Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Mark Garvey’s Stylized

Mark Garvey. Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2009. $22.99.

Mark Garvey’s Stylized is a deeply affectionate, well reseached, and, yes, slightly and frankly obsessive account of The Elements of Style: its sources, its beginnings, its 1959 reincarnation as “Strunk and White,” its several editions, its place in American culture.

Stylized offers what most readers coming to The Elements of Style lack: relevant contexts. Garvey places Strunk’s original 1918 Elements in relation to the work of other early-20th-century writers — James P. Kelley, John Lesslie Hall, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch — who argued for clarity, concreteness, plainness, and “the right use of words” (Kelley’s phrase) in writing. Garvey also helps us understand the shape of things forty years later, when White revised Elements for reissue. Extensive excerpts from letters between White and Macmillan College Department editor Jack Case show both men anticipating the criticisms of so-called descriptivists impatient with anybody’s declarations about right use. Case’s suggestion that White loosen up some Strunkian proscriptions met with a powerful rejoinder. A sample:

I was saddened by your letter — the flagging spirit, the moistened finger in the wind, the examination of entrails, the fear of little men. I don’t know whether Macmillan is running scared or not, but I do know that this book is the work of a dead precisionist and a half-dead disciple of his, and that it has got to stay that way. . . . If the White-Strunk opus has any virtue, any hope of circulation, it lies in keeping its edges sharp and clear, not in rounding them off cleverly.
The Case-White letters document a extraordinary working relationship — more than mere professionalism, less than intimate friendship, an intellectual camaraderie of a high order. Working with E.B. White must have been the highlight of Jack Case’s career in publishing. Neither man could have imagined the sort of frenzied diatribes that The Elements now seems to incite.

Stylized is also a deeply affectionate look into the intersecting lives of William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Garvey reveals Professor Strunk as a charming, courtly, humorous, kind, learned fellow — hardly a rule-bound zealot chanting “Omit needless words!” A surprising bit: Strunk’s highly successful and pleasurable sojourn in Hollywood as literary consultant for the 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of Romeo and Juliet. But the great surprise here, at least for me, is an account of the decades-long friendship between Strunk and White. The story of the revised Elements of Style becomes more emotionally complicated when one understands that the gift to White in 1957 of a 1918 Elements evoked not a college class almost forty years in the past but a former professor who had died just eleven years earlier, a professor who had kept in touch through postcards and letters, who had followed White’s post-graduation false starts, recommended him for a job in advertising, and took great pleasure in his work at the New Yorker. Why White chose not to mention these matters in his sketch of Strunk in the revised Elements is a question Garvey leaves unasked.

So much of the story in Stylized runs on letters: Strunk and White, White and Case, and White’s replies, some no longer than a sentence, to readers of The Elements. A long and kind letter from the late 1970s seeks to steady an unsteady reader whose emotional anxieties led to a fixation on sentence fragments:
I have been through hard times myself with my head and my emotions, and I know the torture that they can cause. But I have discovered that it is possible to stay afloat and to get on top of the small and surprising things that bother the head.

I suspect that you should disentangle yourself from the so-called rules of grammar and style and get back to writing, if writing is what you like to do.
The one less than satisfactory element in Stylized: the pages given over to conversations with writers — Nicholson Baker and Frank McCourt, among others — on matters of style and voice and writing. It’s not that what they have to say isn’t worthwhile. It is. But it’s said — spoken, not written, and thus filled with words and phrases — kind of, really — that seem strangely out of place in a book about The Elements of Style. Mark Garvey’s own prose itself is ample evidence that The Elements works as advertised. Here, from the final paragraph, is a passage that sums up Garvey’s sense of “Strunk and White”:
The Elements of Style invites us to remember that we can trust in our ability to think things through and set our thoughts down straight and clear; that with a little effort we can hope to sight a line of order in the chaos; that things will improve as we simplify our purposes and speak our minds; and that we must believe, as E.B. White put it, “in the truth and worth of the scrawl.”
Notice that Garvey gives White the last word: an elegant tribute, writer to writer.

Related posts on the Style wars
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Strunk and White and wit
I dream of Strunk and White
The Elements of Style, one more time

[Thanks to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster for a review copy of this book.]

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