Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Elements of E. B. White

Yesterday's fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Strunk and White's Elements of Style brought forth an outpouring of praise and appreciation.There was, however, at least one vigorous demurral: in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote,
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
Though his supporting examples seem odd to the point of tendentiousness (Dracula and Anne of Avonlea? Seriously?) Pullum is largely correct: though I would give the style section of Elements a bit more credit than he does, for grammar advice, I'd much rather turn to Fowler, who is more often correct as well as pleasantly reluctant to be too prescriptive.

Even E. B. White himself might have agreed with some of Pullum's points: in Essays of E. B. White, he writes in his introduction to his New Yorker essay on Strunk, which was the impetus behind the revision of Elements,
I discovered that for all my fine talk, I was no match for the parts of speech--was, in fact, over my depth and in trouble. . . . The truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.
And that, I think, is where Pullum--along with, understandably, grammar instructors in general--misses the point: we learn to write well not by learning the rules of grammar or sussing out the parts of speech, but by reading and hearing and absorbing good writing, noting its cadences, its balance, its methods of telegraphing tone and emphasis. Of course we can't learn to write well from Elements; we couldn't even if its presentation of grammar were unimpeachable. A book of grammar, like a dictionary, is something we consult when we have a question. It is the mountain of other, non-instructional books we spend a lifetime reading that actually teaches us how to write.

All of which is a roundabout way of finding an excuse to share some of the lovely writing in E. B. White's letters, to which all the discussion about The Elements of Style sent me last night. White's style is not for everyone or every purpose: it is too gentle, too wry, too ironic to accommodate many of life's more difficult or emotional moments. But with its pretense to casualness and tone of easy familiarity, it is almost perfectly suited to the letter; it's hard to imagine White's correspondents not thrilling at the sight of an envelope bearing his hand.

Since I was writing the other day about the travails of publishing, I'll start with this polite refusal of a blurb request, sent to Henry Schuman on January 23, 1950:
It wouldn't do any good to send me galleys of a book, because I don't comment on books--except to my wife under cover of darkness.
Which leads nicely into this bit about the impression of a writer given by his work, with which White opened a letter to John Updike on December 11, 1971:
Children, on the whole, have an easier time summing me up than you did. I got a letter from a girl this week, saying, "You are a good writer and I was enjoying your book until our dog, Bella, ate it. It was only a paperback." (Writers have so much to contend with--I now have this dog, Bella.) Another child wrote and said, "It is easy to know what you are from reading your books, you are a veterinary, a teacher, and a nomad." You see? I'm no problem.
A note to Gustave S. Lobrano, written soon after the inauguration of FDR, will resonate with anyone who raised a joyous toast last November 4th:
A moment's calm has settled like dust over this apartment, and it looks as though I might be able to manage a letter before sunset gun. . . . You talk of stirring times: you should have been in New York that crazy March 4. . . . A little later, standing on a street corner and reading the President's inaugural address, I got the sort of lift that I guess our ancestors occasionally felt in great moments during the early days of the country--the love-of-fatherland, which ordinarily we take pains to keep ourselves intellectually independent of. It was a great day and I won't forget it.
Though I love that image of calm settling like dust over the apartment, I wonder at its implications: we tend to want to eradicate dust; did White mean it to follow that we are inclined to disrupt calm?

The political angle leads me to this line from a 1966 letter to White's stepson, Roger Angell, unexpectedly timely after Tom Delay's strange rant about Lone Star secession yesterday:
Eventually I think Texas will have to be thrown away, Pedernales and all, and let the country get along with only Alaska and Hawaii for its oddities.
Earlier in that letter, White praises an article Angell had written about the then brand-new Astrodome:
You are the foremost interpreter of baseball, the unmanly art, and I thoroughly enjoyed your Astro piece. . . . Baseball is for watching, I know that much about the game, even though I seldom understand exactly what is taking place out there. (I had to ask my wife the other day what was the difference between an earned run and a run. She told me a long cock-and-bull story by way of reply, and I am sifting it slowly and carefully.)
White could have taken consolation from that fact that even those of us who love the game have to think through that distinction on occasion.

Angell has himself for so long been one of the grand old men of baseball that it's particularly fun to read this 1938 letter from White to his wife's secretary, Daise Terry, which depicts a much younger Angell:
Would you have your office order me a copy of "Last Poems" by A. E. Housman? I want to give it to Roger for Christmas. He asked for Housman poems, a bottle of Amontillado, and a top hat. I can only assume that he is going to sit around in the hat, drinking the sherry, reading the poems, and dreaming the long long dreams of youth.
The whole collection of White's letters is a joy, a wonderful book for leaving on a side table and dipping into now and again when you need a dose of crisp prose.

And with that, I wrap this up and head out to a baseball game myself, though at Wrigley Field, which is about as far from Astrodome ambience as one can imagine. Perhaps I'll tart up my typical spring baseball uniform (layers, layers, layers, gloves, layers) with a shiny silk top hat.


  1. Maggie12:41 PM

    You shouldn't start sentences with "though". Though I am all for starting them with "but" or "and".

  2. I am all for men in hats.

  3. At the risk of a you get what you pay for rebuttal, it might also be pointed out that one can purchase a new or used copy of Elements for under $10, or a copy of Pullum's Grammar for:
    "List Price: $195.00
    Price: $161.42 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping..."
    The current absurd cost of textbooks, forced new editions, and captive student readers, might be the real subject.

  4. Great post on the letters. I've always believed that Angell's true love is the Mets (as it is for me), but after hearing about the top hat, I'm wondering whether he aspires to sit with the fat cats in the Bronx.

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