for Wilbur including: aeronaut, humble, salutations, and her last name, taken from the genus and species of her type of barn spider: Charlotte Aranea Cavatica.
Yet, to me, there seem to be more stylistic similarities than differences between Charlotte’s Web and Le Petit Prince. Neither book shies away from death or making larger points about life and morality; both are deeper than most children’s books appear. Both books were whittled down expertly, mostly by the author-as-editor, to their essence. According to the Morgan Library exhibit, Sainte-Expuéry’s first manuscripts were nearly double the word count of his final draft. White struck out entire passages and scenes, reworking Charlotte’s Web for a couple years before sharing it with his editor.
Perhaps the difference lies in the space between the sentences. The simplicity of language in Le Petit Prince undercuts deep and obscure meanings. It’s airy and metaphorical, a fable fallen from the stars. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of concision and clarity, a fable grounded in the earth. E.B. White uses language that’s been refined and revised down to its core to present an unmistakable truth. The difference could be explained in part by the inherent Frenchness of Le Petit Prince—its roots in LaFontaine fables and the darker fairytales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson whose Little Mermaid was one inspiration for the Little Prince. This contrasts with the inherent Americanness of the farm setting and folksy human characters in Charlotte’s Web. The illustrations, essential to both books, also carry different weight: Saint-Exupéry’s colorful petit bonhomme, playful proportions, and winking stars are ethereal and whimsical, while Garth Williams’ black-and-white ink drawings are grounded, accessible, and realistic. (According to Sims, Williams agonized over how to make Charlotte a charming but still scientifically accurate spider.)
The main difference, finally, is that in Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry orbits around a mysterious core, searching for those essential things that are invisible to the eye. In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White serves up the essential on a silver platter. Saint-Exupéry says: “You can see the truth if you look closely enough.” E.B. White says: “Look, the truth was here all along.”
P.S. According to Sims, , E.B. White borrowed the final line of Charlotte’s Web from his wife Katherine: “It’s not often someone comes along that’s a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Katherine publicly defended her husband’s essay-writing against a scathing New York Times critic, writing in her reply: “They [the critic’s words] are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.” How small his change of “honest man” to “true friend,” yet how it makes all the difference!