The tale of how a classic was spun

The Thursday Book

Reviewed,Rebecca K. Morrison
Thursday 22 September 2011 00:00 BST

When George VI died in February 1952, it became known that one book had often accompanied him on his royal travels:

Stuart Little by EB White, the tale of a boy who looked extraordinarily like a mouse. For Christmas, it transpired, the Queen had given the King The New Yorker Album, also shaped by White and his wife, Katharine: the magazine’s fiction editor and "intellectual soul". Sadly, the King was never to know White’s children’s masterpiece: Charlotte's Web. Hundreds of thousands of other readers were, however. Readers "from eight to eighty" (as the New York Times Book Review enthused in 1952) continue to be moved by the story of a young pig, a clever and caring spider, and a little girl. Michael Sims provides an elegant homage to the creative process that culminated in Charlotte’s Web. Along the way he familiarises the reader with “the boy who felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people”, while highlighting the empathy the author had for the human condition. Born seventh in the family in 1899, White grew up in a fine house in Mount Vernon, New York, with a huge stable-barn where the young boy could indulge his interest in the natural world and revel in solitude. Summer trips to a lake in Maine deepened his appreciation of creatures and the power of the elements; his was an imaginative and fearful nature, open to ecstatic joy and nostalgic melancholy. With Don Marquis (of Archy the cockroach fame) and "other giants" as role models, White found his place in the chaotic, thrilling offices of The New Yorker. Sims depicts the atmosphere of those city days, White’s friendship with James Thurber and his falling in love with Katharine Angell as elegantly as he does White’s other existence on the farm by Allen Cove, Maine. In a small boathouse, White produced some of the most beautiful, and enduring, prose of American letters. Sims’s cameos of White’s collaborators are vivid; the publishing world of the time is caught in amber. Although this is not a conventional biography, much is gleaned by study of White’s imaginative response to the world around him, and the writer’s faith in clarity, honesty and directness. When White died in 1985, William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker, remarked: "He never wrote a mean or careless sentence." Sims convinces us to follow the King’s lead, and always have some EB White to hand.

By Michael Sims, Bloomsbury, £16.99

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