26 August 2011

The back-story of "Charlotte's Web"

From a review of a new book in the Barnes and Noble Review:
Fifty-nine years after its publication, Charlotte's Web is the bestselling children's book in U.S. history...  E. B. White managed, without pomposity, preachiness, or condescension, to encompass issues of mortality and the power of both friendship and the written word...

How did he do it? That's the question Michael Sims set out to answer in The Story of Charlotte's Web, which offers an engaging, distilled, highly focused biography of White...
Elwyn Brooks White showed an early proclivity toward writing and was heavily influenced by what he called "the ecstasy of loneliness" in Thoreau's Walden and the typing cockroach named Archy created by newspaper columnist Don Marquis
... At Cornell, White picked up the nickname Andy as well as the imperative to "Omit needless words!" from Professor William Strunk, Jr., whose seminal handbook, The Elements of Style, White would later revise...

[The focus of the book is on] life on the farm in North Brooklin, Maine, where White and his wife, New Yorker editor Katharine Angell White, eventually relocated... Upset over the death of a pig he had nursed, he wrote in an essay for Harper's magazine, "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig." In Charlotte's Web, he could make the pig live... He explains the import of several names, including Charlotte A. Cavatica, from the genus Aranea cavatica; verdantly symbolic Fern Arable; and the allusion to ancient Greeks in Arcadia in Doctor Dorian...

With clarity and lack of stuffiness worthy of his subject, Sims succinctly sums up Charlotte's Web's major themes: "Mortality stalked the scene from the first line: 'Where is Papa going with that ax?' The farm animals spoke with casual familiarity of trouble and death…. But overall Andy's theme was the joy of being alive, of reveling in the moment with visceral attention." 
I haven't read Michael Sims' book, so this post doesn't go in the recommended books category, but the book does sound interesting.


  1. Can someone offer me grammar help?

    I've written "back-story behind" in the title, but it now seems redundantly awkward.

    Should it be "back-story of" or "back-story about" or something else.

    Maybe I should use a different phrase altogether, but now I'm curious as to how best to use the term.

  2. As a copy editor, I would recommend "the back story of" the book. In discussions of movie characters, one often hears it used as "the character's back story," which turned around would be "the back story of the character." And I would recommend that you read it -- an excellent tale for children and adults -- but keep the tissues handy.

  3. Thank you, anon. And to clarify, I have read Charlotte's Web - but haven't read this newly published analysis of the book and author.

  4. The on-line Merriam-Webster site actually shows backstory as one word, but I noticed the hyphenated version seems to be used more about the net.

    P.S. You must read Charlotte's Web! One of my elementary school teachers read it aloud to us, a little each day. When she got to a certain sadness, she began to cry and said, "I've read this book to every class I've taught through the years, and each time I still cry."

    I read it to my daughters when they were small and I did the very same.

    There is also a lot of happiness in the book, so don't let the sad overrule your decision not to read it. It really is a fantastic read for both the young and young at heart.

  5. Having a little trouble understanding the meaning of 'verdantly symbolic' - but maybe I should read the book first.

  6. The adjective "verdant" usually is applied to green vegetation. In this case it's describing the little girl with the name Fern (a plant) Arable (suitable for ploughing/planting).

    It's a bit contrived.


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