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    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
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    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

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    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

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Filched

The one thing that jumped out at me from the recent AP article by William Kates on the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was the following sentence,

Strunk’s “Elements of Style” probably would have vanished for good had not someone stolen one of the two copies in the Cornell library in 1957 and sent it to White.

“Someone” was in fact Andy White’s old friend and Cornell classmate H.A. Stevenson (class of ’19), editor of the Cornell Alumni News in 1957 when he sent White (class of ’21) the little book. As for “stolen”, well, as White wrote to Stevenson in thanks, he preferred a different word,

25 West 43
2 April 1957

Dear Steve:

I was overwhelmed to get the little book, filched from the library, and I hope I deserve it.  Last night I went through it, seeing Will in every word and phrase and line — in Charles’s friend, in Burns’s poems, in the comma after each term except the last.  What a book, what a man!  Will so loved the clear, the brief, the bold — and his book is clear, brief, bold.

It may be that I’ll try to do a piece on “The Elements of Style” for The New Yorker.  Perhaps you can fill me in on a few matters on which I am vague or uninformed (My memory is poor and needs jolting.) …

If you can answer, and feel like answering, any of these tedious questions, I would be delighted to hear from you.  Hell, I would be delighted to hear from you anyway. …

Thanks again, Steve, for this gift.  This is a late day (I almost said a “very” late day, but Will hated “very”) for me to meet up with “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr.  I shall treasure the book as long as there are any elements of life in my bones.  Hope you and Mildred will get to Maine again.  If you do, you will get fed, not merely ginned; and I will put you in my 18-foot sloop and whirl you round and round. (“Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”)

Yrs gratefully,

Andy

As White closed his July 1957 essay in The New Yorker (the book’s inspiration) on Prof. Strunk’s pamphlet,

“The little book” has long since passed into disuse.  Will died in 1946, and he had retired from teaching several years before that. Longer, lower textbooks are in use in English classes nowadays, I daresay — books with upswept tail fins and automatic verbs. I hope some of them manage to compress as much wisdom into as mall a space, manage to come to the point as quickly and illuminate it as amusingly.  I think, though, that if I suddenly found myself in the, to me, unthinkable position of facing a class in English usage and style, I would simply lean far out over the desk, clutch my lapels, blink my eyes, and say, “Get the little book! Get the little book! Get the little book!”

Many thanks to Mr. Stevenson from Farm School for rescuing the little book and passing it on to Andy White.  You can, by the way, have your Strunk without White, but to me that’s like getting ginned without the tonic.

(The Cornell Chronicle notes the anniversary, also The Cornell Daily Sun where Andy was editor from Spring 1920-Spring 1921, though neither notes Cornellian H.A. Stevenson’s role)

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3 Responses

  1. I am happy I found you again. Refraining from using “very.” Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for this. You may not see it from my writing, but i have been a fan and user of Strunk and White (always together!) and never knew the story.

  3. Nina, I’m happy too — welcome back!

    Mary Lou, I feel the same. EB White has been a favorite of mine since childhood, I have almost all of his books and reread several of them every year, and I have two different editions of Strunk and White at the desk, and yet I seem to have absorbed less than I’d like.

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