The self-addressed envelope, which email has since rendered obsolete, used to be the shy writer’s salvation. It let them receive a “yes” or “no” via the mailbox, without having to network or schmooze editors, or talk to anyone else at all. Years later, when he was the New Yorker’s star writer, White said with feeling: “Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.” No wonder that his favorite play was Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the title character of which ghost-writes witty and eloquent letters for someone else. And only a shy person like White would have written about New York as the city that could bestow “on any person who desires such queer prizes… the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
White’s shyness runs all the way through his classic guide to writing, The Elements of Style (1959). He based this on an earlier guide written by Will Strunk, his old professor at Cornell, which he admired as an essay on the “nature and beauty of brevity.” Good writing did not offer the writer’s opinions gratuitously, The Elements of Style ruled, because that would imply that “the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case.” For White, the best prose combined simplicity and self-concealment. Writing was, he wrote in 1964, “both a mask and an unveiling”—especially for the personal essayist, “who must take his trousers off without showing his genitals.” A writer’s voice was a vehicle for disguised egotism, he felt, and tact and taste were vital parts of the disguise.
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