THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Short takes

June 19, 2011

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THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB: E. B. White’s Eccentric
Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

By Michael Sims
Walker & Company, 320 pp., $25

It will surprise nobody who loves Stuart Little that the mouse’s creator was also moody, sensitive, sentimental, and hypochondriacal. Elwyn Brooks White, known as Andy, was also shy, so averse to crowds that at his own funeral, stepson Roger Angell cracked, “If Andy White could be with us today, he would not be with us today.’’ In this immensely charming book, Michael Sims sketches White’s life along with that of what is perhaps his most enduring creation, the children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web.’’ The youngest in a large, happy family, White grew up with “a brooding anxiety about almost everything,’’ from school to girls to everyday mysteries and dangers. He found solace in nature, both in summers spent on a lake in Maine and in the books he avidly read. His first published writing, at age 11, in St. Nicholas magazine, was titled “A Winter Walk’’ and described a snowy landscape where “[e]very living creature seemed happy.’’

White never stopped writing about animals. While helping invent the New Yorker’s voice — “sophisticated, ironic, and literary without pretentiousness’’ — many of his best pieces concerned birds, spiders, and other urban beasts. After marrying fellow editor Katharine Angell and moving to a farm on the Maine coast, inspired perhaps by his wife’s columns reviewing children’s literature, he began working on something longer. First came “Stuart Little,’’ then “Charlotte’s Web,’’ in which an enterprising spider saves Wilbur the pig from near-certain death. Reviewing it in the Times, Eudora Welty wrote: “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.’’ Throughout Sims’s book, another heroine emerges (besides Charlotte, of course): Katharine. Both writers and pigs can be nervous about their place in the universe, not to mention their survival, and both need loving caretakers.

THE STORM AT THE DOOR
By Stefan Merrill Block
Random House, 368 pages, $25

Stefan Merrill Block uses his grandparents’ life stories — including his grandfather’s stint at a psychiatric hospital — as raw material for a beguiling novel that meditates on issues of madness and memory. Deconstructed autobiographical fiction is commonplace these days, and it can still raise questions if not eyebrows. Is Block’s book better for having a character named Robert Lowell as his grandfather’s asylum-mate? Does the reader need to know that the author shares his grandfather’s (possibly false) diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Neither answer is entirely clear, yet (whether in spite of or because of its stylistic gimmicks) the book succeeds as a sharply perceptive, at times wrenching portrait of a marriage.

Set mostly in 1962, the year Katharine Merrill committed her husband, Frederick, to Mayflower, a fictionalized version of McLean Hospital, the book’s midcentury ennui echoes not only Lowell’s poetry but also “Revolutionary Road,’’ Evan Connell’s “Mr. Bridge’’ and “Mrs. Bridge,’’ and even (in its best moments) “Lolita’s’’ twisted Americana. Block sympathetically imagines his grandmother, who “was once one thing, a young woman hungry for society, and then she became something entirely different, an anxious mother, the wife of a difficult man,’’ one who could be “one or more of many things: malevolent, loving, brilliant, drunk, visionary.’’

The book’s biggest success is its parallel portrait of life within and outside the mental hospital — both realms are constrained, terrifying, ruled by anxiety and gossip. In the end, Block writes, perhaps “the visible world was a collective fantasy, to which we all consented in the attempt to obscure the ineffable stories of our true

HEAVEN IN THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION
By Gary Scott Smith
Oxford University, 360 pp., $29.95

“Heaven is a place,’’ the Talking Heads song goes, “where nothing ever happens,’’ which is but one theory among the hundreds or thousands people have dreamed up over the centuries. A wide-ranging, compelling new survey looks at how our ideas about heaven have changed over time, shifting more with history and culture than with any theological revelations. While Phillips Brooks promised (or threatened) that heaven would be filled with “active, tireless, earnest work,’’ today’s afterlife, if one bestselling evangelist is to be believed, is more like “Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one.’’

Historian Gary Scott Smith begins with the Puritans, whose religious anxieties led to a belief that “people’s primary motive for wanting to go to heaven should be to worship and serve God in a totally unencumbered way,’’ and ends with what he calls our current “postmodern, therapeutic culture.’’ Ideas of heaven have been influenced along the way by war, economic uncertainty, and social movements. A Civil War-era bestseller depicted “a blissful, domestically oriented heaven where war veterans chat with Abraham Lincoln and young girls play the piano.’’ For African-Americans during slavery, Smith writes, heaven offered solace and reward, a realm where “justice would triumph,’’ and a vivid rebuke to earthly injustice. Smith, who teaches at a small Christian college, writes respectfully of fellow believers even when their beliefs might strike him as silly. Anyone who can discuss the recent trends in near-death-experience memoirs and angel merchandise with a straight face, as he does, surely deserves his own eternal reward.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.