The power and the Ignominy

Ernest and Elwyn are at it again.

E.B. WHITE ONCE SAID that a writer is "like a bean plant. He has his little day, and then gets stringy." White might have been referring to Ernest Hemingway, as he occasionally did in quite unflattering terms. At any rate, the characterization is a good fit for Hemingway, who had his brief day and declined. Then, long after he got stringy, he wrote True at First Light, published for the first time this summer to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the storyteller who, our English teachers insisted for all those years, changed American writing more than any other person of the 20th century. True at First Light

by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, $26) The Elements of Style

by Strunk and White (Allyn and Bacon, $6.95) This is also the hundredth anniversary of the birth of E.B. White, who may have had a more profound effect on writing, from a much different route, than did Hemingway. In 1955, White revised The Elements of Style by Will Strunk, his favorite professor of English at Cornell. The pocket-sized edition of Strunk and White became the grammar and style book for newsrooms, journalism schools, and literature classes all over the country. White was revered by readers of children's literature for his Charlotte's Web. And he won the Pulitzer prize for his collected essays. But it was Elements of Style that taught two generations of news writers how to say what they have to say. White thus exposed millions of readers and listeners to active verbs and short, direct sentences (although listening to local TV news can make you wonder if the current writers know any elements of any style, much less Strunk and White's). Brief paragraphs packed with strong verbs—those were Hemingway's rules of prose, as they were White's. Yet the two contemporary eminences could hardly have been less alike or liked each other less. In a 1962 letter to novelist John Updike, White says of Hemingway's writing, "a lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse." White detested celebrity. Hemingway reveled in it. While White wrote some of his finest essays anonymously, in the "Talk of the Town" and "News and Comment" sections of The New Yorker, Hemingway became deeply absorbed in promoting his own personal image. In True at First Light, the central character—adventurous, kind, enormously macho—is named Ernest Hemingway. He calls this a "fictional memoir," and gives himself heroic deeds and wise pronouncements. As the fictional Ernest Hemingway, he also patronizes his wife, Mary, and beds a young Kamba woman who adores him. Outwitting the murderous Mau Mau (this is the mid-1950s), Hemingway and Mary roam about the plains of Kenya in pursuit of a great black-maned lion that Mary is for some reason obliged to kill, although she lacks the shooting skill and the masculinity to bring it off the way he wants her to. Had Hemingway stayed around to fix the manuscript, this might have been a useful book about the ruination of wild Africa by people like himself. But he didn't. As it stands, in the original Hemingway, its publication represents an act of foolish courage on the part of his heirs. Maybe they meant it as a lesson in the nature of celebrity: Here is Papa with his destructive ego and used-up DURING HEMINGWAY'S heyday, White was writing some of the best essays in American letters. But while Hemingway was stoking his own fame, White was "sorry and sore" that Harper's, his publisher, had bought advertising space to promote White's work. "I have noticed that it is the advertised authors that stink," he wrote. "I am pretty sure that I am going to stink from now on." Both White and Hemingway were newspaper writers early in life. Hemingway worked at the craft for years, filing vivid, literary reports from the Spanish Civil War. White's newspaper career was brief, local, and not very successful. He wrote a column for The Seattle Times for about a year; it ran in the back of the paper with the classifieds. In 1922 White wrote his girlfriend back in New York that the Times was "very highbrow, very conservative, very rich, and entirely unreadable." Times managers fired him in 1923, and he didn't blame them. "As a newspaper reporter I was almost useless," he said. But a few years later he would set the quietly humorous tone of the New Yorker and continue to do so for much of the magazine's long prime. Publisher Allyn and Bacon has issued a new edition of The Elements of Style to commemorate White's century year. It has been modernized somewhat to include such terms as psyched, nerd, dude, and funky, and to offer new solutions to gender dilemmas. Otherwise it's the same strict but humorous rule book that has, as White had hoped, helped thousands of us out of the grammatical quicksand and onto solid footing for the past 44 years. You could also honor E.B. White's 100th year and test the freshness of his wisdom by reading an essay called "Bedfellows" (Essays of E.B. White, Harper's, 1977). It is a timeless caution from 1956 against mixing religion and politics—an antidote for the poisonous piety of the current US Congress.

 
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