Page 2 of 3

Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down

To a neighborly inquiry, yes, we saw the vicious attack on the venerable E. B. White, first in the Chronicle, then, with several bystanders jumping on for a kick or two, in the Times. We first became aware of Pullum at Emdashes, where, we thought, Martin Schneider – omitting needless words – handled the matter clearly and concisely and to a close, but we like following links, so from Emdashes, we followed a link to Levi Stahl’s discussion; without explaining too much, he dismisses the academic Pullum to move on to a more tasteful topic, E. B. White’s letters.

We are aware of the shortcomings of Elements, having on our own often tried to tackle the issue of what’s correct when. Pullum posts his own follow-up, fed up with the commenters (we have added his blog to our feeds). In his follow-up, he heads off going to his book, but it seems fair to ask if not White then what. Pullum’s book is a descriptive grammar, so it “…will not…make recommendations about how you should speak or write” (p. 3). It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are disagreements and conflicting opinions. For example, and as we’ve pointed out, White said to write with nouns and verbs; Erskine said to write with modifiers. Of course, the answer is to write with words, and good luck choosing the right ones, putting them in the right order, and separating them with the right punctuation.

In the June 28, 2004 New Yorker, we enjoyed Menand’s dissing of Truss, and he helps explain why we prefer White to the standard grammar text. Menand (like White before him) writes as a generalist, not a specialist. Menand argues, and we agree, and we think that White also agreed, that the rules don’t really have much to do with effective writing. If they did, most academic writing would not be nearly so anemic. Pullum complains in his Chronicle piece that “Some of the recommendations are vapid, like ‘Be clear’ (how could one disagree?).” Yet much academic writing would improve if the writer would only make some attempt at following this obvious, White tenet. In Menand’s piece, titled “Bad Comma,” he has something more to say than corrections of Truss. We don’t find that Pullum has much more to say, at least not on the evidence of the two pieces we see here.

We’ll ask White to help us with a close, from the March 4, 1944, New Yorker: “A good deal depends on the aims of a publication. The more devious the motives of his employer, the more difficult for a writer to write as he pleases. As far as we have been able to discover, the keepers of this house have two aims: the first is to make money, the second is to make sense”; two aims that academic writers are not usually saddled with. 

None of which directly answers Pullum’s argument. Pullum has two points: one, that Elements is flawed; two, that the flaws have afflicted generations of students who as a result of their immersion in Elements cannot now write. Pullum provides support for his first point; his second is insupportable. There might be scores of students unable to write, but it doesn’t follow that it’s the fault of Elements. But what about our point that the argument is somehow embroiled in academic versus commercial ends, that Pullum’s secret thesis is the advancement of the purpose of his text – a poor advertisement if he wants to compete with the incredible ethos surrounding White, an ethos based not on Elements, but on his actual writing success. That point is irrelevant to Pullum’s argument. But we have two claims too: first, students can’t write because they’ve been taught writing from grammar handbooks and textbooks, wrong from the start; second, that the textbooks are unnecessarily academic and rarely involve the kinds of reading experience necessary for students to improve their writing skills (the textbook industry’s commercial success is driven in large part from forced new editions, captive student readers, and exorbitant pricing). 

At the same time, there are academic efforts that have made both money and sense: for example, Zinsser’s On Writing Well; Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams (whose “The Phenomenology of Error” is must reading for anyone seriously interested in this argument); and Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, by Francis Christensen. We never said Elements was the only book to read, just that it is a worthwhile book to read and carry. And we are grateful to Mr. Pullum for updating its errors – his analysis will add fuel to the discussion of the choices suggested in Elements.

Distance of First Person Plural

For some time we’ve been thinking of addressing the blog’s use of the first person plural. Are we a group blog, or command central for some multiple personality? Are we looking for safety in number?

At St. Anthony’s in the early sixties we lined up outdoors in front of our classrooms following recess, shortest in the front to tallest in the rear, boys stage left, girls stage right. Reverend Mother called out “Distance: 1, 2, 3.” On 1, we placed our left hand, extending our arm, on the left shoulder of the student in front of us; on 2, we extended our right arm, the line pressing backward and up the hill as we distanced ourselves from each other, so the tallest in the back became taller still, and a kind of order overcame and stilled the playground. The unruly mob dissipated; the shouts on the street diminished. And on 3 we dropped our arms to our sides and stood silently at attention, individuals now, each responsible for I. We disappeared from view. Deviations deserved detention; no one wanted to be a you. All was still, until a whistle blew, and we marched into the classrooms.

Readers familiar with The New Yorker may recall the editorial “we” of the early “Notes and Comment” section of that magazine, to which E. B. White often contributed, writing, against his intuition, in the first person plural, the required editorial voice of the section. White apparently thought the practice silly; nevertheless, we recommend you try writing in the first person plural as a writing exercise.

You might enjoy the distance of the joke, a kind of detachment that comes from not taking yourself too seriously, though some suggest that’s just non-committal. You can get trapped in we, and that’s not good. But losing yourself in we might make for a good writing experience, might even improve your writing. The assumption that most academic writing of course should stay out of it altogether, whence the “one” of the formal academic style, as in “one wonders what this is all about,” ignores the results – often directionless and unfriendly prose. One wonders who this one is too, and if there might be a more clear and concise way to identify oneself and one’s view. It’s a question of distance.

E. B. White and the plumber

By the NoseIn December of 1930, E. B. White wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the garbageman. “They have the town by the tail and they know it,” White concluded, after a brief study of the can collector’s habits. We like to watch the trashman too, the descendants of White’s subjects, wrestling now with new regulations, recycling, knowledge of toxic waste, but still masters of noise and dust, their barking trucks heard for blocks, avalanches of glass announcing last call for trash. But while today’s garbageman may still have the city by the tail, surely it’s the plumber has it by the nose.

 

My father was a plumber, and asked us to join him in the trade; shucks, I wanted to continue school. But I worked with him summers and accompanied him on enough evening calls to achieve a kind of apprentice status. A neighbor would knock, a friend would call, a parishioner, a friend of a friend – a brief diagnosis on the phone and I was told which tools to grab from the garage and we were off, a doctor making a house call. Dad almost never accepted money for these evening jobs. He would accept a beer, sit, and talk.

 

No job was too awful, foul, or hard. With his bare hands he swept away monstrous crawl space spiders, reached into cold plugged up toilet bowls, chiseled oakum into cast iron joints – which I sometimes got to pour the molten lead into with the long handled ladle from the boiling pot. Our antagonists were usually stripped threads, worn washers, busted pipes, and all manner of backened slop. Dad did not relish repair work; by day he was a new construction plumber, working with new parts, not used. What he did relish was the opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people. He was the James Joyce of the plumbing trade. He could talk to anyone, for he had them, and he knew it, by the nose.

 

Time passing and enter George, the veteran plumber we now call when wet to the knees and elbows but I still can’t fix it. We called George recently to help us with a pipe cracked during the big freeze and snows. After the job we sat with George in the living room; he did most of the talking, and we listened. Before the pipe broke, I had been reading E. B. White, but after George left, I let E. B. sit, and I paused to think of my father, the plumber, and my decision to continue school.

A word of one’s own

faculty-photo-1976Comfortably ensconced in our reading lair, hidden behind the arras of the Dec. 8 New Yorker, perusing the cartoons, time passing easily, and find our Eric has been at work on his French, annotating the Mankoff cartoon caption “A la Recherche des Cheveux Perdus” (p. 68) with the translation “Remember Hair Lost.”

What is past is lost, but still we recall – writing is a lure; reading, a way of walking.

Menand, Jan. 5: “Feiffer’s strips are about borrowed ways of talking, about the lack of fit between people and words, about the way that clichés take over” (p. 43).

Blake: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Proverbs of Hell”).

Nabokov: “…minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise” (Lectures on Literature, “Good Writers and Good Readers,” p. 2).

In Nabokov’s teaching copies, his annotations include his own translations; in his copy of  “The Metamorphosis,” for example, he substitutes the Muirs’s “uneasy dreams” with “a troubled dream,” and “a gigantic insect” with “a monstrous insect” (p. 250). Monstrous means marvelous and strange, and Nabokov starts his students off with a different view of Gregor, beginning with Kafka’s first sentence.

Woody Allen: “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick” (Annie Hall).

For Nabokov, reading meant rereading in excruciating detail, never straying from the text, bringing to exact light and color the watermarks of the text, like working a coloring book.

As for the uneasy, or troubled, dreams, Kafka reveals in the second paragraph that “It was no dream.”

But one’s own words? Where does one find them? Sometimes a word of one’s own seems no more possible than a room of one’s own. For some answers, we might turn again to E. B. White’s Elements of Style, where we are warned to “Write in a way that comes naturally”; “Avoid fancy words”; and “Avoid foreign languages” (Chapter V).

As for using words of one’s own to find lost time, Nabokov says: “…to recreate the past something other than the operation of memory must happen: there must be a combination of a present sensation (especially taste, smell, touch, sound) with a recollection, a remembrance, of the sensuous past” (p. 249). It took Proust 1.5 million words to illustrate that we are “…not free…to choose memories from the past for scrutiny” (Nabokov, p. 248).

Theory of nothing, something, and everything in between

Then we saw Wallace-Wells’s “Surfing the Universe,” in the July 21 issue, and we quickly skipped to this Annals of Science piece; for since seeing the Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin lecture locally, our old curiosity to know if the physicists will ever solve their “Theory of Everything” has been expanding. 

There’s apparently enough string theory going around that if the physicists studying it were Christo they could wrap the universe. We like Lisi’s new idea for a Theory of Everything because while it exposes string theory for the cat’s cradle it is, it also makes use of something called E8, at once suggesting an error on a guitar chart (he must mean E7, or E9 – what’s an E8 shaped like?), and our old drill sergeant at Fort Bliss (an E8), Fall 1969, who also toyed around with a theory of everything.

We had our own theory of everything nearly completed, but it contained no math, actuarially speaking, though it was based on the number system we developed to illuminate the guitar fretboard. Like many of our great ideas, it was written on one of our Joe Mitchell note sheets, got left in a back pocket of a pair of jeans, and went out with the wash.

Criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). In lecture, Laughlin was a card. Expecting a mega-PowerPoint, instead we got cartoons from an overhead. “Just look around you…Even this room is teeming with things we do not understand” (p. 218).

Anyone lucky enough to have surfed, that is, surfed in the water, salt water, in real waves, may not understand physics, but certainly comprehends that, as Laughlin says, “there is much, much more yet to come” (p. 218).

The cover’s title

Both the July 7 & 14 (double issue) and the July 21 issues arrived today. For those curious still about the July 21 cover controversy, already of course fizzling out, Emdashes provides a clearing house. We were still curious only with regard to the cover’s title, having not seen mention of it, and seeing it (“The Politics of Fear”), were reminded of Gary Snyder’s essay touching on the subject in Earth Household (pp. 90-93), written during the Cold War, but still pertinent, but settled, finally, on this to share, which says even more about contemporary politics:

There is a Zen saying that “while studying koans you should not relax even in the bath,” but this one is never heeded. (p. 52)

Leisurely reading habits

A sense of something missed appears during the reading lull of the New Yorker double issues, for they don’t take two weeks to read. This far west, practically in the water, it’s not unusual for the posts to run late, and sometimes not at all, which brings on another sense, of not knowing what day it is, let alone what day to reasonably expect the next issue. And the missing of the weekly post brings an additional reminder of the amicable anticipations that used to accompany the now extinct, longer, serialized stories and articles that used to span several weeks. But it must be admitted, forced to read every page or go hungry, certain valuable discoveries appear, opera reviews, for example. Not that opera has supplanted jazz, but there was no way of knowing how enjoyable “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle” was going to be, or that it would lead, improbably, to “Schultze gets the blues.”

Bereft, then, of fresh cartoons and talks, having wandered and watered the salsa garden, following a spell in the morning shade with a bowl of fresh blueberries and raspberries with a bit of shredded wheat, washed down with a cup of French pressed Roast, we find the musty shelves now press, and out comes, of all things, The Rise of Silas Lapham, which originally appeared, we are reminded by George Arms in his introduction to the Rinehart Edition (intro. copyrighted 1949; the paperback edition n.d.), “serially in the Century Magazine, where, in keeping with the leisurely reading habits of the time, it came out in ten monthly installments (November, 1884, to August, 1885).” Arms said William Dean Howells’s novel was popular on the installment plan, but it apparently lost favor with the critics once published in book form – then, as now, apparently, critics having little affinity for realism. One wonders, though, what it was like to read in that “leisurely reading” time, when, Arms said, “The Bostonians and parts of Huckleberry Finn were serialized in the Century at the same time as The Rise of Silas Lapham.”

Some clues are given, and some similarities between the times grow apparent: “Well,” said Corey, “you architects and the musicians are the true and only artistic creators” (p. 206). And then there’s the matter of the library. “If we have a library, we have got to have books in it. Pen says it’s perfectly ridiculous having one. But papa thinks whatever the architect says is right” (p. 121). 

Our list for today does include a trip to the local library. We’ll probably stop by the new edition of Nick’s after the library. Hopefully, the new New Yorker will come before we head out.

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.

Dancing with really real stars

We went dancing last night, the star we danced with was really real, and we are happy to reply to Joan Acocella that we do have a ballroom in our neighborhood.

How well we danced is another question. Had there been a contest, we certainly would have been among the first dancers cast out. Couples drew complex sentences on the floor, a way of thinking we were unable to follow. Still, we danced some, and enjoyed the live and lively sound of the Pranksters, an 18-piece swing band that filled the stage with horns, rhythm, and vocalists. We had arrived an hour early to take advantage of a dancing class, learning just enough about triple-step swing to watch the dancers with increased interest. Our favorite couple, a lanky fellow and his sparse partner, flitted and flirted about the floor like two mosquitoes bouncing against the ceiling on a sultry night in August; by the end of the evening, a tie of sweat dripped down his shirt.

The crowd was diverse, and though the event was open to all ages, mostly probably older folks, the women with their malmy hair measured, the best men dancers wearing cowboy boots. A few couples entertained with period costume, but no Vegas-wear. A few young couples hopped about unceremoniously, the try-anything-once spirit alive and well. The evening seemed a come as you are and dance how you will affair. We took a few notes, thinking of a post, thinking about the difficulties of both dancing and writing.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.