HERE IS NEW YORK
The Little Bookroom, 58pp, $16
To mark E.B. White’s birthday, Biographile recommends one of his best-loved works, Here is New York. Written during a “hot spell” in July 1948 — quite the understatement in the days before air conditioning — it is an unforgettable evocation of the people, sights, sounds (and yes, smells) that make up summer in the city. This small masterpiece of urban nostalgia was released in 1999 in a special edition to mark White’s 100th birthday, with a foreword by his stepson, the legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell. Photographs of White in suit, hat, and bow tie make the city look archaic, but from his opening line it’s clear that his version of the city is timeless: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
The most visible legacy of Elwyn Brooks (“E.B.”) White today may be The Elements of Style — he’s the White in Strunk & White — or his beloved children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. For most of his career, however, White was a regular contributor to the New Yorker and other magazines, including the travel magazine Holiday, for which he originally wrote Here is New York, in part as a favor to Angell, who was an editor there at the time. White had moved to a small town in Maine, but agreed to return to the city he had once called home, and reflect on what had changed and what had not.
Holed up in a hot hotel room in midtown, White launches his essay by describing his proximity, in miles or mere blocks, to the famous people and events that marked the city of his youth, a list he says he could rattle off “indefinitely.” In a diner across the way, he sits eighteen inches away from the actor Fred Stone, noting that this distance is “both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.” Fame, like danger, is always both near and far.
Indeed, for White, it’s a remarkable thing that the city has survived without exploding into violent self-destruction at any number of possible flashpoints over the years. In 1948, shortly after World War II, the vulnerability of the city to attack had shaken its inhabitants deeply; for post-9/11 readers, White’s prescience is eerie as he notes: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy.” That contemporary shiver makes his evocation of the city’s essential tolerance all the more moving. Above all things, says White, New Yorkers must be tolerant, must observe the respectful distance of eighteen inches. The city’s survival depends on it; without it, “The town would blow up higher than a kite.”
Like many writers about New York, White sees that it is made up of natives, commuters, and settlers. He is scathing about the “locust” commuters, who come in just to pick the city’s pocket — in his eyes it is the settlers, the immigrants, who give it “passion.” The city enables creativity by the sheer number of options for entertainment that it offers; the more distractions there are, the easier they are to tune out, since there’s no shame in “not attending” even great and historic events. There will always be another.
As well as inspiring poets, the city’s density, its intensity, make it a kind of poem itself: “It compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music.” White’s own spare descriptions can also turn unexpectedly to poetry. As he watches the sun going down from the long-vanished café in the Hotel Lafayette on Ninth Street, he observes that “brick buildings have a way of turning color at the end of the day, the way a red rose turns bluish as it wilts.” Anyone who has waited in anticipation for the light to fade on a warm city evening knows precisely how that looks.