Last week I wrote about The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Strunk was White’s professor at Cornell and “the little book” was his self-published text for the English 8 class. According to White’s introduction, it was Strunk’s “attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” It contains “seven rules of usage, eleven principles, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused.” White added a chapter called “An Approach to Style,” which is “addressed particularly to those who feel that English prose composition is not only a necessary skill but a sensible pursuit as well.”
Now, what writer could resist that?
A long-time contributor to the New Yorker, E.B. White is probably best known for the enchanting Charlotte’s Web, the story of a young farm girl’s coming of age and a writing spider who gives her all to save a pig. A stylist with a keen ear for language, White incorporated some of the rural New England usage he’d heard all his life, much as I have let some of my characters use the ungrammatical Southern usages I grew up with.
It did not surprise me that I got many letters “correcting” my mistakes and scolding me for my lack of education. It did surprise me that readers would have the same temerity to correct E.B. White, yet, when reading his collected letters the other day, I came across his response to such a person:
September 28, 1961
Dear Mrs. Shopland:
. . . The characters in “Charlotte’s Web” were not presented as hicks; today’s farmer is anything but. Neither were they presented as intellectuals who use the language with precision. Very few people in any walk of life speak and write precisely and correctly, and I don’t myself. Your two letters, for example, contained mistakes—in the first letter you spelled grammar “grammer,” and in the second letter you used the word “forbearers” when you meant “forebears.”
. . . I agree with you that the modern farmer is often a man of considerable education. But I think you are under a misapprehension about the nature of writing and the duties of a writer. I do not write books to raise any group’s cultural level, I simply put down on paper the things I see and hear. I report speech as I hear it, not as it appears in books of rhetoric. If you ever take up writing, I advise you to keep your ears open, and never mind about culture.
(Letters of E.B. White: Revised Edition © 2006 by E.B. White)
What so amuses me is how very similar this is to the reply I once sent a woman who wrote an ugly (and ungrammatical) letter to my editor berating her for her sloppy editing of my first-person narrative books. Plus ça change....!