• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)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)

Mark your calendar

From PRWeb:

The official 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style is April 16, 2009, and an event to celebrate the occasion will be held in New York City with a panel of writers and journalists discussing the power of the “little book,” featuring acclaimed writers Roger Rosenblatt, Roy Blount Jr. and Barbara Wallraff, columnist for The Atlantic. In addition, the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, keepers of the papers of E.B. White, will host an exhibit in Olin Library to coincide with the anniversary. Materials include White’s typewriter, handwritten notes, photographs and more. …

The best-known and best-selling book about writing ever published, more than 10 million copies of The Elements of Style have been sold since its first publication in 1959. The original Boston Globe review, quoted in the front of the commemorative edition, still holds true today: “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”

In 1957, E.B. White rediscovered the brief guide to clear English writing style that had been self-published by William Strunk, Jr., a favorite writing teacher during White’s undergraduate years at Cornell University. White, an acclaimed editorialist and essayist at the New Yorker and the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, expressed his admiration in a New Yorker article. When an editor at Macmillan persuaded White to revise and expand Professor Strunk’s 43-page book, that essay served as its introduction, and the book often known as “Strunk and White” was born. White later revised the book twice, in 1972 and 1979, and a fourth edition appeared in 2000 with a foreword by White’s stepson, writer Roger Angell.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, fourth edition

Call me cranky, but I don’t feel the need for a 50th anniversary edition, even if it is black leather-bound and gold-embossed and includes ” ‘fifty years of acclaim’ from leading literary figures past and present”, or even for an illustrated edition.  I would, though, suggest hardcover over paperback, to hold up to repeated readings. And I like the idea of an exhibit with Andy White’s typewriter, though I suppose Prof. Strunk’s typewriter or pencil is too much to hope for.

I’ll also admit to some curiosity about Mark Garvey‘s Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, coming out in October from Simon & Schuster.
* * *
Associated links:

Strunk without White, the 1918 edition

Andy White ’21 at Cornell

“Romeo and Juliet” starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, and directed by George Cukor, the 1936 MGM version for which William Strunk served as literary consultant

Ah, welladay

Trying to distract myself from the sparkly movie poster and today’s, erm, grand opening (not unfavorably reviewed in today’s New York Times, by the way), I’ve been rereading The Letters of E.B. White. Sometime during the week, while looking up something in the book, I stumbled across the new revised edition published under the direction of granddaughter Martha White, with a new selection of letters through Mr. White’s death in 1985 (the original volume left off in May 1976, with a visit from, of all people, Bette Davis’s former husband, actor Gary Merrill) as well as a new introduction by John Updike.

From my unrevised edition, worth pondering on this day when Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer give voice to The Barn’s geese:

  • “I think The Second Tree will do all right without club sponsorship, and that there will be pleasure and profit in it for both of us. There are other things in life besides twenty thousand dollars — though not much.” (October 1953; White’s book “The Second Tree from the Corner” was a collection of his essays. The club is the Book-of-the-Month Club.)
  • “My secretary sent me only one disk [the LP record of Julie Harris reading Stuart Little], failing to notice they were in sets of two. So I still have the first half of the story to listen to. NBC, you may be amused to know, is at work on a television version of the story, and I feel in my bones that it will end with Stuart’s finding Margalo — thus bringing to an abrupt close the quest for beauty in America. As Don Marquis used to say, “Ah, welladay.” (October 1965)
  • “It is the fixed purpose of television and motion pictures to scrap the author, sink him without a trace, on the theory that he is incompetent, has never read his own stuff, is not responsible for anything he ever wrote, and wouldn’t know what to do about it even if he were. I believe this has something to do with the urge to create, and the only way a TV person or a movie person can become a creator is to sink the guy who did it to begin with. I’m not really complaining about NBC [which developed a TV production of Stuart Little in 1965], because by and large they set out to be fairly faithful to the general theme of Stuart, and they did not try to corrupt or demolish it. But there were a hundred places that, if they had wanted to take me into their confidence, I could have bettered for them. It was their choice, not mine.” (March 1966)

  • From a letter to his lawyer representing White in negotiations with John and Faith Hubley, whose plans to make an animated version of Charlotte’s Web ultimately fell through and gave way to the Hanna-Barbera version: “In [the contract’s item] 4, I don’t know what ‘merchandising rights’ means. Does this refer to my right, subsequently, to make other deals, or does it refer to objects of merchandise — dolls, pigs, sweat shirts? Again excuse ignorance.
    There should probably be a clause somewhere prohibiting the publication in book form of the screenplay or any other adaptation of my book. When Disney made ‘Mary Poppins’ he got out a book, ‘The Walt Disney Mary Poppins.’ I’m against anything of that sort.” (May 1967)
  • From another letter to his lawyer: “The purpose of the ‘right of approval’ clause is two-fold: it should protect me from a motion picture version of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ that violates the spirit and meaning of the story, and it should protect the Hubleys from obstructive behavior of an author.” (May 1967)

Perhaps the best way to bring Charlotte’s Web to life is the audiobook version recorded by E.B. White himself. Laura in particular has listened to the CDs so often that at times she’s picked up his accent, and does an unnervingly good impression of the geese. (The link has that garish poster, which startled me, but I’m sure it’s the audio CD edition from about five years ago).

Poetry Friday II: For Andy White, on a difficult day

One of E.B. White‘s favorite writers was Don Marquis, author of archy and mehitabel, 1927, from which:

pity the poor spiders

i have just been reading
an advertisement of a certain
roach exterminator
the human race little knows
all the sadness it
causes in the insect world
i remember some weeks ago
meeting a middle aged spider
she was weeping
what is the trouble i asked
her it is these cursed
fly swatters she replied
they kill of all the flies
and my family and i are starving
to death it struck me as
so pathetic that i made
a little song about it
as follows to wit

twas an elderly mother spider
grown gaunt and fierce and gray
with her little ones crouched beside her
who wept as she sang this lay

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
for me and my little daughters
unless we eats we dies

swattin and swattin and swattin
tis little else you hear
and we ll soon be dead and forgotten
with the cost of living so dear

my husband he up and left me
lured off by a centipede
and he says as he bereft me
tis wrong but i ll get a feed

and me a working and working
scouring the streets for food
faithful and never shirking
doing the best i could

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
me and my poor little daughters
unless we eats we dies

only a withered spider
feeble and worn and old
and this is what
you do when you swat
you swatters cruel and cold

i will admit that some
of the insects do not lead
noble lives but is every
man s hand to be against them
yours for less justice
and more charity

— archy

White was especially keen on Marquis’s “warty bliggens”, which you can find here.

Update: Almost forgot to add that if you like your archy in audio, there’s a little gem I found in my father’s CD collection last year, “archy and mehitabel/echoes of archy & Carnival of the Animals”. It’s a two-part CD, the first with “archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera” with Carol Channing, Eddie Bracken, and David Wayne, and “echoes of archy” with David Wayne; and the second with Saint-Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals”, with new verses by Ogden Nash, performed by Andre Kostelanetz and Noel Coward. The archy recordings were originally made in 1954, Carnival was recorded in 1949, and each released on LP. Do your favorite children a favor and stuff it in a stocking or two.