February 18, 2005

The blowing of each other up

Elwyn Brooks White expanded William Strunk's original pamphlet to produce The Elements of Style, which Geoff Pullum has called "a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices (don't use ongoing), arbitrary stipulations (don't begin a sentence with however), and fatuous advice ("Be clear"), ridiculously out of date in its positions on appropriate choices among grammatical variants, deeply suspect in its style advice and grotesquely wrong in most of the grammatical advice it gives".

Late last night, I chose at random from a pile of old and unread books, and found myself drifting off to sleep over The Wild Flag, which turned out not to be the exciting war novel that I thought it might be, but rather a 1946 collection of White's editorials "on Federal World Government and Other Matters". These pieces are vivid and readable, though White's political beliefs have not held up well -- his theme is that the solution to humanity's problems is world government, to be achieved through expansion of the power of the United Nations. Since the political content is so thin, not to say silly, I found myself interpreting his conceits in reference to his ideas about prose style instead of his ideas about world politics.

White announces himself in favor of irrational and incoherent opinions:

Most publications, I think, make rather hard demands on their editorial writers, asking them to be consistent and sensible. The New Yorker has never suggested anything of the sort, and thus has greatly eased a writer's burden — for it is easier to say what you think if you don't feel obliged to follow a green arrow. The New Yorker is both aloof and friendly toward its opinionated contributors, and I am grateful for this. I am reasonably sure that if some trusty around the place were to submit an editorial demanding that the George Washington Bridge be moved sixty feet further upstream and thatched with straw, the editors would publish it, no questions asked.

You can see from this why he felt comfortable with the unmotivated prejudices, arbitrary stipulations and fatuous advice that Geoff complains about. You can also see that White was fond of the "needless words" that he and Strunk advised everyone else to omit: "I think", "rather", "reasonably" and so on. It's clear that he likes the sound and rhythm of his own voice, and sometimes throws in a few extra words just for the sheer resonant fun of it.

He also exhibits periodic flashes of unprovoked aggression:

An editorial writer refers to himself as 'we,' but is never sure who the other half of the 'we' is. I have yet to encounter the other half of 'we,' but expect to nail him in an alley some day and beat his brains out, to see what sort of stuffing is behind such omniscience.

"Nail him in an alley some day and beat his brains out?" This is himself whose skull he's promising to crush, mind you. Doppleganger-bashing or otherwise, the cranky, abusive tone that Geoff detected in Strunk and White is often in evidence in these little editorials.

Along with the resonant redundancies, almost every paragraph exhibits some bizarre image or some bit of grammatical whimsy. White wields the English language like an elderly gardener using his 9-iron as a weed wacker:

Nationalism is young and strong, and has already run into bad trouble. [As opposed to "good trouble"?] We take pains to educate our children at an early age in the rituals and mysteries of the nation, infusing national feeling into them in place of the universal feeling which is their birthright; but lately the most conspicuous activity of nations has been the blowing of each other up, and an observant child might reasonably ask whether he is pledging allegiance to a flag or to a shroud.

"The blowing of each other up"? Cool, I thought to myself as I drifted off, but is that actually English? I was reminded of the time a four-year-old of my acquaintance referred to the remains of a local fire as the "the burned house down". White's phrase is less eccentric, but it still rates a boggle. And "pledging allegiance to a flag or to a shroud"? Strong stuff, but has it really ever occurred to any child to ask that?

That brings us halfway through the second paragraph on the third page of the preface, which is roughly where I fell asleep. However, as I read through the rest of the book this morning over coffee, other oddities leaped off nearly every page:

A world government, were we ever to get one, would impose on the individual the curious burden of taking the entire globe to his bosom — although not in any sense depriving him of the love of his front yard. The special feeling of an Englishman for a stream in Devonshire or a lane in Kent would have to run parallel to his pride in Athens and his insane love of Jersey City.

Isn't "taking the entire globe to his bosom" one of those hackneyed metaphors we're supposed to avoid? And trust a New Yorker to suggest that affection for New Jersey is evidence of insanity.

Nations are less candid than children, and their state departments have a less good prose style, ...

And humans in the state of nature are all honest and kind, and Dorothy Parker is Marie of Roumania.

Behold the platform speaker! He grasps the microphone as coolly as though it were a broom handle in his mother's kitchen and warns you (a thousand miles away) to beware of fantastic schemes. Standing there, speaking in a natural tone of voice, he is of the very nature of fantasy. His words leap across rivers and mountains, but his thoughts are still only six inches long.

"His thoughts are still only six inches long"? That's a short damn broom handle, Elwyn.

Now, I certainly don't mean to suggest that E.B. White is a bad writer. There are not many writers who could have kept me going through 188 pages on World Government, even on behalf of a Language Log post. But it seems to me that he's a good writer in spite of his own stylistic advice, not because of it.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 18, 2005 12:01 AM