Anti-Strunk-And-White Jihad Language Log has devoted a number of posts to an assault on the admittedly deserving The Elements of Style (see, inter alia, here, here, here, here and ad nauseam -- or rather ad 27 of 'em). In that light, it's a bit surprising that they've overlooked the reflections of Roger Angell, in the current New Yorker (linked recently by AL Daily). E. B. White was his stepfather, and he has some interesting things to say about Strunk and White's manual:
Clarity is the message of “The Elements of Style,” the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers—the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian—through the whichy thicket. “Write in a way that comes naturally,” it pleads. “Do not explain too much.” Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer’s life.
Angell's interpretation of the book is interesting, suggesting that the goal of The Elements of Style isn't to lay down universal rules, but to persuade people to write like E. B. White. This accords pretty well with Geoff Pullum's view, based purely on a statistical reading of books White grew up with, that White's goal in revising the "Horrid Little Book" was to preserve literature the way he had known it.
The entire article is worth reading, if you can stand repeated observations on the same theme -- that E. B. White knew how he liked things, and was absolutely terrified at the prospect that things might change. A terrible hypochondriac and recluse -- on a generally sympathetic accounting -- he wasn't any more enthusiastic about leaving the house than writing a sentence-initial however. This passage from Angell sums up how deep and disturbing was White's aversion to the passage of time:
Andy also skipped his wife’s private burial in the Brooklin Cemetery, in July, 1977. None of us in the family expected otherwise or held this against him. And when his own memorial came, eight years later, I took the chance to remark, “If Andy White could be with us today he would not be with us today.”
Given that "his wife" is Angell's mother, who he married some 48 years before, and that there is no hint of a loveless marriage, this provides some much-needed context for the dogmatism and exhortatory mood of The Elements of Style. Prof. Pullum excoriates the book like so:
The battle against the less frequent variant was ultimately lost, of course: in The Wall Street Journal by the late 1980s, despite the influence of the Horrid Little Book on journalists, we get about 60 second-position to 40 first-position occurrences of however. But it was a quixotic battle about nothing of any consequence — two men's desire for an utterly unimportant minor statistical detail of style concerning adverb placement in the literature they knew to stay like they once were. They had an option that most of us don't have: they could include a dogmatic injunction in a published work on how to write, a work that happened to turn into a bestseller. But it still didn't work. And they could just as well have included the opposite prescription, and perhaps have biased things the other way. This isn't about English grammar or about good writing style. It's about orneriness and crotchetiness and the petty conservativism of people who regard themselves as guardians of some sort of literary establishment but haven't really got a very good eye for syntactic generalizations.
He's right -- it's not really about grammar or style -- but the diagnosis of White's heart is off. It's not so much that E. B. White saw himself as "guardian of some sort of literary establishment"; rather, it was the book White had to write, a tragically vain effort to hold back something, anything from becoming other than he had known it.