Pray Me to Have Discipline

Photo by John Griswold

 

 

Maybe you too have the 2005 edition of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman. It is one of those books that seems to rise to the surface of piles of books and present its slim, red, hardcover binding when it knows it is needed.

Strunk, who was E.B. White’s English professor at Cornell, died before White was asked to revise and update his bossy little text on writing, first published for the public in 1920. “Strunk and White,” as it has been called since 1959, has now been assigned on more college syllabi than any other book. I was required to buy the third edition when I was an English major, several years after it was released in 1979. That edition had a new introduction by White that impressed me then and impresses me more now for its affectionate but tart humor.

White says Strunk “put his heart and soul” into the idea of omitting needless words, so that “he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.” As a result, “When [Strunk] delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, ‘Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’”

That introduction is in the 2005 edition, as is a foreword by Roger Angell, the New Yorker writer who is the son of Katherine Angell White, Fiction Editor for the New Yorker from 1925 to 1960, and White’s stepson after White and Katherine married in 1929. He starts by describing White as “the first writer I watched at work,” and ends by saying, “But we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves (as White put it) with the clear and almost perfect thought.”

The tangle of personal relationships underlying the book somehow makes it feel less prescriptive, like a car-repair manual, and more comforting, like a brief but earnest explanation of a difficult thing we are all trying to do well, maybe in our adjoining studies in a tidy house on a saltwater farm in Maine.

White was born in 1899 and started writing for The New Yorker in 1925, so he had already published most of his famous work when he took on Elements, including the essay collection One Man’s Meat (1942), his “love letter” Here Is New York (1949), and his children’s fiction Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952). He lived long enough (to 1985) that his closing essay in Elements, “An Approach to Style,” praises word processors as a tool for revision.

That essay relaxes after the (some say misguided) rigor of the preceding pages, which were the foundation of the original book by Professor Strunk: “Elementary Rules of Usage,” “Elementary Principle of Composition,” “A Few Matters of Form,” and “Words and Expression Commonly Misused.” After all, while it is good and useful to know forms, we all must live and die with our own discoveries by process.

“Here,” White says, “we leave solid ground.”

“There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.”

And yet, Andy, as White was called by family and friends, can be as prescriptive as his mentor: “The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.” What reader has not thought so, faced with an author who shouts his digressive prose from a bookstore lectern and then takes “a few minutes” to explain its inspiration by a medieval fishing saga?

“Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose,” White insists, “it is also a destroyer of life, of hope…. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

“Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition…. [S]tyle isthe writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.”

Every horse’s ass wants to be heard and today is given free, global platforms to rage-Tweet and perform the sit-in-your-truck-and-tell-it-like-it-is lecture. A great mass of America are now professors, sadly paid only in Likes. But this sentimentality—unearned emotion in communication—is different from the forthrightness Strunk and White are about. White says he treasures the foundational text by Strunk “even more for the audacity and self-confidence of its author,” but he makes clear that learning, self-discipline, and a sense of humor determine and reveal what we are.

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