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). 



If the author sounds familiar, he authored Elements of Style. At a library sale I found this paperback book and put it into my dollar bag. Hence, the cost was perfect, $.03, plus inside the cover was a bonus, a note from girlfriend to boyfriend: “Dear Dayton [wonder if he races cars] – I enjoyed this very much this summer. White has a way with words! Merry Christmas! Love, Sally”

The book had been read once; there were pages turned down. I wonder if Sally did anything cheesy like give Dayton the copy she had read over the summer. She uses entirely too many exclamation points. If so, I don’t think he read it. I wonder if Sally and Dayton ever married. Probably not. The book was given after 1978. They would be in the late fifties now, and this book would be a keepsake. Divorced? Probably not. Dayton or Sally probably would have removed the note. It’s easy; it’s in there with scotch tape. Dayton had the book, never read it and this year gave it to the library.

Most of the book is properly written, but it is not well written. There is no sense the writer knows how to dramatize a point, an event or a description. He is a poor journalist. Of 304 pages about 30 are engaging and a few are excellent. The remainder is dull, a lot of the writing is about seed crops and animal husbandry (the animals have no names). Examples: 

1) “Removal” is about moving. White’s line should be, “I didn’t like the old mirror. Each time I looked at it, I appeared tired.” INSTEAD, White described his toils trying to rid himself of the mirror and ended the paragraphs with: “A few minutes later, after a quick trip back to the house, I slipped the mirror guiltily in a doorway, a bastard child with not even a note asking the finder to treat it kindly. I took a last look in it and I thought I looked tired.”

2) “Progress and Change,” an article about the El Sixth Street train removed circa 1938. White describes veterans and visitors’ reactions to the train coming into a station. EB mentions the suddenness of the training stopping, and the visitors always being unsettled. But EB does not write it: EB’s spotlight is on the New York City residents who feels superior because he does not wince, but he does not give enough facts to allow the reader to understand why wincing is not necessary.

3) White had very bad hay fever, throughout his life. He went to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 while suffering a bout of hay fever. He wrote, “When you can’t breathe through your nose, Tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.” Tomorrow is the theme of the fair, but “seems strangely” is a seemingly strange verb and adverb combo. White should complete the simile with a direct verb – “is”, “smells”, or since he’s a mouth breather that day, “tastes.” 

I’ve read most of George Orwell’s essays; they are impossible to remove from my memory. I will say EB White’s writing about totalitarianism is wrong and childish. He reveals he is absolutely ignorant, and poorly read and out of step with thinking and knowledge. Before his death in 1935 Will Rogers told America about Hitler, We’re going to have to watch this guy. ON THE OTHER HAND, White is engaged by The Wave of the Future, Anne Lindbergh, circa 1940. The Lindberghs were pro-Nazi until the United States had to declare war on Germany on December 10, 1941; they then shut up forever. The Lindberghs received medals from the Nazis; they overlooked Crystal Nacht; they disregarded reports of plunder and murder in recently German occupied countries in Europe. Nothing the Lindberghs wrote was worth reading, yet White devotes an article to Anne although is slightly uncomplimentary. In 1941, White gets around to reading Mein Kampf. 

The best article White has in at the beginning, “Removal,” and only part of it: (Written in 1938)

“…Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images – distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light – those will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe, McCarthy corporeal and Bergen stuffed, when all is reversed and we shall be like the insane, to whom the antics of the sane seem crazy twistings of a grig”

White is entirely correct that television has contributed to depersonalizing human society, and that it will allow broadcasters and governments to be and promote dishonesty: “…sights may become more familiar to us than their originals.” One would expect that human beings with less intelligence would have the most difficulty determining what is “the real and the true,” and what “will be of mere artifice.” HOWEVER, White himself {Ivy League, Eastern Establishment} amply demonstrates in One Man’s Meat that he is completely befuddled. He is dwelling “on this quaint time,” but neglecting to use his powers to examine it. 

White quotes excellent passages from Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, about the weaknesses and annoyances of the spoken word, but upon reading Mein Kampf, White writes and quotes in “Freedom,” 

“…it is not the written word but the spoken word, which in heated movements moves great masses of people to noble or ignoble action. The written word, unlike the spoken word, is something which every person examines privately and judges calmly by his own intellectual standards, not by what the stand standing next to him thinks, ‘I know,” wrote Hitler, ‘that one is able to win people far more by the spoken than the written word…’ Later he adds contemptuously, ‘For let it be said to all knights of the pen and to all the political dandies, especially of today: the greatest changes in this world have never yet been brought about by a goose quill. No, the pen has always been reserved to motivate these things theoretically.'” 

White properly reports what others have said about the spoken versus the written word, but where is the further analysis from the  Eastern Establishment, Ivy League great mind? White says of himself in the same article, “Luckily, I’m not out to change the world…” The best that could be said of White is he is lazy and vacuous. The worse justifiable conclusion is, White is intellectually dishonest. He complains about mass media changing human behavior and society, yet he is unable to cope with the confusion, so sticks his head in his salt water farm on the Maine coast.