Posts Tagged 'The New Yorker'

The Living Language

On a recent visit to Bryn Mawr Book Store, my neighborhood’s pre-owned book shop (may it never lose its lease or its charmingly fusty decor!), I came across a gently worn hardcover edition of E. B. White’s Writings from The New Yorker (1927-1976).

It only took me a few flips through its pages to land on piece called “The Living Language,” published in the February 23, 1957, issue of the magazine, which recounts the era’s heated debate over standards for usage and cites the ungrammatical Winston ad (mentioned in my last post) as evidence of Madison Avenue’s marketing ploy to butcher the language to bring home the bacon. (I doubt such a strategy would raise any eyebrows today, the standards of popular usage having fallen so far and so low.)

EBW describes the thin line he and his fellow editors must walk to keep peace between a handful of sober grammarians” and “an army of high-spirited writers” and states that he seen firsthand “the nasty chop that is kicked up when the tide of established usage runs against the winds of creation.” Toeing the editorial party line he writes,

Through the turmoil and the whirling waters we have reached a couple of opinions of our own about the language. One is that a school child should be taught grammar — for the same reason a medical student should be taught anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and write any damn way he pleases.

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In Appreciation of John Updike

In hearing the sad news of John Updike’s passing this week I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that E. B. and Katharine White were among his earliest fans and that, likewise, Updike was an admirer of EBW’s.

In a January 1962 letter to Updike, EBW wrote:

I would rather read an unwritten novel by you than a written one by almost anyone else. The piece in this issue is wonderfully moving, moved me wonderfully, is almost unbelievably good, except I believe it….I keep trying to discover what it is (what mysterious thing) that elevates writing to the level where combustion takes place, and I guess it it is simply that in writing there has to be an escape of gases or vapors from the center — Core Gas, that is. And even this explanation is unreliable, because God knows there was always a lot of gas escaping from Hemingway but a lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse.

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Would E. B. White Have Blogged?

Unquestionably, yes. I am certain that if EBW were beginning his career as a writer today instead of in the mid-1920s, he would have become one of the English language’s most adept and respected bloggers. He lived to see himself acclaimed as one of the last century’s great literary voices, but he recognized that his favorite genre, the essay, made him as “a second-class citizen” among writers. What a pity that he did not live to see blogging re-invent the essay and find it more practitioners and broader audiences! Read how he describes the “essayist,” in the foreword to his 1977 collected essays, and substitute “blogger:”

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.

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Salutations!

E.B. White with his dog in the late 1940s (photo from NYT, 10/2/85)

E.B. White with his dog in the late 1940s (photo from NYT, 10/2/85)

I first fell in love with E.B. White’s books as a small child reading Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Later I grew to appreciate his writing for adults in The New Yorker. 

More recently, while boxing up my late mother’s books to donate to her local library, I found a hardcover copy of White’s collected essays, inscribed by me “Christmas 1977,” the year of its publication. I brought the book home, and leafing through it, I discovered that Mom had saved a newspaper clipping of his obituary between its pages. (White died Oct. 1, 1985, at age 86.) Re-reading the essays has reminded me how deeply I admire White, not only for the elegance of his prose and his dry wit, but for the timeless wisdom of his observations about daily life, animals and politics.

“Salutations!” is how Charlotte first greeted Wilbur, and so I dedicate this blog to E. B. White, whose way with words continues to impress and inspire me.


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