Monday, November 24, 2014

The Early Editions
The Elements of Style

If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
                                                                              Toni Morrison

 Did you know that one of the best little books on writing has one of the worst bibliographic records?  I am referring to the pre-1959 editions of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.

Pre-1959 Editions in My Elements of Style Collection
top row:  1921 (four copies) 1919 (one copy)
bottom row:  1934 (three copies) 1936 (one copy) c1940s (two copies)
Note:  I'm still lacking the 1918 and 1920 editions.

On my Biblio Researching blog, in September 2009, I posted  A Correction to the Copyright and Bibliographic Records of The Elements of Style .   And the Library of Congress corrected its bibliographic records that very month.  A worn or broken typeface had made a poor impression of the middle initial of the publisher, W. F. Humphrey, on the copyright page of the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style.  Consequently, W. P Humphrey received credit as the publisher of the 1918 and 1919 editions  of The Elements of Style on the copyright and bibliographic records of the Library of Congress.

And now, five years later, there are several prestigious websites and libraries whose bibliographic records still identify W. P. Humphrey as the publisher of the first and second editions of The Elements of Style.   Moreover, numerous sources cite an incorrect publication date of the last edition published during Strunk's lifetime, The Thrift Press Edition.  As one bookseller on Abebooks  recently put it, "some sources say 1958, some say 1940s."  Another source cites 1918, while still another cites "1937 or after."

I am one of the sources that cite the 1940s. And I went even further in my April 2010 Biblio Researching blog post, "Stylized and the Forgotten Edition of The Elements of Style."  I cited 1943 as the date of publication.  I even stated that Strunk himself may have updated the list of recommended references, and replaced some of the words in the list of words often misspelled.

"Stylized and the Forgotten Edition of The Elements of Style" was more a rant than a review of Mark Garvey's book,  Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.  In retrospect, I would recommend his book if all you were interested in was E. B. White's 1959 edition.  But I wanted to read a book about the history of The Elements of Style, which included an obsessive history of the pre-1959 editions.  That book has yet to be written.  So I will write it myself.  And it will be published in 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of Strunk's little book, The Elements of Style.

But before I do that, I need to pin down the  publication date of The Thrift Press edition.  I call this edition, "The Forgotten Edition," because Mark Garvey never mentioned it in his book.  Moreover, The Thrift Press edition is not listed in the bibliographic records of the Library of Congress; nor is it listed in the Catalog of Copyright Entries.

I have spent the last few weeks researching.  I scoured the web,  queried libraries, historical societies, and online mailing lists, seeking the location of the archives of The Thrift Press.   I identified the founder of The Thrift Press: Professor Jacob Hieble (1902-1995).  I can tell you where and what he taught, what other books he published, and where he lived after he retired.  What I can't tell you is what he did with the archives of The Thrift Press.  At least not yet.  But I'm still researching.

I can tell you that The Thrift Press edition of The Elements of Style is mentioned on page 348 of the Feb. 1958 issue of the Cornell Alumni News:

Perhaps this is where the sources citing 1958 got their date.   While E. B. White was busy writing his 1959 edition of The Elements of Style, The Thrift Press was printing and selling numerous copies of an updated reprint of The Elements of Style in 1958.  But was 1958 the year The Thrift Press edition was first printed?

To answer that question,  I refer to one word on the title page of The Thrift Press edition:

And that word is Emeritus:  

William Strunk, Jr.
Professor of English, Emeritus
Cornell University

New Oxford American Dictionary

William Strunk retired in 1937.  He died in 1946.   The word, Emeritus, denotes that William Strunk was retired, but was still alive when The Thrift Press edition was first published.  It was first printed after 1936 but before 1947.

I bought my first copy of The Thrift Press edition on eBay in 2001.  And I wrote about the purchase on an old webtv website, which I managed to resurrect on

In the eBay listing, the seller, Wendell Smith, wrote, "This copy I am listing was assigned to me at Cornell in the early 1940s."

If I could verify his statement, I would have added proof that The Thrift Press edition was published in the 1940s.

So I googled "Wendell Smith" "Cornell" and "Alumni."

And I received about 4,890 results. . . .

But I got lucky on the first result!

The link led to the May 1963 issue of the Cornell Alumni News, where I performed a search of "Wendell Smith."

And I found out where this Wendell Smith lived in 1963:

Next, I googled "Wendell Smith" "Rock Harbor Rd" and "Cornell."  And this led me to an interesting blog post.  A son posted an interview of his father and mother, which he had recorded while his father was still alive.  The son was the writer, Dell Smith.  And his parents were Wendell and Muriel Smith.

The blog itself will will be one of the blogs I'll feature on my Biblio-Connecting blog post for December 2014.

But here is the part of the interview pertaining to Wendell Smith's time at Cornell:

Further in the interview,  Wendell Smith revealed that he was a writer and a bookseller for the better part of his life, and that he sold "special books" on eBay.  His wife and his children are writers as well.

I contacted Dell Smith and asked him to verify his father's signature on the title page of my copy of the book.  Dell Smith verified that it is his father's signature!

I still have more researching to do.  But I can safely rule out that The Thrift Press edition was published in 1958.  The latest Wendell Smith's copy could have been published is 1948, the year he graduated at Cornell.  Wendell wrote that the book was assigned to him at Cornell in the early 1940s.  He could have acquired the book in 1941 or 1942 before he went into the Army.  And that would eliminate my theory that William Strunk had The Thrift Press edition published in 1943.  Or would it?  In Mark Garvey's Stylized book, he notes that E. B. White took Strunk's course, English 8, in his junior year in 1919.  The course required a prerequisite English course, which, in turn, required an introductory English course.  If the course was still taught twenty years later, and if the requirements were the same,  Wendell Smith would have taken the course after he returned to Cornell in 1945.

I have more research to do regarding The Thrift Press edition.  And I haven't even mentioned the errors in the bibliographic records of the other editions published during William Strunk's lifetime:  the Harcourt, Brace and Company editions.  Moreover,  I only recently learned there was a 1920 Harcourt, Brace and Howe edition that was published before the 1921 Harcourt, Brace and Company edition.   Yes.  I need to research further.  I need to apply for fellowships.  And I need to write the book on The Early Editions of The Elements of Style.

1 comment:

Dell Smith said...

Jerry, so glad my father's Strunk edition helped you fill in your sentimental library.