American Collections blog

21 July 2013

Ay, if I know the letters and the language: The Elements of Style

At last, dear reader, we can announce the end of the inconsistencies that have plagued this blog since the early, exploratory days. BL or British Library; 'digitize', 'digitise' or 'digitalise'; to Oxford Comma, or not; Vampire Weekend or 'Vampire Weekend'; The New Yorker-esque coöperate or the plainer co-operate; 11, eleven or XI. Pipping to the post the Times Literary Supplement's long-awaited and updated style guide, which still remains in their basement, we are working on applying some in-house suggestions that have been drawn up. (It's British Library and 11 from the list above.  'It's-es' can flourish – but we can say farewell to 'digitize' and its longer cousin, while also shouting a welcoming 'hey!' to the en-dash).

There is a very American tradition of this sort of thing.  Noah Webster did his best to reinvigorate the language in the republican United States with his dictionary of 1806. This was a land that had need for 'squash' and 'skunk', and no truck for fancy, tyrannical (and complicated) vowels in 'color'. The MLA and Chicago Manual of Style continue to dominate the scholarly apparatus of student essays and academic monographs (as well as causing fearsome programing (or is it programming) in citation management tools such as Endnote or Zotero). But the big beast in the land of the style guide – and one that is as much loved as Big Bird or Liberty Enlightening the World – is that perennial publication: The Elements of Style, also known as 'Strunk and White' after its two authors/editors. 

This work, now used and held in affection by students and writers for a couple of generations, may be said to have had two lives, a lifecyle charted in Mark Garvey, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (2009).* In 1957, the New Yorker published a piece by EB White about a textbook he had used at Cornell as a student, known as the 'little book': a 'forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English'. Written by William Strunk, it had been privately printed in 1918 and reprinted and revised a few times, the last of which was published in 1935. According to the essay, Strunk had been White's 'friend and teacher' at Cornell, and the book had always made an impression on him.   White had been sent a copy of the 'little book' by a former classmate, Howard Stevenson (editor of the Cornell Alumni News), after the two had reminisced about it the previous summer. (Stevenson obtained a copy from the university library – not, as White put it, 'filched from the library', but with the permission of the librarians (Garvey: 57-59)). The New Yorker essay, published in the 2 July 1957 issue under the title 'Letter from the East', reflected on White's move from a mosquito-plagued apartment in Turtle Bay to a farm in Maine, and the need to 'simplify my life... burning my books behind me, selling the occasional chair, discarding the accumulated miscellany'. He could not, however, part with Stevenson's recent gift, in part because of his memories of the eccentric and confident Professor White, and in part because of 'its sharp advice'. Jack Case, an editor at the Macmillan Company, was struck by the piece, found the textbook, and reissued it, along with the essay and revisions and additions by White as The Elements of Style in 1959. Within a year, 200,000 copies had sold; and the injunction 'omit needless words' was drummed into the popular consciousness.

White, the author, of course, of Charlotte's Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945) (as well as Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do with James Thurber (1929), has his biographers in Scott Elledge, E. B. White: A Biography (New York, 1984) and Isabel Russell, Katharine and E. B. White (1988) and has had many of his letters and essays republished; his papers are at the Cornell University Library. Strunk, on the other hand, only has 'a small number of letters to him by William Dean Howells' in Cornell (American National Biography). Neither is he similarly remembered in print if we put aside The Elements of Style and White's final version of his essay in The Points of My Compass (1962).   

This is a shame. But we will do what we can in this post. In our office, fresh from the stacks, is a copy of J Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, published as a Chambers Standard Authors  in 1911.  Strunk had edited it 'for school use'. The temptation, of course, is to search Strunk's prose for evidence of his stylistic advice, and more particularly transgressions of them.* This is a little cruel; instead, there is evidence of his lively awareness of language and the effects of style.  From the first page of preface we find this: 'with this preliminary explanation of his reasons for introducing so many unintelligble words in the very threshold of his undertaking...'. A proto-'omit unnecessary words'! But, alas, this is not Strunk, but Cooper.  For the professor, we must turn to the notes at the back. Ballston gets it in the neck: 'watering-places.  Saratoga and Ballston. The latter has long lost its former prominence'. He helpfully explains to the student: 'In Coooper's day, the old practice of prefixing quotations to essays and to chapters of novels was still in voyue.' We like this efficient, and allusive, explanation: 'Horican... nearly all of their appellations were descriptive of the object. Thus, a literal translation of the name of this beautiful sheet of water, used by the tribe that dwelt on its banks, would be "The Tail of the Lake"'. Elements of the 'little book': 'children which. "Which" was formerly often used where we now say "who,W, but in other passages Cooper shows that he was careless in his use of relatives'; 'admiration. Wonder.  Now obsolete in this sense'; 'should know. Note the form'; 'they moved.  Note the unfortunate result of the carelessness in the use of the pronoun'; 'On the contrary, etc. Badly constructed sentence' [see, again, the note for p. 427].

We now jump forward from 1911 to 1936, and MGM's vision of the Italian Rennaissance: 'Romeo and Juliet', a no-expense-spared prestige adaptation of Shakespeare during Hollywood's Golden Era. Produced by Irving Thalberg, directed by George Cukor (and staring John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Violet Kemple Cooper, Basil Rathbone and C. Aubrey Smith – and, with above the title billing, Norma Shearer, the director's wife), and with costumes by the young English designer Oliver Messel, the film made much of its attempts at authenticity, with special study guides prepared for schools.*** In order to present a genuine vision of Renaissance Verona, Jacob Burckhardt-reading researchers were employed, and genuine ducats  were even used as props. For Thalberg, it would be the play Shakespeare would have made if he had access to film, MGM's coffers and south Californian sunlight  (See Russell Jackson, Shakespeare Films in the Making: Vision, Production and Reception (Camdridge, 2007). The script was by Talbot Jennings, who had recently written Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and went on to write The Good Earth. And, William Strunk Jr, of Cornell University, as the credits at the start of the film proudly proclaimed, acted as 'literary advisor'. Strunk, who went to Hollywood for six weeks and stayed for a year (and where he was fondly known as 'the Professor'), offered up notes on Renaissance Italian customs, and even 'additional dialogue', following Jenning's departure (quoted in Jackson: 130).  Each set is 'crammed with period detail' (Jackson: 133), suggesting that the director paid attention to the suggestions of the researchers, including Strunk. We are sad to note that the dove-house suggested for the Capulet garden did not make it into the final set. 

Here, Strunk was perhaps ahead of the game. He suggested, 'with some hesitation', whether the famous prologue might be delivered 'from the stage of the Elizabethan theatre (The Swan),' anticipating, Jackson suggests, Olivier's famous opening to 'Henry V' (1944).

The film opened in the autumn, with the press relieved that 'there is nothing deep, or classic, or highbrow about it. Nothing to frighten you away.' (New York American, 21 August; Jackson: 156).****  The film, despite a good turn of phrase, lacked what Variety liked to call 'box-office socko'.

Strunk went on to omit needless scenes elsewhere: cutting Anthony and Cleopatra to a two-act Broadway play in 1937. Theatre-goers missed Enobarbus's suicide, among other things, and the show went dark early.



* 'For an Elements of Style disciple, [the typescript of the 1959 edition] is an inspiring sight, imparting something like the electric thrill of proximity to history I felt when leaning over the Magna Carta in the subdued lighting of the British Library.'  (Garvey: 77)  [N .B., surely 'leaning over Magna Carta?' - ed]

** Do not apply this approach to this blog

*** See Romeo and Juliet.  With designs by Oliver Messel (London, 1936).  The colour plate edition is at shelfmark 11767.d.15

**** The age of the two principals caused some comment, not least by Joan Crawford: 'Christ, I couldn't wait for those two old turkeys to die, could you?' (Jackson: 160).


The comments to this entry are closed.