Monday, July 30, 2012

E. B. White, the fact that

Argosy Book Store has an unusual copy of The Elements of Style for sale:

The book bears the ownership signature of Edith Oliver, the drama critic of The New Yorker, together with a slip reading “with the compliments of the author.” Enclosed is a typed letter from White, signed “Andy,” Brooklin, Maine, 8 May, 1959, promising to have the book sent to her for her “liberry.” In part — “One thing that tickles me about the little book is that I managed to use the phrase ‘the fact that’ (p. 40) after blasting the daylights out of it in two separate places (‘It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.’) Ha.” In a holograph P.S. he writes “The smelts are running. What are you doing in New York when the smelts are running?”
Price: $2500.

But where is the mistake to which White refers? I checked the first edition, first printing, and there’s no the fact that on page 40. Nor does the phrase appear in error elsewhere in the book. In White’s The Points of My Compass (1962), a postcript to the memoir “Will Strunk” also mentions a mistake:
One parting note: readers of the first edition of the book were overjoyed to discover that the phrase “the fact that” had slid by me again, landing solidly in the middle of one of my learned dissertations. It has since disappeared, but it had its little day.
I can think of three possible explanations of what’s going on: 1) my reading skills are not what they used to be; 2) White is referring to readers who read the book in proof; 3) there’s some strange inside joke playing out. I think that 2) is the likeliest explanation.

In the introduction to The Elements of Style, White writes about his tendency to miss the fact that:
I suppose I have written “the fact that” a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while.
We all miss, but we keep swinging.

Looking at The Elements of Style again made me notice anew details that mark the book as an artifact of the dowdy world. My favorite: “Is it worth while to telegraph?” I would like to see Maira Kalman illustrate that sentence.

[Page 40, first edition, first printing. Thanks, library. Click for a larger view.]


An afterthought (7:07 p.m.): I wonder whether the fact that might have appeared on page 40 in the entry on interesting:

Perhaps this sample sentence first read: “In connection with the forthcoming visit of Mr. B. to America, it is interesting to recall the fact that,” &c. This entry of course cautions against relying on the word interesting.

Related reading
All Strunk and White posts (via Pinboard)

[The telegraph sentence appears, still, in the 2009 fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Elements, three years after Western Union’s last telegram. As of this morning, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, hardcover, is #164 of all books at Amazon.]

comments: 2

Mark Garvey said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Michael. I'm sorry to say it’s left me scratching my head, too. I wish I had an electronic copy of the 1959 edition; it would certainly simplify things. But in a quick read-through of my copy of the first edition/first printing, I didn't spot any offending "the fact that"s.

I have some images of typescript pages from the 1959 edition from my work in White's archives at Cornell, but unfortunately that section of the book isn't among them. Here's my guess as to what might've happened: White seems to think the copy being sent includes the error. The book was published in late April, 1959. The May 8 date on White's letter suggests to me that he has not yet seen the printed book. It’s possible that, between the last proof he saw and the first print run, someone at Macmillan snagged the error. White would most likely not have been sending out copies of the book like this himself; I assume he sent notes to Macmillan and they were handling the mailing of these complimentary copies. So, if I'm right, he's referring to an error that had been caught, but he didn't yet realize that.

I love the smelt comment. It's so typically White--the fun fillip at letter's end, usually teetering toward the non sequitur.

And no, telegraphing is decidedly not worthwhile, though it's interesting to note how much time we spend tapping out laconic, telegraphic messages to one another, some of which are nearly as opaque as Morse code.

I also enjoyed your use of “dowdy,” a self-descriptive adjective if ever there was one.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Mark. Your timeline works well with the possibility that the error did at one point appear on page 40.

For anyone who doesn’t recognize his name, Mark is the author of the 2009 book Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I wrote about Stylized in this post and recommend it with enthusiasm.