Writing About Writers

Strunk & White Exposed

A readable history of that essential primer, The Elements of Style.

The notion of style is a matter confounding even the most nimble thinkers—so it is, at the least, convenient to have some guideposts in this tricky terrain. And for the unfortunate and benighted individuals whose calling is writing or whose intention is a clarity of communication in English, one of the sacred cows of English composition has been Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Which if you have attained even a modest level of education will be familiar to you. It is somewhat surprising that no one has done what Mark Garvey has done, which is to write the primer’s history, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (Touchstone). The short story is that around 1915, Cornell mentor William Strunk collated some (simple) rules for expository writing. Some years later one of his students, immortal New Yorker writer E.B White, took up the cause amending Strunk’s prescriptions with an additional chapter which contains such gems as this:
Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
Enthusiast Mark Garvey does commendable work combing primary sources (Cornell University archives and personal letters) to offer a compact narrative of creation of The Elements of Style, which, by the way, since its publication in 1959 has sold over 10 million copies (I know, I know, it’s a required text in many curriculum).

In case you are someone who cares about these matters (clear expository writing, grammar, elegant prose) and do not already own a copy of the Elements, illustrator Maira Kalman created The Elements of Style Illustrated (Penguin Press), leavened with her humorous artwork and with a foreword by E.B. White’s stepson, the New Yorker’s Roger Angell. In current speak, it’s a must-have.
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