Generations of English students have loved (and hated) The Elements of Style, that “little book” that lays out the rules of clear language and proper usage. In an excerpt from Stylized—a “slightly obsessive history” of Strunk and White’s oeuvre—author Mark Garvey chronicles how a nearly forgotten treatise by a Cornell professor grew into a publishing phenomenon.
In an excerpt from the book Stylized, a ‘slightly obsessive history’ of The Elements of Style, author Mark Garvey takes a look at how Strunk and White’s book was born
By Mark Garvey
When the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style landed on E. B. White’s desk at the New Yorker in March 1957, his memory of the book was hazy. It had been sent by a classmate and friend, Howard Stevenson ’19, editor of the Cornell Alumni News. The previous summer, when the Stevensons visited the Whites on their farm in Maine, the men had reminisced about Professor William Strunk Jr., PhD 1896, and Stevenson had made a mental note to dig up a copy of the professor’s thumbnail credo and send it White’s way. He had finally succeeded in unearthing, from the university library, a copy that had been deposited there by Strunk himself, and the library staff was pleased to let Stevenson pass it along to White ’21, who, at that point, was one of Cornell’s most well-known alumni.
Stevenson’s gift, the book White held in his hand, was a wisp of a thing, more along the lines of a pamphlet, the approximate size of the instructions for your digital camera or a brochure presented to you by your dentist, a perky tract about flossing or gum disease. Five inches wide and seven inches tall, it was forty-three pages long and saddle-stitched—that is, held together by two wire staples crimped through the book’s spine. The cover was lightly textured card stock, gray-tan with a narrow navy stripe running top to bottom at the spine, front and back. The cover design was a clean graphic implementation of the Strunkian aesthetic, a simple key-lined box surrounding only the essentials. The booklet had been privately printed, according to the small type near the bottom of the copyright page, by the Press of W. P. Humphrey, Geneva, N.Y.
‘It was known on the campus in my day as “the little book,”‘ White wrote, ‘with the stress on the word “little.”‘
White was charmed by the gift and by the memories it evoked of his old professor, who had died eleven years before Stevenson’s gift arrived. Almost immediately, White began plans to write an admiring piece about Will Strunk and The Elements of Style for the New Yorker. White’s essay about Strunk appeared in the July 27, 1957, issue, under the heading “Letter from the East.” The Strunk reminiscence is sandwiched between two largely unrelated sections of the “Letter”; the first is about White’s battles with mosquitoes in his Turtle Bay apartment, the last a rueful warning about the mismanagement of radioactive waste. The mosquito piece moves, in its final paragraph, to the question of trimming the excess from one’s life. The Whites were then in the midst of packing up their affairs in New York and preparing to quit their apartment and move full-time to the farm in Maine. “Every so often I make an attempt to simplify my life,” White wrote, “burning my books behind me, selling the occasional chair, discarding the accumulated miscellany.” One of the books he had decided to neither burn nor leave behind was “a small one that arrived in the mail not long ago, a gift from a friend in Ithaca.” White then introduced the world to William Strunk and The Elements of Style.
“It was known on the campus in my day as ‘the little book,'” he wrote, “with the stress on the word ‘little.'” Elements, White said, had been Strunk’s attempt to gather the principles of good writing “on the head of a pin,” and he drew a lively verbal portrait of Strunk, who emerged as archetypically professorial—blinking at his charges from behind round, steel-rimmed spectacles, holding his lapels and leaning over his desk to deliver his positive, if sometimes eccentric, style-related pronouncements in loud, confident tones. The essay made clear White’s admiration for Strunk’s qualities as a teacher and a man, and his respect for Strunk’s devotion to the principles of style he preached. “I treasure The Elements of Style for its sharp advice,” White wrote, “but I treasure it even more for the audacity and self-confidence of its author. Will knew where he stood.” By the end of the essay, readers were cheering along with White for the memory of Strunk, admiring and maybe a little envious of the professor’s certainty, of his fervor for intellectual and moral clarity in a world gone soft. In that issue of the New Yorker, the “Letter from the East” is long, its columns thinly threaded through a gauntlet of advertisers targeting the magazine’s affluent, culture-conscious readers, making for a wry contrast with White’s meditations on simplicity and Strunk’s admonitions about bunk: Abercrombie & Fitch, Ballantine’s Scotch, Cadillac (“Without a Word Being Spoken . . . a new Cadillac car states the case for its owner with remarkable clarity and eloquence”), United Airlines (touting the juicy steaks on their for-men-only “Executive” flights from New York to Chicago), and a full-page spread of a leggy knockout in Capri pants enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with her man.
The same week the essay was published, White was contacted by Jack Case, an editor at the Macmillan Company, who told White that if The Elements of Style was everything White had made it out to be, Macmillan might be interested in republishing it. Case and his boss, the assistant director of the company’s college department, Harry Cloudman, felt the book’s unique, somewhat eccentric qualities were just what the market was crying out for, as Case made clear in a letter pitching to White the idea of their republishing the book, using White’s New Yorker essay as its introduction, before anyone at Macmillan had even laid eyes on The Elements of Style.
White heard from others, too, Strunks among them. Will’s son Oliver ’21, by that time well embarked on his own teaching career at Princeton, wrote to thank White for the touching tribute to his father. Oliver was particularly pleased by the glimpse that White’s essay had given him of Will Jr. at work, since the Strunk children had never been allowed in their father’s classroom. White also heard from fellow Cornellians who were grateful to see Strunk memorialized in this way. One, an antiquarian bookseller in Ithaca, wrote to White in November and said that his phone had started ringing eighteen hours after the New Yorker essay on Strunk had appeared and had been ringing “ever since”—White’s readers were seeking out any existing copies of The Elements of Style.