“All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world,” E.B. White once told The New York Times. The same could surely be said for Michael Sims, who has written four books about the natural world—not counting the six collections of vintage fiction and poetry he has also edited, nor his bestselling biography of E.B. White himself, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, which appeared this year to universally admiring reviews. Neither, naturally, does that number include the three books the Crossville native is currently working on—a memoir about his own life in nature, a consideration of Henry David Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond, and a collection of Victorian ghost stories—but they are worth mentioning anyway, just for the sake of noting the extraordinary reach of Sims’s attention and his manifold interests.
In any case, despite the appearance this year of The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime, and the imminent arrival of The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories, his two most recent forays as an editor, 2011 was unarguably the year of The Story of Charlotte’s Web for Michael Sims. As experienced an author as Sims demonstrably is, this book nevertheless represents new ground for him. In fact, he didn’t set out to write quite what he wrote, as he explained to Kirkus Reviews: “Originally I had the idea that I would write a sort of natural history of some of my favorite children’s animal stories—Rabbit Hill, The Cricket in Times Square, The Wind in the Willows. I’ve always been fond of the Dr. Dolittle turf, and I feel that a key part of my childhood was going out into the yard and woods with Rabbit Hill in one hand and a field guide in the other—sympathy meets education, a marriage of affection and curiosity.”
Whatever its origins, this slim volume—a biography not so much of E.B. White as of the book for which he is best remembered—has found its way onto best-of-the-year lists by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, BookPage, and Encyclopedia Brittanica. Sims himself has been a featured guest on interview programs around the globe, including the BBC (recorded inside E.B. White’s barn in Maine), Here On Earth and Science Friday (both on NPR), RadioBoston, and ABC Radio National in Australia, among many others. So many others, in fact, as to make a reader wonder how Sims could possibly have had time even to sign the contract on his next two books, much less write an original essay for Chapter 16, in addition to essays and reviews for—yes, yes, we know you’re tired of the phrase, but the synonyms for prolificacy are running a little thin here—many others.
The reviews for The Story of Charlotte’s Web have been more numerous even than the interviews, and glowing. Here’s a quick scan of the highlights:
“An utterly absorbing and charming read in its own right, perhaps the highest acclamation I can give this biography-literary study combo is that, unlike many other works of deconstruction, it didn’t destroy the magic of the thing it described.” ~Gregor White, writing in the Stirling Observer
“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.” ~Rebecca K. Morrison, writing in The Independent
“Sims brings visceral attention to this beloved classic, highlighting its many joys.” ~Heller McAlpin, writing in Salon via the Barnes & Noble Review
“This is quite simply a brilliant book. Even if you don’t have the vaguest interest in E.B. White’s life or the genesis of Charlotte’s Web, I’m sure you’d still manage to find something in it to intrigue or delight you. Literary biography is a difficult monster to tackle; too much focus on the literary and you lose the people who want to know the juicy details of the life, and too much focus on the biography and you lose those who want to understand the writing process and how much of the writer went into the work. Michael Sims straddles the line between the two perfectly, and has created a sublime piece of writing that is heartfelt, humorous, fascinating and moving.” ~Booksnob
“Sims has written a telescopic, rather than encompassing biography. … His book is novelistic in its scene-setting, and restrained, even deferential in tone. White emerges as a warm friend, father, and husband who suffered depression but had no nasty character traits. … Given the current ubiquity of warts-and-all biographies, this decision feels old-fashioned, but also nicely-judged, a relief even.” ~Bridget Hourican, writing in The Irish Times
“Sims’ forte is transmuting diligent research into entertaining narrative.” ~Kathy Ewing, writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer
“This is the biography its subject seems to have deserved. Gentle, occasionally whimsical and always respectful, it is a glimpse into the life of a man whose status as one of the children’s classic authors is assured.” ~Virginia Blackburn, writing in the Daily Express
“’The Story of Charlotte’s Web‘ unfolds in a way that White might have appreciated: It ambles, pauses to observe the smallest details, and takes its time. Best of all, this book is likely to encourage readers to experience the pleasures of White’s novel all over again.” ~Carmela Ciuraru, writing in Los Angeles Times
“[W]ith this well-focused overview, Sims illuminates White’s complicated creative life and the events that led to a timeless tale that will stand for generations to come as testimony to his passion for nature.” ~Rosemary Goring, writing for Herald Scotland
“Sims has created an endearing, funny and fascinating look into the life and mind of a man who never wrote down to children, and whose legacy lives on because of it.” ~Jen. A. Miller, writing in American Way
“The first two-thirds or so of The Story of Charlotte’s Web recounts White’s life up to his 50s, when he began writing his masterpiece. Good as it is, the final section of Sims’ book is the real revelation—not only about the influences on Charlotte’s Web, but about just how hard it was for White to write despite the fact that his style always seemed effortless.” ~Maureen Corrigan, reviewing the book for NPR’s Fresh Air
“Sims’s research is thorough, his own prose clear, direct and concise: the ultimate homage. His book is a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White’s vision of ‘nature publishing herself.’” ~Valerie Sayers, writing in The Washington Post
“Sims gives White and his story a bright new light—refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well. Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.” ~Monica Edinger, writing in The Huffington Post
“Mr. Sims recalls for us that White’s former English professor, William Strunk (the original author of ‘The Elements of Style’), used to grasp his lapels in front of his Cornell classes and bellow, ‘Omit needless words!’ Strunk was right about that, but I am glad Mr. Sims did not scalpel out of his book all the things in White’s life that did not bear directly on ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ He sees the man in the boy, and the boy in the man, devoted to ‘the conservation of beauty in prose.’ It’s as if White were a bell and his biographer another, catching his life’s resonance.” ~Anthony Esolen, writing in The Wall Street Journal
“White was famously reclusive and—strange as it may seem for a biographer—Sims understands and respects that need for privacy. Allowing White’s words and experiences to speak for themselves, he offers readers a deeper understanding not only of the life and mind that created Charlotte’s Web, but of the creative process that led to the book and of the sheer work it entailed. The Story of Charlotte’s Web is quite literally that: a biography of the book itself. How did it come to be? What forces and experiences throughout White’s life shaped him and converged to bring his timeless classic into being?” ~Serenity Gerbman, writing for Chapter 16
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.