E.B. White, William Strunk, and Charlotte, December 20, 2003

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Celebration of January 2004 Graduates

December 20, 2003

Barton Hall

During your time on the Hill you have acquired a set of experiential and cultural references that in part define who you are, and that connect you with others who share that vocabulary, even if they were at Cornell decades before you, or decades after.

But the connection goes much deeper than a shared set of rituals and landmarks.  For your identity as Cornellians means that you share certain intellectual values, and certain ideals.

I want to take a few minutes this morning to talk about two of those qualities.  The first quality is a reverence for the well-chosen phrase.  The second is a commitment to the well-being of others.

Reverence for the well-chosen phrase.  Part of what distinguishes Cornell from other universities is its exceptional breadth.  We Cornellians are poets and programmers, mathematicians and veterinarians, artists and engineers.  But no matter whether we are destined to make our careers with numbers or drawings or by performing open heart surgery, we all revere the well-chosen phrase.

When it was announced that I would become Cornell’s President, two friends of mine gave me a book.  I had read the book before, but I did not own it, and I was grateful for the gift.

The book is a collection of essays by a former editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun, E.B. White.  It is called, “Essays of E.B. White,” and you should all own copies.  If the Campus Store runs out, you can order it from Amazon.com.  

After graduating from Cornell, White went on to a career as a writer at the New Yorker that brought him recognition as perhaps the greatest essayist of the twentieth century.  The essays in this book span topics as diverse as farm life, New York City, railroads, and pollution.  But three of the best essays come near the end.  Each is a testament to a writer.  The first is to Mark Twain.  The second is to Don Marquis, the creator of Archy and Mehitabel.   And the third is to Will Strunk, E.B. White’s English professor at Cornell.

After writing the essay about Strunk, White was asked to revise and amplify his old teacher’s little book, The Elements of Style, which had gone out of print.  He did so, and the book became a best seller, the book you know as “Strunk and White.”  But it was this essay, published in the New Yorker, that kept the “little book” from vanishing into history.

The essay is about the book, and about Strunk.  And I want to read a couple of paragraphs to you because they have much to teach us about White’s approach to writing and to people.   After explaining to readers of his essay just how Strunk went about structuring the book, White continues:

“From every line [in the book] there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro in a carefully edged mustache.

“’Omit needless words!’ cries the author on page 21, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.  In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself, a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick:  he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice said, ‘Rule Thirteen.  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!’”

White’s portrait of Strunk in this paragraph is vivid, entertaining, and loving.   Each phrase is well chosen.  

We know that White labored over every word, every metaphor, in order to be sure that he caught his reader just so.  And when we read it, we smile and we admire, we understand White’s message and we appreciate the craft with which he delivered it.

When Professor Strunk wrote his book in 1918, it was not easy to write carefully.  It was psychologically demanding to keep revising, to keep laboring over a phrase until it was right.  When E.B. White wrote his essay in 1957, it was every bit as difficult to choose a phrase well.

But I would submit that today, for you, our January 2004 graduates, it is harder still.  We live in the miraculous age of text messaging on our phones and instant messaging on our computers.  And when we know that someone on the other end is waiting to read what we type, we experience an unprecedented pressure to write quickly.  Better to type fast than to write well.  If you have to say good-bye, type “gtg” and quit.  It would be rude to make your friend hang around and wait while you try to come up with some clever, original sign-off.

But here’s the problem.  As Cornellians, as the great-great-great-grand-students of Will Strunk, we all hear an inner voice saying, “Whenever you write, do the work.  Revere the well-chosen phrase.”  But that doesn’t work for IM.

So here’s what we must not do.  We must not allow the pressures of an IM world to corrupt our innermost values.  We must tell ourselves that the kind of writing that we do on IM and text messaging isn’t real writing.  It’s OK for it to be boring and unimaginative.  It’s like a phone call.  It’s meeting a different need.

But when we do any other kind of writing, any kind of writing where the reader isn’t sitting on the other end waiting for us to hit “send,” then the old Strunk and White rules must kick in.  We must do the work.  We must revere the well-chosen phrase.  We must revere the well-chosen phrase.  We must revere the well-chosen phrase.

The second quality I will discuss this morning is reverence for the well-being of others.  It is always somewhat risky to try to speak about this subject before a large audience.  As the Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff accurately observed in his classic little book, The Needs of Strangers, our ordinary language feels frustratingly weak whenever we try to talk about such topics.  

Ignatieff wrote, “Words like fraternity, belonging, and community are so soaked with nostalgia and utopianism that they are nearly useless as guides to the real possibilities of solidarity in modern society.”  Yet we all know that, even in modern society, those words point towards an underlying truth:  we can and do take a special pleasure in our solidarity with others, with feeling personally responsible for other individual members of the community and for the community as a whole.

During your time as Cornell students, you may have come to appreciate that truth in the form of an analytical insight when, sitting in a microeconomics class, you noted the fallacy of assuming that people’s utility functions are independent from one another.  Or you may have come to appreciate it in the form of an experience, through a public service activity in Tompkins County.  Or even more likely, you came to appreciate it during one of those distinctively collegiate moments when you were able to be a true friend to a fellow student who needed you.

The point is this.  Whenever that moment of appreciation came, it was as important to your Cornell education as anything you learned about writing from a first-year seminar teacher or a dissertation advisor.

To link these two ideas together – reverence for the well-chosen phrase and solidarity with other people – we can return one last time to E.B. White.  White died in 1985, just before the genomics revolution revealed how much we can learn about human beings through the study of animals like rats, pigs, and spiders.  And yet in a sense he was able to anticipate that development 50 years ago in his greatest book, a book about people, and a rat and a pig and a spider, Charlotte’s Web.  

The last two sentences of Charlotte’s Web are poignant and they are lovely.  They read, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.”

January 2004 graduates of Cornell, you are about to embark on lives of service to a society that desperately needs you.  As you go, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:

May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.

May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.

May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.

May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.

May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, and arrogant.

May you omit all needless words.

May you know enough bad weather that you never take sunshine for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.

May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.

May you frequently travel beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, the better to appreciate the miraculous diversity of life.

And may your steps lead you often back to Ithaca.  Back to East Hill.  For you will always be Cornellians.  And we will always be happy to welcome you home.