Polite literature

Strunk and White's much-revered "The Elements of Style" has sapped the life from American writing.

Topics: Books,

“From every line there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache.”

Pretty.

Such was the face of William Strunk Jr., the other half of “The Elements of Style,” as described by E.B. White. Remember Strunk? Right. No one does anymore. Nevertheless, it was Strunk who originally composed “the little book” (his stress; modest fella) and took the trouble of publishing it at his own expense way back when. A caviling cavalier, a knight pursuant of the English language — or custodian of it, rather, like the dapper little dustman who cleans up after Hannibal’s elephants in the credits for the old “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons.

White we do remember. Elwyn Brooks. “Andy.” The caretaker editor of the slim volume that has cramped the hands and minds of “studentry” and wannabe writers since the end of the Great War. The teacher’s pet. Clever. Trad, but not too trad, unlike loony old Fowler. Tweedy, pipe-sucking, a Down Easterner by adoption. And from his perch at the New Yorker, where he did more to help Harold Ross’ fledgling take flight than anybody except Thurber (his difficult friend), a man to be reckoned with — though not a forcible one, mind, Andy being every bit as prim and proper as his beloved Will.

Editor, senior of course, first among equals, as wise as Solomon. Creator of the “casual,” the American feuilleton, with all the virtues and vices of that finicky form. A master craftsman who prized the order of a Maxwell, Taylor or O’Hara above the chaos of a Faulkner, Chandler or Bowles; Updike a safer pair of hands than Vidal. Even fellow birthday-boy Hemingway, whose spare, lean sentences seem tailor-made for the New Yorker, didn’t quite measure up. Funny how Hemingway and Faulkner were good enough for “The Elements of Style,” though.

No surprises, no shocks (unless cushioned). No fire, no sparks (except Muriel). No modernism of any manifestation. No dirt; dust, yes, swept under the davenport, unseen. Nothing too ethnic or foreign. Nothing that hasn’t been tamed, stuffed or predigested. No hustle, no bustle, no shoulder pads or ambitions. Poseurs and arrivistes shown the back door. Neat and tidy white picket fences keeping unpleasant thingamajigs away, the washed out, autumn colors of a New England calendar.



Curiously, White’s unpublished guide to good writing (quoted in Brendan Gill’s “Here at the New Yorker”) suggests an altogether different beast: “Before I start to write, I always treat myself to a nice dry martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I am on my own.” High livin’ there, and yet you see what a painful duty it all is for him. Not the Happy Island, is it?

We ain’t got fun.

Well, the fourth edition of “The Elements of Style” has landed upon us like a parcel of feathers, and with the exception of some cosmetic changes (“she” alternating with “he” in the examples, Toni Morrison elbowing Wordsworth aside for the sake of inclusion, a dutiful foreword from stepson Roger Angell, a bland afterword by Charles Osgood), the book remains the same. Pity. Save for its brevity and general reliability and its fundamental soundness on grammar and punctuation, I’ve always found “the little book” annoying and a shade disingenuous. Its faults are myriad, and given White’s talent for cagey plainness and elliptical straightforwardness, damn hard to call out.

Ultimately, the aim and effect is the spreading of the New Yorker’s dominion by other means. Get ‘em when they’re young and you got ‘em for life. And if you want to write, this is how you should write, and if you think you have what it takes to join us here at the New Yorker, just follow these few simple rules and, who knows, you could be the next John McPhee. Golly. It’s akin to a high school civics lesson, the Norman Rockwell “Freedom of Speech” print beside the chalkboard, homespun rustics and cracker-barrel philosophers having their say alongside the swells at the town hall assembly, a twee, democratic image. Your voice matters — just lower your volume a bit, please. Thank you. (Balderdash! as Mencken would say.)

White allows that you may wish to go ahead and break the rules after learning them, but his idea of rule breaking is stepping on his neighbor’s lawn or jaywalking on an abandoned street. His do’s and don’ts reveal a cautious, conservative temperament, the WASP ethos that the unexamined life is worth living.

What White doesn’t allow is that nice, polite words can fail us in dark times, in murky situations. His famous letter (widely anthologized) to the editor of the New York Herald Tribune, protesting the blacklist of the Hollywood Ten in 1947 and the Trib’s craven defense of it, has all the bite of an ornery rabbit. I just can’t picture him taking his coat and specs off the way I can Kempton.

If White has a credo lurking about “The Elements of Style,” it can be found in his use of this passage taken from E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers for Democracy”: “I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.” A worthy sentiment, seriously, though I doubt White ever lived it the way Forster, patron of tram conductors and palace barbers, did. (Nevertheless, White would probably feel right at home with the Bloomsburies: the cult of friendship, the sniffy, finger-extended gentility, the smug self-satisfaction, the blancmange — an accent and ocean removed from the gin and wisecracks of the Algonquin Round Table.) Clues like the Forster passage litter “The Elements of Style.”

The most telling, however, is the Orwell in Chapter II. A parody updating a famous verse from the King James bible (Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift …”) to what Orwell called “modern” English, it is a typical prose “improvement”: tin-eared, anemic and dull. But for Orwell this was not just a matter of tarnished beauty, it was a matter of ethics as well. The source, “Politics and the English Language” (which White doesn’t mention), is an essay relevant to every season. In it Orwell writes: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” But that’s not all: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” To Orwell the decline and fall of a language had political and economic causes; defending it was too important to be left to the grammarians.

But then Orwell was a bit strident, wasn’t he? Sweaty. Smelly. Polemical. Injects opinion. Not our kind. Yet there is a rich Anglo-American tradition of polemical, opinionated writing, two-fisted, unfair, wrong-headed, bloody rude, stretching back to the scatological anti-Lutheran diatribes of Thomas More, the roundhead tracts of Milton, the revolutionary pamphlets of Paine, the excoriations of Burke, the moral fervor of Orwell, the small personal voice of Doris Lessing. Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Nicholas von Hoffman, Alexander Cockburn, Molly Ivins and the scribes at the Baffler are among the best practitioners of it today. Unfair. Bloody rude. Too bad. As my favorite anglophile, Voltaire, wrote more than two centuries ago: “Qui plume a, guerre a.” (Who writes, fights.) You would never know it from reading “The Elements of Style.”

If I am harsh it is because this book has had an influence far out of proportion to its actual merit. It is taught as gospel truth, seen as the last word. It hedges, it trims, it hems, it shears, it is the all-purpose weed-eater. It is easy and undemanding. It is a numbers game: 10 million of these babies sold, therefore there must be something in it. It is the perfect book for those who mistake etiquette for grace, who do not want to think too deeply about writing or about the way we live now or about anything at all. But if you believe, as I do, that the act of writing is an extension of thought, you will find this book thoughtless. If you believe that honest writing operates within some kind of moral framework, you will find that this book operates in a vacuum. And if you believe that a good writing style is “an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing” (Bertrand Russell), you will find the personality of its author wanting.

George Rafael, an arts journalist, writes for Cineaste, the First Post and The London Magazine.

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