Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For Elements of Style Junkies, Part II

This continues our interview with Mark Garvey, author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, in which it is revealed that E.B. White once took William Strunk's daughter Catherine out for at least one night on the town. (Vavoom!)

What’s your favorite part of The Elements of Style?

My favorite section is White's essay "An Approach to Style," which constitutes the book's fifth and final chapter. The core message of the chapter is that writers needn't strain to write with style. "To achieve style, begin by affecting none," White says. Style is something that accrues naturally--if a writer is doing her best to write with clarity, naturalness, and honesty. "All writing is communication," says White. "Creative writing is communication through revelation--it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito." The energies of chapter five are directed toward helping writers clear the murk from their writing so that the aforementioned self-revelation can be achieved with the fewest hurdles. I appreciate White's positive, inspiring message in "An Approach to Style."

What things did you learn about E.B. White and William Strunk that people will be most surprised to read in your book?

I was surprised to learn that Strunk and White had been friends. Up to now, all we really knew about Strunk was what White had told us about him in the New Yorker in 1957, in the piece that has been used as the introduction to The Elements of Style since 1959. In that essay, their relationship comes across as a typical teacher/student relationship. The fact is, they were good friends during White's college years (White spent considerable time at the Strunk home, they played chess together, enjoyed music and literary discussions, and White even took Strunk's daughter Catherine on at least one date). And they maintained a friendly correspondence throughout the rest of Strunk's life (he died in 1946). Strunk followed White's writings with avid interest and would often write to give White his thoughts on his latest published piece. I was also surprised to learn that Strunk had taken a one-year sabbatical near the end of his career to work in Hollywood as a literary consultant on a film version of Romeo and Juliet. He had a great time in Tinseltown.

I was delighted, too, if not particularly surprised, by the letters exchanged between White and his editors at Macmillan. I'm privileged to be able to reprint some of their correspondence in Stylized, and I think readers will find it as charming as I did. As I say in the book, their letters are a poignant reminder of the days when business took the time to breathe.

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