Wednesday, July 22, 2009

E. B. White on the Meaning of It All

I picked up a remainder copy of Peter E. Neumeyer's The Annotated Charlotte's Web last weekend, and I'm so glad I did. It's a fascinating look at E. B. White's creative process, with extensive descriptions of various references from within the story, snippets of White's detailed spider research, and samples of his correspondence with famed children's editor Ursula Nordstrom.

Combine all that with the kid-lit masterpiece that is Charlotte's Web, and — as a reader — I'm in piggy heaven. I'm terribly happy as a writer, too, of course. (Fellow Smackdowners take note: Mr. White took this little piece of work through eight full drafts, with plenty of editorial input and acute bouts of writerly angst.)

Get a load of this hilarious White quote, uttered after reading a critical analysis of his novel:

"It is an extraordinary document, any way you look at it, and it makes me realize how lucky I was (when I was writing the book) that I didn't know what in hell was going on."

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a rabid-for-story English-lit major some 25 years ago was that there are as many possible interpretations of any given work as there are eager-for-As interpreters. What makes a great story great is, quite often, mere simplicity. And Charlotte's Web has that in razor-sharp farm implements. (Plus, you know, universally relatable themes, engaging action, genuinely adorable characters, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous language pulling it all together.)

As much as I love deconstructing a wonderful piece of literature . . . just to see how it ticks or try to assign "meaning" . . . I love, love, LOVE it even more when a magnificent talent like Mr. White (ever so gently) calls foul on the pretension surrounding the practice.

He wrote the story he was interested in, and he — simply — kept at it until all the parts fit to make a sparkling, cohesive whole.



Michelle said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I will keep following your blog and will get this book.

BJW said...

This was beautifully stated Lisa. And what a perfect quote. It is funny hearing people describe what the author was thinking while they were writing it. You are so eloquent. I enjoy your writing.