My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.
I picked this book up, not because I wanted to read about New York City, but because I had a vague notion that I admired White’s prose and wanted to see if my notion was accurate. And it was, and one of the reasons I admire his prose so much is because of how he can interest me in a subject I am not necessarily interested in.
E. B. White lived in New York City while he was a writer for The New Yorker, but he spent much of his later life on his farm in Maine where he wrote Charlotte’s Web. “Here is New York” was written in 1949 and he was mostly living on his farm, but agreed to visit New York and write the essay as an assignment.
One of his themes is what he calls “the gift of loneliness” that comes from living in New York, which is an unexpected thought. It may be an extraordinary city, massive, and with “the unexpungeable odor of the long past,” but it manages to “blend the gift of privacy with that excitement of participation; and better than most communities it succeeds in insulating the individual…against all enormous and violent and wonderful events…”
Each event, he writes, is “in a sense, optional.” This, he believes allows New Yorkers to be more creative, since they are not distracted by so many little things, as people in smaller communities are, where everything that occurs is inevitably forced upon and experienced by the inhabitants. However, he also thinks New York offers a slightly unreal existence, but that most people who come to New York have come to escape reality anyway.
He also tells how “the city is literally a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units” and that it is not the blurred monstrosity of dwellings all merging into each other without distinction that people feel lost living in. Each unit is self contained and distinct, with a store, laundry, everything, and the inhabitants will go years without venturing further than their commute from their neighborhood to their workplace.
It was an interesting take on a city, which interested me because I live in a fairly small town, though without having the feeling of being intricately connected to it. Experience is, for me, also optional. Is that life in America now, inside and outside of New York?
His prose is beautiful; I’m tempted to quote some of it, just to show how good he was. One thing I noticed about him was that he didn’t use commas as often as I would have done. But his writing has a greater flow than mine and it has made me more aware of how I am using punctuation.
Here are some examples of his prose that struck my fancy:
Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago – and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with verve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, towards the ultimate tip.
It [New York] carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.
That last quote is an excellent example of what I mean about commas. I might have bracketed the phrase “no matter where you sit in New York” with commas, but it flows better without them.
The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this fantasy…The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway…
White is speaking of the United Nations’ headquarters – under construction in 1949 and completed in 1952 – and the possibility that planes could bring an atomic bomb to the city. His prescience is truly hair-raising, however, as it startlingly brings to mind what happened during 9/11.
At the end of the essay, he singles out a willow tree in Turtle Bay, which is a neighborhood in Manhattan where the UN headquarters is also located. It is old and “held together by strands of wire,” but White “draped the tree in metaphor and imbued it with immortality.” I was curious about it and wanted to know if the tree was still in existence. Sadly, it had to be taken down in 2009 (see article in the New York Times). Some people felt a little superstitious about it, but the tree was dead and they wanted to save it the indignity of collapsing. Some people felt, however, that the tree had fulfilled it’s purpose and had gotten them through their hour of need on Sept. 11.