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Word Perfect

  Before the deal could be completed, the matter of copyright had to be considered. The Elements of Style had been revised and republished several times since the original 1918 edition, and it had been a Harcourt, Brace publication since 1920. The last version, published in 1935, had been revised by another Cornell instructor, Edward […]

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manuscript

Before the deal could be completed, the matter of copyright had to be considered. The Elements of Style had been revised and republished several times since the original 1918 edition, and it had been a Harcourt, Brace publication since 1920. The last version, published in 1935, had been revised by another Cornell instructor, Edward A. Tenney, PhD ’32, and released as The Elements and Practice of Composition, with a section of exercises added to the back of the book. It took Case and Cloudman nearly a year, from the summer of 1957 to the spring of 1958, to sort out the copyright status of the various editions. The Strunks, Emilie and her son Oliver, the executor of his father’s estate, were happy to see the project move forward, and Oliver was helpful early on in Macmillan’s efforts to identify the various editions and investigate any existing copyright claims. In May 1958, Case wrote to White to let him know they had finally established that the rights were free and clear, that nothing stood in the way of copyrighting a new edition of The Elements of Style with White as coauthor. Macmillan was ready to offer a contract, with the royalties split fifty-fifty between White and the Strunk estate. Case went on:

We now believe that unless THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE were to be reissued simply as a kindly memorial to its author rather than as a useful book for the second half of the century, certain editorial changes would have to be made, and that you are the person to make them. I think you will at once feel a reluctance to lay violent hands upon something that was once well done. Actually what we should ask would not amount to this. . . . We don’t think that the various suggestions quite add up to a revision of Professor Strunk’s book, to actual rewriting, or to deletion and substitution that he would not himself want to make if he were here to do so, except with regard to two or three crotchety passages based on excessively personal aversions. We should like to have you saw off bits of outdated scroll work here and there, and then build onto the sound essential structure some advice of your own about the elements of good writing. Just where the joints would come and how they would be made could be worked out later; first we should like you to form your own picture of the dimensions of the remodeling to be done.

With a clear road before him, White threw himself into the job. Far beyond simply adding his reworked New Yorker essay to the book, he committed to a thorough edit of Strunk’s original text and the contribution of a new chapter on writing—the “bit more” he had mentioned “on the subject of rhetoric.” At the start of the project, Case sent White a photostat copy of Strunk’s edition, with the pages pasted onto individual sheets of typing paper, for White to mark up with his changes. White eventually found it an impractical way to proceed and ended up retyping most of the book from scratch, revising as he went. White posted the complete manuscript to Jack Case three days before Thanksgiving Day.

E. B. White

24 November 1958
Dear Mr. Case:
The book goes off by registered mail today, in three envelopes—one, two, three. I hope it reaches you before you sit down to your turkey. My chapter on style runs long, but I let myself go, being a white-haired old man, mumbling in my corner. . . . I’ll be very glad to have your estimate of my remarks on style. Do they fit this book, or are they out of place in a Strunk murder? You may shoot at them with anything from a gum eraser to a poisoned arrow; the only thing I can’t stand is to have my feelings spared, or an editor failing to say what is on his mind.

Sincerely,
E. B. White
P.S. I have no copy of my piece, or of anything else, so if you lose it, lose it good and we can all just relax.

Sixteen months after first learning of Strunk and The Elements of Style, Case and Cloudman were ecstatic to finally have White’s completed manuscript in hand. Case wrote back to White, giddily: “It has arrived. It looks fine. Harry Cloudman and I are going to smudge it up with cranberry sauce at my house tomorrow. . . . Congratulations on hitting your deadline right on the nose!”

After Jack Case and Harry Cloudman had read the manuscript closely, Case wrote an appreciative letter to White.

I have been plugging away at the manuscript almost continuously since it arrived, and so have not had a chance to tell you how much we like it. By Thanksgiving evening both Harry Cloudman and I had read all of it once and parts of it twice, and were quoting to each other sentence after sentence of the final chapter.

That is a fine thing, delightful and wise, as we knew it would be—from the fun about cats to the startling Wolfe quote, and your equally startling treatment of it, both of which would make a corpse sit bolt upright; from the gentle, firm counsel not to thrash about in the stream to the sharing of your hard-won glimpses of the mysterious heart of style. All this, and much more, is not only wonderfully good in itself; it fulfills our common purpose to make those matters of writing come alive for the reader who needs help, and to keep them as clear as may be . . . .

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