Point of Departure - Spring 2012

Mr. Zinsser, I Presume

By Michael Dirda | March 1, 2012


Like any sensible person, I’m cowed at the prospect of succeeding William K. Zinsser as an online columnist for The American Scholar. Even as I type these sentences, I’m wondering if there’s a way to add a little more dash and color to what I’ve written. Dickens used to tell his contributors to Household Words, “Brighter! Make it brighter!” I can imagine Zinsser saying this to his writing students at Yale, back in the days he taught there.

I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well when it first came out, and I’ve periodically gone back to it since. Having been notably lackluster in my grammar studies in high school and never having taken any writing courses in college, I have since welcomed all the linguistic counsel and stylistic advice I can get. On Writing Well thus stands on a shelf, if only a mental shelf, with such classics as Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder, and of course, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Only last year I acquired a copy of Zinsser’s first book: Any Old Place With You. Published in 1957 and winsomely illustrated throughout by Robert Day, it’s subtitled The True Story of Some Impractical Voyages to Implausible Places on a Number of Continents. On the back cover a skinny and very youthful-looking Zinsser sports a white T-shirt and khakis; his biographical note identifies him as “a man scarcely out of his twenties” and currently a film critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

The style of Any Old Place With You—the title comes from a song by Lorenz Hart—is breezy and almost relentlessly witty, in the manner I associate with dim childhood memories of Holiday magazine. Here’s how it opens:

One August evening a few years ago, on a park bench in Manhattan, I turned to a willowy blonde named Caroline Fraser, who happened to be turned to me, and spoke the words that started it all: “Let’s get married and take a trip to Africa.”

Her blue eyes widened, and I searched them for an answer. But I could see only two words: “Drink Budweiser.” They were reflected from a blinking neon sign.

It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it was something, and I pressed my case. I had been suggesting marriage for weeks, but my proposal lacked that extra detail, like a trip to Africa, that every girl sets her heart on.

“Did you say Africa?” Caroline asked.

“Yes, Africa,” I purred, seizing the advantage. “King Solomon’s Mines, the Mountains of the Moon, fabulous Zanzibar—it’s got everything. Think of Stanley looking for Livingstone, Baker looking for the lost source of the Nile, Clark Gable looking for Ava Gardner.”

Before you know it, Caroline has said yes and the new couple is embarked on the Atlantic voyage of the accursed ship Bahama. But I should say no more. Find your own copy of the book.

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