Richard L. Strout was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor for more than 60 years and wrote the New Republic's "TRB" column for about 40. His principal concern was Washington politics. But to the day he died (in August 1990), Strout claimed as one of his proudest accomplishments co-authorship of a little book, published in 1936, titled Farewell to Model T. The other author was his friend E.B. White.
Now the Little Bookroom, a publishing house affiliated with the New York Review of Books, has reprinted Farewell to Model T, along with a second White essay, "From Sea to Shining Sea," also about the Model T and written without Strout's assistance in 1953. It's a laudable effort to bring two charming essays about one of the most important machines of the 20th century to a new generation of readers. There's only one problem: Strout's name has been taken off.
Here is what we know about how Farewell to Model T came into being. On March 21, 1936, Strout, moonlighting from his day job at the Monitor, submitted a manuscript to Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker, about the Model T Ford, then a rapidly disappearing artifact from the automobile era's dawn. Two months later, The New Yorker published a requiem for the Model T over the pseudonymous byline, "Lee Strout White," which blended Strout's name with White's. The piece was headlined, "Farewell, My Lovely!" Later that year, the essay was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons as a little book under the title, Farewell to Model T. Again, the author was listed as "Lee Strout White." A copy of this book, inscribed by White to his New Yorker colleague James Thurber, can be found in the rare books collection of Cornell, White's alma mater. Here's the inscription: "(To James ("Wake up and live") Thurber/ from Lee Strout White/ who has lived dangerously." (For many of these details, Chatterbox is grateful for the assistance of Helen Kelly of the Boston Book Co.)
Farewell to Model T was very good to White. According to Scott Elledge's 1984 White biography, the essay quickly became a fixture of college freshman composition reading lists and remained so for a decade. The increased readership it won White helped give him the financial wherewithal to move from New York to Maine. It was even reprinted in Reader's Digest. But who wrote it?
Presumably, White either rewrote Strout's New Yorker submission or wrote an entirely original essay based on Strout's idea. A friendly 1957 letter about "Farewell, My Lovely!" from White to Strout makes reference to "my prose style," not "our prose style" (though in truth, Strout's prose style was so similar to White's that it would have been difficult to tell the two apart). When White reprinted "Farewell, My Lovely!" in his 1954 anthology, The Second Tree From the Corner, he wrote that it was "suggested by" Strout's manuscript and graciously thanked Strout, "an amiable collaborator," for allowing him to publish it once more. An author's note at the front of the book similarly refers to "Farewell, My Lovely" as "a collaboration with Richard L. Strout."
Why isn't the reprint similarly gracious? Chatterbox posed this question to the Little Bookroom's managing editor, Nadia Aguiar. Her response:
Strout's proposal inspired White, but White wrote the existing essay himself. The prose is clearly White's and portions of the essay are autobiographical, such as the description of his experience on the Columbia River in Washington. These were reasons enough alone to publish the essay under White's name. We also took into account the fact that it would be confusing to readers to publish a 1936 essay under a pseudonym that lacked relevance today. Ultimately, however, the matter was settled by the [literary] agency and the White estate.
Aguiar is of course right that the pseudonym would make no sense today, but Chatterbox still doesn't see why Strout's contribution couldn't be acknowledged in some way—if not on the book's spine, cover, or title page, then at least in a footnote somewhere. (The book has no preface or introduction.) Aguiar seems to suggest that the heavy is White's literary estate. In 1977, when "Farewell, My Lovely!" was reprinted in Essays of E.B. White (along with the same language crediting Strout that had appeared in The Second Tree From the Corner) the copyright still belonged to The New Yorker. But at some point it apparently reverted to White (who died in 1985), so the White family's word is law here. All Chatterbox can say is that William Strunk Jr. had better watch his back.