In a recent interview on NPR, author Michael Sims discussed a project “that got really out of hand.” He set out to do a natural history of children’s talking animal stories but became so fascinated by Charlotte’s Web that he never got beyond it.
Sim’s study, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, was published in June. It’s interesting see what eccentricities and other facts Sims discovered about E.B. White.
White was quite a naturalist; on a farm in Maine, he studied spiders and raised pigs. There really was a “Wilbur,” a pig that White was raising to slaughter in the fall, but it grew sick and died, despite all attempts to save it. In his essay, “Death of a Pig,” White recognized the irony of his sadness at the loss of an animal he had planned to kill, and his “sense of loss when the pig died, not as if he’d just lost some future bacon but as if he had lost…a fellow creature who was suffering in a suffering world.”
Another time, while feeding the replacement Wilbur, White noticed a spider web with an egg sac. The spider that wove the web disappeared, and White cut the egg sac down and carried it with him back to his apartment in New York. He dropped it in a bureau drawer and forgot about it until the little spiders began to hatch. According to Sims, White was delighted to watch them start to weave their webs in his room – that is, until the maid refused to work “in a spider refugee camp” and they had to go.
Sims explains that “eccentric” is a Greek word that originally meant, “off center.” He goes on to say:
if ever there was a human being born off-center, it was E.B. White. He simply could not…follow in an established path if his life depended on it. And so he had his own quirky way. He was very fierce and funny hypochondriac. He liked to spend a lot of time alone. He loved working with animals, as much as possible. Even in New York City, even in writing for The New Yorker to begin with, he was off, you know, exploring what rats were doing in some alley.
Fans of E.B. White should enjoy listening to the interview or reading the transcript: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/19/139790016/weaving-charlottes-web. Of interest too, will be Michael Sims’s current project. In keeping with his theme of “writing about how our imagination responds to nature in one way or another,” he is researching between the lines of Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond to see how that great naturalist and philosopher filled up his days in ways we don’t yet know about.