Schrunk & White, Elements of Style

In the late 1940s EB White wrote about Will Schrunk, his professor at Cornell. White was asked by the publisher of Schrunk’s book to revise it for a new edition. Hence, Schrunk & White, Elements of Style

In a 1957 letter and in White’s other essays and stories, it is obvious he departs repeatedly from Schrunk’s rules. The exception is when a rule is followed. It demonstrates that most of Schrunk & White came from Schrunk, not White. It reveals why White’s essays, letters and reports are second-rate, and cannot be read for knowledge, insight or inspiration. It explains why White’s criticism is not well written.

It also explains why White was a sell-out: Witness rambling rumination on Henry Thoreau, Walden, and White’s excuses for flaws: “To reject the book because of the immaturity of the author and the bugs in the logic is to throw away a bottle of good wine because it contains bits of cork.” A Slight Sound at Evening, Summer, 1954.

Take a specific problem first, coming from White’s pen and limited imagination. He refers to Walden being inmature which can mean anything and having bugs in its logic. Once a book is launched, it is usually unchanged. Walden has be immature and buggy since 1854. Thoreau’s only salvation is the residency in New England. If he had been from Tennessee or Nebraska, the book would be appropriately forgotten. Of course White is from New England and always supports the homeboy.

Next, if a good wine has cork in it, it can be filtered, and the cork removed. But no one can filter immediately bugs from wine. It is best not to drink the bottle with the cork in it, although in New England the natives may swill anything and swallow. Hence, White’s simile is wrong, and it’s wrong in real life. Law books report cases when critters like bugs get inside bottles and containers. The expert advice is, don’t consume them.

The greater problem is when White extols immaturity and bugs in logic. How much of that ineptness must a reader endure? If a human being reads poor writing and decides to write, then the consequent output will be poor quality. Human beings only learn if they read, comprehend and understand good writing – saying something in five words rather than 20. Knowing that five words can state the full thought [concept, idea] makes the writer more adept – five words makes the writing easier and more pleasant to read.

But White cherishes homeboy, Henry David, massively imperfect, boring and probably using drugs while dwelling in his pond shack, polluting the pure waters and uttering Wow, all the time. Thoreau wrote about simple, mundane events and impressions, things any high schooler might believe significant. We don’t keep those immature writings full of bugs around – even the students themselves toss them. And we don’t put those writers on postage stamps.  Drugs are a possibility explaining why Thoreau was immature and infested, but drugs are not an excuse to read him. It remains mystifying why White defers to Thoreau and likes him (except EB White also paid no attention to the rules in Elements of Style). 

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