On April 16, we mark the 53rd anniversary of the publication of William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White's The Elements of Style--truly the classiest of forays into the nays and naughts, and ayes and oughts of grammar.
I have a long affinity with these funny savvy men, and I have to throw James Thurber in with the lot, because his own collaboration with White, Is Sex Necessary (written in 1929, but feels more midcentury) surely deserves to be quoted one day on a show oft-cited in these pages, namely AMC's Mad Men. (Check out Is Sex Necessary, if you haven't already read it...it will forever affect how you think of bluebirds, lampshades, and feminism).
My favorite moment in The Elements of Style, however, does not take place in a lampshade, but rather on some sort of sunny April day, I like to imagine, much like today, on a sidewalk or on a beach.
Here they are, Messieurs Strunk and White, on the difference between "will" and "shall":
"A swimmer in distress cries, 'I shall drown; no one will save me!' " But a suicide says, "I will drown; no one shall save me!"
The item is naughty, or was to sixteen-year-old me, who first read it over lunch hour on the floor of the Beverly Hills High School library. To be so glib, so smug, so wry about something important and dark--how perfect for an adolescent. And this was Strunk and White--clearly high-school English-teacher-sanctioned naughtiness too!
These lines always remind me of Stevie Smith's chilling 1957 foray into similar water:
Not Waving But Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought And not waving but drowning. Poor chap, he always loved larking And now he's dead It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, They said. Oh, no no no, it was too cold always (Still the dead one lay moaning) I was much too far out all my life And not waving but drowning.
It's the best weather of the season here in Pasadena, California today. The warm, breezy bathwater kind of day that makes a person think of the beaches and bellyaches of youth--when the breeze cut the cheek with a kind of salt, and the tide dashed in and out, and the tiny body was too small still for sweat, the water temperature perfect, or cold in that all-alive way, and some home base of towels and shade and popsicles to return to, to be wrapped up and plopped flat in, and....well, that's the kind of day it is. And it's spring break--the very last day of spring break--too!
Call it a writer's temperament, but in spite of the weather, or because of it, I'm peckish and morose. And so I found myself this morning hunting down old judgmental and funny Strunk and White for my favorite beach-themed quote.