Strunk and White's Elements of Style, first published in 1959, has now been reissued in a leather-bound, gold-embossed 50th anniversary edition (with testimonials from famous literary figures and an afterword by Charles Osgood of CBS). An AP article by William Kates about the event has been printed in dozens of places; here I'll quote from the version in The Ithaca Journal (hat tip to Marilyn Martin). (Strunk taught at Cornell and White went to college there, so it's no surprise that the Journal has a story. There are stories by other writers in the Cornell Chronicle and the Cornell Daily Sun.)
S&W began life in 1918 as a brief writing guide Strunk wrote for the students in his English composition classes, available from the campus bookstore (now available on-line here), while White's 1959 expansion and revision was more ambitious. S&W rapidly became the premier American guide to grammar and usage, selling more than 10 million copies (in various editions) over the years. The reverence attached to the book has always been something of a mystery to me (and to several other Language Loggers), but there's no denying that many people are passionately attached to it; more on this below.
Strunk's apparently modest ambitions — "This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature. It aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style." (from the introduction) — were allied with the advocacy of a style for all writing (the "plain English style" above) and with an often bald assertion of rules (on however, which has excited so much interest on Language Log: "In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.")
S&W continues most of these features, including the focus on a small number of rules, so it is by no means an encyclopedia of grammar and usage.
Dennis Barron says in the Kates article that Strunk and White's success is the result of an
emphasis on plain style being preferable to more ornate kind of writing. Simple rather than complex. Native rather than foreign. Active rather than passive. Verbal rather than nominal.
Other commenters take the very brevity of S&W (and the 1918 Strunk before it) to be one of its great virtues. Here's high school English teacher Sharon Gross, quoted by Kates:
Strunk's focus on usage and composition in a few concise rules helps the novice writer quickly find a comfort zone with his own writing;
Gross goes on to praise "the clarity and delivery of Strunk's own rules" and to claim that a good writer "still values the elements Strunk introduced in 1918."
A plain style certainly antedates Strunk; you can see it in the writing of Emerson, Lincoln, and Twain, for example. But Strunk might have been an early explicit advocate of the symbolic virtues of the style: "vigor", "strength", "directness", "boldness", "forcefulness", "liveliness", and the like. S&W continued the theme, and I suspect that these symbolic virtues helped make S&W such a success.
Strunk claimed to be merely giving advice to students in composition classes, but what he says frequently sounds like it's supposed to apply to all writing (without regard for the purpose of the writing or the nature of the audience), as in this stern passage:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Kates's piece ends with a now-routine reference to putatively declining writing skills —
Today, with instant and text messaging eroding writing skills, Strunk and White is possibly needed even more.
followed by the quotes from Gross. Sigh.