May 1, 2013

Here Is New York by E.B. White

Book cover for HERE IS NEW YORK by E.B. White
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“Here Is New York” is an essay E.B. White—yes, of Charlotte’s Web fame—wrote in 1948 for Holiday, a long-since defunct travel magazine. The essay reads as you would expect up until its last few pages. White is crisp and concise, and, as far as essays go, “Here Is New York” is enjoyable.

It’s interesting how few surprises there are throughout the essay, whether White is discussing his personal experiences of living in New York or about the tourist’s, the outsider’s, limited understanding of the city. At the time of White’s writing, New York City was slightly less extravagant and built up (there are a million more people in the city now), but some parts of the culture remain the same.

Perhaps New York really is as unchanging as White sometimes says he thinks it is or perhaps his opinion of the Big Apple—that it is a sprawling, diverse, detached, noisy, busy, and lonesome place, all at once—has become mainstream over the decades. This complex understanding of a multifaceted, contradictory New York is what I’ve grown up with in music, books, and movies. I think most of us, whether we have visited the city or not, know New York is somewhat of a double-edged sword, as most big cities are. Some dreams are realized there, while others are destroyed.

It’s toward the end of the essay that White takes a decidedly gloomy turn as he more critically analyzes various elements of New York (e.g., its racism) and imagines the city’s future, which he sees as being overshadowed by a subtle fear of its own demise. With such a change in tone, “Here Is New York” becomes an unusual and slightly eerie tale by its closing.

White is wary of overpopulation and disturbed by the neon lights and advertising displays that are sprouting up all over the city. (If he could see it now!) Media changes before his eyes as newspapers disappear or merge with others. He senses a “greater tension, increased irritability” that is, these days, quintessentially tied to New York and the average New Yorker. “The city has never been so uncomfortable,” he writes. To White, this comes down to the underlying fear of destruction, the fear that New York has grown to be so large, so important, that there are some who will want to destroy it and may even succeed in doing so. There’s a reason many have said White’s words seem prophetic.

I’m not sure what you can learn about New York from White’s essay that you won’t already know. But the writing is elegant, and the powerful closing makes up for any initial slowness. I may not “heart” New York as so many do, but E.B. White simultaneously makes me thankful for the passage of time and wistful for a younger, slightly stripped-down version of the city.

Quotes from Here Is New York

I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small town), some, too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.

It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. Every time the residents brush their teeth, millions of gallons of water must be drawn from the Catskills and the hills of Westchester. When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

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