Monday, October 24, 2011
He Made Every Word Tell
"Make every word tell," advised Professor William Strunk, Jr. (1869-1946) to his English students at Cornell University. His book, The Elements of Style, first published in 1918, was a standard collegiate writing guide for decades. Scowl-Face used it during his first year of graduate school over 30 years ago. Strunk taught students to write with economy, power, and precision. One strongly influenced student was E. B. White (1899-1985), essayist and children's book author. He was "Andy" to his friends, a nickname he was given from his freshman Cornell days (after Andrew Dickson White [1832-1918], Cornell's co-founder).
White was a staff writer at The New Yorker. He shared office space with fellow staff writer James Thurber. The magazine's founder and publisher, Harold Ross (1892-1951), wanted White and Thurber to be managing editors--the running joke around the offices was that, at one time, all of Ross' employees were saddled with this job--but both White and Thurber simply wanted to write and so tried valiantly to get fired until Ross realized that this literary duo was much too valuable to waste on management.
Many scholars have suggested that White was the premiere American essayist of the 20th century. You'll get no argument from moi. White used language deftly and skillfully, in ways that most of us writers can only hope to imitate. Of course, we felines can do many things that White, being merely human, could not, but that's only to be expected. I'm fairly sure we bested him on the hairball front alone.
If you have never read any of E. B. White's many essay collections and children's books, you have denied yourself literary greatness. You should immediately visit your local public library and check-out a half-dozen or so of White's works. They are quick reads because White followed Professor Strunk's creed, "Make every word tell." Nothing is surplus in White's prose; every word is meaningfully crafted. It is a genuine pleasure to read what he had to say, if for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of reading something superbly written. His content was worthwhile, too.
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White, was first published in 1970. It was White's third children's novel, following Charlotte's Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945). I could summarize the plot, but, frankly, it would so pale in comparison to White's sparkling words that I would rather not sully this fine story by attempting to reduce it to my descriptive capabilities. Anyway, we just made a book trailer (above) that gives a brief synopsis. For some insightful commentary, read author John Updike's book review in The New York Times (June 28, 1970). There's an online version available, but if I put the hyperlink here (actually, I've placed it below this paragraph), the N.Y. Times website requires you to log-in to see it. But you can circumvent that by simply going to Google and searching John Updike book review trumpet swan White. Your top hit should be the following, which took me straight to the actual article when I clicked it on Google. Try your luck on Google, but remember, it's not my fault if it doesn't work.
If I could write like either E. B. White or James Thurber, I would be a happy cat indeed. I will gladly settle for reading their many wonderful books, essay collections, and other stories. Many great authors make reading fun, but none more so than these two friends who goofed around together in their shared office at The New Yorker.
Telling Some Words Myself, and Making the Most of It,
Cauli Le Chat
MPL Roving Reporter
Children's Fiction News Beat
P.S. As you can see from the "still frame" above, one of our book trailers featuring James Thurber included a photo with E. B. White. If you like White's books, you'll also enjoy Thurber's, and vice versa.