The dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman

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While we're talking about the politics of language peevers, I can't resist sharing with you the opening of Time Magazine's 1946 review of E.B. White's The Wild Flag:

E. B. White plugs federal world government with the dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman. He has the same high purpose, the same rosy vision, the same conviction that all it needs is a try.

I discovered this review when I read White's book, back in 2005, under the mistaken impression that it would turn out to be an exciting war novel.  Rarely has the adage "you can't judge a book by its cover" been so thoroughly validated. Anyhow, that urgent Esperanto saleman got left on the blogging-room floor, so to speak, and I've always meant to find a place to put him.

For a bit more on White's political punditry, see "The blowing of each other up", 2/18/2005. For a more sympathetic appraisal of his world-government ideas, see Charles Poore's review in the New York Times ("Pointers for Statesmen or Skeptics", 11/17/1946):

The Society of Atomic Age Ostriches won't care very much for "The Wild Flag." It brings together the disarming and wonderfully penetrating pieces in behalf of world government that E.B. White has been contributing [..] to the Notes and Comment page of the The New Yorker during the last three or four years. They will distrust its wit and be enraged by its inexorable reasonableness. [...] But all who believe that we don't really need to let life on this earth go into bankruptcy by default will be very happy to have Mr. White's book.

White's case illustrates again the difficulty projecting political views onto a single dimension. I'd classify him as left of center simply on the basis of his tenure at the mid-20th-century New Yorker, even without his world-government advocacy, whether you see it as "dazed urgency" or "inexorable reasonableness".  But in his language peeving, he used the word "liberal" as a negative label for the people that he generically opposed, as in the letter to the publisher of The Elements of Style that I quoted at greater length here:

I was saddened by your letter — the flagging spirit, the moistened finger in the wind, the examination of entrails, and the fear of little men. I don't know whether Macmillan is running scared or not, but I do know that this book is the work of a dead precisionist and a half-dead disciple of his, and that it has got to stay that way. I have been sympathetic all along with your qualms about "The Elements of Style," but I know that I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow. Your letter expresses contempt for this fellow, but on the other hand you seem to want his vote. I am against him, temperamentally and because I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him.

Like many intellectuals, White valued eccentric opinions, as can be seen in the sentence from The Wild Flag that Time uses to end its review:

"Somebody, we thought, should seize the halyard and run up a token banner to symbolize the world community, even if it were only a pair of scanties."


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7 Comments »

  1. SimonMH said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    I tried to follow the link to Charles Poore's review, only to be told that I should have to pay $3.95 for the privilege of reading it. This seems a little steep even in an inflationary age; how much was a copy of the NYT in 1946?

    White was right about world government and wrong about peeving.

  2. peterv said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    Right about World Government, SimonMH? If you dissent from a World Government, just where do you flee to? Mars?

  3. Peter said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Reading back to your 2005 post, with its several excerpts from White’s prose, was an unexpected pleasure: his eccentric, indulgent throwing around of words is a pure joy to read, violating every last maxim of Elements of Style along the way. As you say there,

    …it seems to me that he's a good writer in spite of his own stylistic advice, not because of it.

    It seems to me, though, that this sort of thing — so typical of style mavens — isn’t quite the hypocrisy that it’s sometimes painted as in Language Log. Any good writer is their own most critical editor. The faults you are most aware of are the ones that you yourself are prone to. And so it’s only natural that when writers move into the advice business, they’re often particularly bad offenders against their own precepts.

    Which is also, of course, why the idea of taking such guides as God-given rules — so beloved of disciples, and occasionally of the authors themselves — is such ridiculous tosh. But it doesn’t mean they can’t be good guidelines. “Omit needless words” is good, if you tend to be too wordy. Even “avoid the passive” is a useful reminder for someone who tends to overuse it, as some do.

  4. Geoff Nunberg said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

    The best thing I know of on E. B. White's politics and the style of his essays — and an object lesson in the difficulty Mark mentions of pigeonholing figures in terms of some fixed eternal spectrum of left and right — is Robert Warshow's deliciously devastating takedown "E. B. White and the New Yorker," originally a review of The Wild Flag. It appears in his collection The Immediate Experience, which appeared in 1962, seven years after Warshow's untimely death. It has been republished by Harvard with an epilogue by Stanley Cavell and is happily available at Google Books. It's short and definitely worth reading in its entirety, but has to be understood (as do Macdonald's animadiversions on Webster's Third) in the light of the brow wars of the American left in the fifties — again, these terms, like "prescriptivism" itself, have meaning only relative to a specific historical context. Here are a couple of snippets:

    The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately. The gracelessness of capitalism becomes an entirely external phenomenon, a spectacle that one can observe without being touched — above all, without really feeling threatened. Even one’s own incompetence becomes pleasant: to be baffled by a machine or by a domestic worker or an idea is the badge of membership in the civilized and humane minority.

    After introducing White's essays on world government, Warshow continues:

    Here is a selection of his thoughts: "If the range of our planes continues to increase, the range of our thoughts will have to increase. . . .We propose that it shall shall be the policy of the United States to bring an end to the use of policy. (The italics are Mr White's, indicating that this is an important point.)

    "[Democracy] is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove… It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.
Democracy is the letter to the editor… Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee… "

    "An arresting fact about warfare is that it is now unpopular with the men who are engaged in it and with the people who are supporting it. … And if a thing is unpopular, there is always the amusing possibility that it may not, then, be inevitable."

    "Allied soldiers had a hunch that they disliked the word 'Heil'. They preferred the word 'Hi' — it was shorter."

    "Read the men with the short first names: Walt Whitman, John Donne, Manny Kant, Abe Lincoln, Tom Paine, Al Einstein."

    Warshow concludes:

    The purpose of this writing is not to say anything about democracy or the nature of the war or the possibility of permanent peace, but only to arouse certain familiar responses in the liberal middle-class reader. Thus the word "amusing" appears in a context where it is totally without meaning, but it is a word associated with the New Yorker attitude and by this association it gives a certain modishness to a sentence that has nothing illuminating to say….Again, the sentence about the short first names is literal nonsense, but the liberal middle-class reader can recognize at once that the man who wrote it has the right feelings: anti-discrmination, pro-New Deal… And there is the facetiousness of the `Manny Kant’ and `Al Einstein,’ to keep one from being taken in, even by one’s one side. In this humane and yet knowing atmosphere, history and destruction and one’s own helplessness become small and simple and somehow peaceful, like life back home on the farm: the short first names, the mustard on the hot dog, the hunch about the nature of fascism, the simple and clear relationships between the range of our planes and the range of our thoughts, between the little word "Heil" and the little word "Hi."…History may kill you, it is true, but you have taken the right attitude, you will have been intelligent and humane and suitably melancholy to the end.

    (Which is not to say that this voice didn't work beautifully in Stuart Little, one of my favorite books. Still.)

  5. ERorie said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    "Any good writer is their own most critical editor." God help us. I understand the problem, but this solution hurts me eyes and ears. I learned to speak English in the 1950s and, even though I have only just begun to uderstand it, old habits die hard.

  6. Ken Brown said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    ERorie , I also learned English in the 1950s and it took me a few moments to realise that you might be complaining about the word "their" in "their … editor". At first sight it looked to me as if you were quoting that sentence to make some other point. I'm afraid years of reading "Language Log" still haven't quite acclimatised me to the way some people claim to dislike that perfectly ordinary bit of the English language!

  7. Neil Blonstein said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Esperanto is a very useful language for cultural interchange and as a step towards learning a third language. I describe in English–at 'Esperanto Friends" some 1000 popular blogs and websites in and about Esperanto.

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