Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte's Web; E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (New York: Walker and Company, 2011), 308pp.
My wife read Charlotte's Web aloud to our three children multiple times, and every time she did she cried at the end when Charlotte lays her egg sack and then dies. Elwyn Brooks White (1899–1985) published nearly twenty volumes in his life, including Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), but none were more influential than his story about Charlotte the spider who saves Wilbur the pig from certain slaughter. The book begins with one of the most famous first lines in literature: "'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."
"Andy" White was the last of seven children born into a well-educated and upper middle class family in Mount Vernon, New York, a thirty-minute train ride from Manhattan. As a child he was given to pronounced mood swings, anxiety, and worry. Even as an adult he always seemed more comfortable around the natural world of animals than the social world of people. He actively avoided the limelight of publicity. Family vacations every summer at a lake side cottage in Maine reinforced his love of the natural world.
White was a gifted writer as a child. He once joked, "I was a writing fool when I was eleven years old and have been tapering off ever since." He wasn't kidding. When he was nine he submitted a poem called "The Mouse" to a magazine called Woman's Home Companion, which poem was not only published but awarded a prize. Two years later he published a short story, and two years after that another one. "A blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement for me," he once observed.
After graduation from Cornell, White moved to Manhattan, where he joined a struggling magazine called The New Yorker that had been founded in 1925. It was an affiliation that lasted over fifty years. White met friends like James Thurber there, and his wife of forty-eight years, Katharine Angel (the literary editor). At age twenty-seven, observes Sims, White was a "salaried professional writer." Sims goes on to tell the inside story of the publication of Charlotte's Web in 1952, including White's painstaking revisions, how he studied the science of spiders for a year, the choice of an illustrator for the drawings (Garth Williams), and its blockbuster success: in 2000, Publishers Weekly listed Charlotte's Web as the best-selling children's book in history.