Tuesday, October 18, 2005

E. B. White

Athena likes E. B. White and I do, too. (If you haven't seen Athena's blog yet you are missing out! Have you ever dreamt of moving to France with your kids and setting up house there? That's what Athena has done, and you can read about her adventures in her lively blog.) Back to E. B. This weekend I laughed out loud as I read an article by David Gerlernter in the Wall Street Journal (where else?) about the new illustrated edition of Elements of Style. I don't know how many times I've read that handy little writer's best friend, and it is both appalling and hilarious to read what they've done to it.

I've been trying to paste in some of my favorite quotes from this piece, but I ended up not being able to do without 80 percent of it, so here it is in its entirety:

Back to Basics, Please
"The Elements of Style," illustrated? E.B. White wouldn't approve.
Friday, October 14, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

Literary society has decided to celebrate Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" with a fancy new illustrated edition and associated promotions this month. The New York Public Library is even presenting a "musical adaptation." If the English language is one of the finest homes ever devised for the human spirit, "Elements" is the best guided house tour we've got. But E.B. White, who is the book's animating spirit, would have found our celebrations depressing. We admire him; he would not have admired us.

"Elements" has a complex history. In 1919, the young Elwyn Brooks White was a student in William Strunk Jr.'s English composition class at Cornell. The textbook was "The Elements of Style," Strunk's own work. Obviously White learned plenty; he became one of the most admired essayists of the 20th century.

Roughly 40 years after teacher and student first encountered each other, Strunk was dead and White was famous. At the request of the publishing house Macmillan, White revised "Elements," adding a new chapter on style and an introduction. The result was a smash hit. White revised this 1957 edition twice more; the 1979 version is last and best. He died in 1985.

In 1999, a new post-White revision appeared. The same revision has now reappeared with pictures by New Yorker illustrator Maira Kalman. Strangely enough, the reviser's name isn't listed in the new edition--which is just as well. The 1979 "Elements" will be studied long after the post-White versions have been filed under "mortifying mistakes" and forgotten.

These later revisions and the planned celebrations attempt to pay homage to "Elements," but White would have disliked today's literary world. He insisted on simplicity, clarity, concreteness. He would have despised subliterate email, unedited Web ramblings and gaseous literary criticism posing as philosophy.

White also hated politicized writing; in 1979, he added a new rule to "Elements" to explain just why "gender-neutral writing" is ridiculous. "The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances." But the 1999 revision slips an extra sentence into White's rule, like an assassin slipping a stiletto into someone's back: "Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive." But White never minded offending people. He rejected the trendy and glitzy. He admired good craftsmanship. He didn't mind being called old-fashioned.

Maira Kalman's illustrations are the occasion for the 2005 edition and attendant hoopla. They are a well-meaning mistake. "What struck me upon reading the book," Ms. Kalman says in a press release, "were the absurd sentences Strunk and White wrote to illustrate their ideas. To me, these were little gems that demanded to be illustrated." Sentences such as "Be obscure clearly!" are the ones she means. But mainly her illustrations (there are many throughout the book) accompany perfectly ordinary sentences. "The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is on foot." (Use commas to enclose parenthetical expressions.) Out of this one sentence three Kalman pictures emerge, genie-like: a rocky outcropping, a waterfall, the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

White had nothing against pictures; he once drew a New Yorker cover. The problem with these pictures is their strange relation to the text. A section on pronouns includes a sample sentence that mentions "Polly." On the facing page is a loud, large picture of Polly--who has nothing to do with the topic under discussion. Ms. Kalman's pictures are like a kibitzer's random observations during a conversation among friends.

And one can't help thinking of White's fondness (to quote "Elements") for "plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity." The decorator who refurbished this book by hanging these bright, jazzy, irrelevant pictures all over did not believe in keeping things plain and simple.

White's love for simplicity extended beyond language. He fled New York literary society to live in Maine among farmers, fishermen, housewives, schoolteachers and other non-hotshots. His foreign-policy ideas would have outraged modern New York literary society. He thought that democracies should "meddle in other people's affairs frequently, gallantly, and without warning--but with no ulterior motive." In June 1940, with the U.S. still at peace, White wrote that the president should have sent a telegram to Germany years ago: "Cut out tormenting minorities--Roosevelt." He should then "have dispatched a destroyer carrying a party of Marines, landed them at a German port, rescued two or three dozen Jewish families from the campaign of hate and shot up a few military police in a surprise movement."

Meanwhile many New York intellectuals were insisting that Britain and Germany were indistinguishable; that the U.S. should stay out of the war. And, internationalist or no--White believed strongly in the United Nations--he is responsible for some of the most moving expressions of patriotism in American letters. "To hold America in one's thoughts is like holding a love letter in one's hand." Sentiments like these are not likely to be popular with the crowd that turns out for the "musical adaptation" at the New York Public Library next week.

The difference between White and the throngs of New York literary types fawning over the illustrated and operatic versions of "Elements" is clear in the contrast between the author's original words and the postmortem revised edition. White tells us in his chapter on style: "The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other." Here is the post-White revised version: "The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self." "An expression of self" is exactly the sort of pompous, high-flown abstraction White despised.

Of course these are subtleties. But good writing is a matter of subtleties. Feminist language, pseudointellectual literary criticism, an elite cultural establishment at odds with plain old middle-American patriotism, a politically corrected version of "The Elements of Style"--they are all connected. Mr. White would have taken one sniff and beat it home to Maine.

Mr. Gelernter is a senior fellow in Jewish thought at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem, and a professor of computer science at Yale.

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