The Grammarian and His Teacher
Originally published in Op-Ed Magazine’s January 2008 “Licentious” issue
If genuine, the recent discovery of a series of letters written by the early 20th century academic William Strunk, Jr., provides an intimate glimpse into the passions and the peccadilloes of a man whose life itself has hitherto been seen as a reflection of the austere and unimaginative writing style he still represents.
Strunk first published The Elements of Style for his students at Cornell University in 1918. After his death, his edition was edited and updated by his former student E.B. White, and published in 1959 as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Several editions later, this slim tome remains the severe school marm of disapproval most responsible for the stilted writing style employed by the best and brightest pupils at the most prestigious universities in the United States. In the form of this book, Professor Strunk still tarries many a late night at the bedside of young women and men in college dorms across the country.
The series of letters is said to have been written by Strunk to a student of his, Dorothy L. Dalrymple, from October 1923 through May 1924. No copies of letters written by Miss Dalrymple to Professor Strunk are known to have survived. Miss Dalrymple would have been twenty-two years old at the time of the first letter, while Professor Strunk was 54 and a married father of three children. His reputation for a sort of Calvinistic moral propriety–particularly in his relationships with the increasing numbers of female students at Cornell–was beyond reproach.
While some scholars have accepted the letters as genuine, others dismiss them as a hoax. At least one researcher who has examined the collection feels that the Englishman Henry Watson Fowler, who published the first edition of his Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1926, is responsible for the forgery. Others point out that some of the letters appear to be written with a type of felt-tipped pen that would not have been available earlier than the 1970s. This would of course rule out either man.
What follows is a short selection of the purported correspondence. The first two notes are typewritten on Cornell University letterhead. Subsequent notes are handwritten on plain, quarto-sized paper.
October 21, 1923
The low mark for your essay “Surging tides and swelling seas: Water as metaphor in the writings of Charles Dickens” is almost entirely owing to your failure to grasp the rudiments of simple sentence structure. Your somewhat haphazard application of punctuation is not a plus. The content of the essay itself, however, is quite astonishing and not without a certain youthful vigor. I would be happy to discuss it with you. Ask my assistant to arrange for you an audience with me in my chambers.
Professor William Strunk, Jr.
Just eight days later, the notoriously reticent Professor Strunk is clearly intrigued by his pupil.
October 29, 1923
I think I can say that our meeting was quite productive. I am convinced of your great potential, and look forward to lending to you what assistance I can. Do not hesitate to call on me at any time that shall be convenient for you. Upon my explicit direction, my assistant will not fail to make every accommodation necessary to grant you access to my chambers.
The access promised to Miss Dalrymple was a dramatic departure for the famously rigid and unaccommodating professor, and only one day after this second note, Miss Dalrymple seems to have taken the Professor up on his offer. He is extraordinarily affected. If indeed this note is genuine, this is the first known specimen of a handwritten communication from Professor Strunk to one of his pupils.
October 30, 1923
You have a charming talent which is beyond my power to express. Closer examination of your writings, in your sweet company, has left me in a state of breathless anticipation of our next collaboration. Call on me soon. I kiss your hand.
Yours very cordially,
Phrases such as “breathless anticipation” and “I kiss your hand” would have amazed the staid professor’s students. His wife also, perhaps, would have been surprised. But evidence of a much more intense relationship with Miss Dalrymple, and a corresponding linguistic and grammatical freedom were soon to erupt from the pen of Professor Strunk.
An undated note, which was likely written less than a month later, shows the besotted professor already equating personal and grammatical freedom.
[ November 1923 ? ]
What care we for propriety? You have taught me that to dangle, whether a preposition or a desiring glance, is not to be thought basely upon. That your mind itself conceives it is sufficient–nay more than so–to overcome any objections to a loosely constructed paragraph or such a one that joins in union two seeming disparate thoughts. If I think now of your white throat, why should I disdain to mention it? Even when my next thought must revert to a sentence related to my thesis. If one exists.
You bruise my head, I lick your heel.
Ever your doting mentor,
Though Professor Strunk long professed a love for poetry and edited editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems for his students, he himself has not been known to have practiced it. Moreover, he was publicly very critical and dismissive of free verse. If these writings to Miss Dalrymple are his, however, he was an enthusiastic if closeted dabbler in some of the freest of free verse. He throws all strictures out of the window.
In this example, he celebrates his liberation:
[ February 1924 ? ]
No matter if
A rhyme without meter, or a meter without rhyme
Neither a cadence, nor a beat
We’ll not count feet
Verse doth only exist to express
Only to express
A foot sleeved in silk
A calf milky white
The bend of a knee
An up-welling of breath
Time creates meter and mind giveth rhyme
As if matter not
Reams of this increasingly experimental verse make up a large part of this correspondence with his “Dearest Dot” over the next few months. Some of it directly confronted the strict grammarian that he continued to cultivate as his public persona. Many combined sexual and grammatical imagery in odd and awkward ways. One example is entitled “A river of commas.”
[ April 1924 ? ]
A river of commas
A comma, here’s one: ,
A swollen head, a fading tail
Like a slight swimmer in a peculiar river
A loaded traveler,
Thrown off to seek
In heat, seeking
A receptive dot to swallow him
To subsume him
A comma, pausing,
And again, a pause,
Before a full stop
La petit morte
In the womb, of the dot: .
We don’t know what Miss Dalrymple made of his versifying. The above examples, incredibly, are possibly the best of the lot. Perhaps she was not impressed, for the relationship would soon come to an end.
In the last letter in the series, the relationship between teacher and pupil has changed. Dorothy has grown aloof. Professor Strunk speaks of her “absence” and pleads with her to “teach him again.” That this letter is the first to be typewritten since his communication with Miss Dalrymple grew personal seems to signal that he has accepted that this affair of the pen has run its course.
May 16, 1924
Your petticoat floats across campus. I watch it through my foggy window as you pass. How I long to live within it. To stand under it as under a tent. A dutch oven to warm me with the fragrance of your toasty loaves. Your water to wash over me (like the waves and the tide you described to me so long ago in my chamber (our former temple (reverse in runs mind my))). (Parenthetically, am I carried away?)
I quote you now to my youngest students, though they know it not. Sometimes I wickedly use as an example to be shunned a most delicate writing of yours. Publicly, I abhor it. Privately, I hold it to my breast. And I hold it not to my breast only. A writing, it is, about which I would roar at my charges. But in you, my lovely line of prose, it reaches me and pulls out my will. Lifts me, as of old in our temple. A former student of mine–a rare one, Elwyn Brooks White, the undergraduates called him Andy, he writes small pieces for the city’s new literary magazine and signs them “EBW”–will shine very brightly one day. He sometimes catches me in small grammatical improprieties. He upbraids me–his “touchstone of right style”–for these small “gaffs” (see there! I just made one, but I shall let it stand). He, always wont to push at my prescriptions, now is pupil turned teacher. Always he does urge a wider dissemination of my modest handbook. I think of him ironically sometimes when I write to you and give full rein to my words and constructions.
You are my true pupil-turned-teacher. Your absence leaves an unbridgeable ellipsis in my life. I’m left dangling. Fragmentary. I am disagreeable; I do not agree with myself. A violation of the rules. Come teach me again.
I kiss your […]
Questions will remain unanswered even if this series of writings is ultimately accepted to be genuine. Was this an affair of the pen only? Did Dorothy Dalrymple return Professor Strunk’s enthusiasms? Her writings to him–if she wrote any–might answer this question. But there is no evidence that she did. None of his notes or poems refer to anything personal that she has written to him. They refer sometimes to her writings, but these writings seem to be only the essays and papers that she was assigned to write in the course of her academic studies.
In fact, while the writings of other students (including E.B. White) have been found among William Strunk’s papers, nothing by Miss Dalrymple has been identified. She remains a cipher. Was it her creativity or her beauty that taught Professor Strunk to write “outside the lines” as he put it in one of his letters? A little of both, perhaps? Somehow, anyway, the pupil managed to teach the instructor to explore another side of his severe and structured self.
Unless, that is (and if we can discount the supposed evidence of the felt pen), an English grammarian and schoolmaster, born in the reign of Queen Victoria and more severe and unbending even than William Strunk Jr., manufactured a Fowl and untrue slander to discredit a rival. We may never know the truth.