No one could say, "I Love New York," better than E.B. White did in this slim volume of stylish, moving caresses for her lovely, loving face. To each of us, though, New York shows a different face. E.B. White has captured the universal elements of that face in his perceptive observations about what you have noticed and felt about New York, but never shared with anyone.
I have many relatives and friends in New York City who are over 75 and have told me many wonderful stories about the late 40s there. Imagine my delight when I discovered that E.B. White had written this magnificent 7,500 word essay about his experiences in the city during the summer of 1948! I have the perfect gift now to help these warm-hearted people happily relive their more youthful days. And those who love New York, regardless of their age, will love this book, as well. So I will need to buy and give many copies of this book.
The book begins with a new introduction by Roger Angell, who is E.B. White's stepson. Mr. Angell was an editor at Holiday who helped arrange for this assignment for Mr. White. Mr. White had gone to live permanently in Maine by this time, so coming to New York was a travel assignment. You may recall that Mr. White had done a stint at The New Yorker during World War II that had brought him to Manhattan, so it was also a homecoming. Mr. Angell points out that many of the scenes described in the essay are now gone, something that Mr. White also pointed out in his introduction to the essay in 1949. In addition, many of Mr. White's complaints would be even more vociferous if uttered today. But one aspect of the work is unchanging, "Like most of us, he wanted it [New York City of an earlier time] back again, back the way it was." So this essay is very much about time-specific memory, and how that evokes moods and thoughts we value most. Change that dilutes those values is to be resisted. As Mr. White said, "New York has changed in tempo and temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability."
The essay teems with stylish, dynamic prose that reminded me of the vibrancy of the exploding krill population during the summer months in whale feeding grounds. New York was experiencing a heat wave, and there was no air conditioning. Perhaps that's what accounts for the often heavy mood of pessimism, relieved by only a little peek at optimism here and there.
"It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible."
"Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin . . . ."
"But the city makes up for its hazards and deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin -- the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled."
The great strength of the essay is in its many wonderful, astute observations about New York. First, Mr. White points out that there are three types of New Yorkers: Those who actually were born and live there, those who commute daily, and those who come to realize some ambition. Each adds something important to the pot.
"The city is literally a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units." "Each neighborhood is virtually self-sufficient." So in many ways, New York is also about small-town America at this time.
While the city pulses with incredible energy and activity, the New Yorker or visitor has "the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness." Small town America never had these qualities. In other words, you can be disconnected from the great events in the city (except for the St. Patrick's Day parade, which is ubiquitous in its noise, as Mr. White points out) if you want to be, and you can retreat from human connection into solitude amongst the masses.
He describes the ethnic groups of the city, from Jews (the largest group) to blacks (a rapidly growing one in Harlem), and comments on the diverse rituals of very different lives. The section on the Bowery and the New Yorker's reactions to the people there was particularly powerful.
He is pessimistic about the new weapons of mass destruction (the atomic bomb at this time), but cheered by the building of the United Nations. "But it [New York] is by way of becoming capital of the world" despite being capital of nothing.
The end of the essay is a meditation on an old willow tree that has been nurtured in a courtyard, a humanizing reminder of nature and of caring . . . and the past. "This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree." "If it were to go, all would go -- this city, this mischevious and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."
After you have finished meditating on this paean to humanity's strivings, consider your own home town. What does it tell you that is equally uplifting? Write down those thoughts, and share them with your family. You will have made an irresistible connection into the future through the present and the past.
on 23 June 2002
This is a very elegantly presented essay. E.B. White has an effective and charming style of writing. The subject of the essay, New York City, is interesting and White captures the city's elusive and ambiguous qualities well. It is a city in which many great works of fiction have been set and it is a city where many great writers have lived and worked. It is fitting that White has produced this timeless 'character study' of the city.
One word of caution: this is really just a hardbound essay. It can be read very quickly. Some readers may feel that though the content is of a high quality, there is far too little of it!
"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 island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition." So wrote E.B.White in 1976 in this shortish treatise on his 'take' on NYC.
Despite the purpose of many essay writers to impart the reader with just one vision of a subject in a slightly self-indulgent manner, this work does not fall into this 'honey-pot' but executes a good job in painting an almost 3D representation of a New York that is instantly recognised and loved by millions of residents and visitors.
An easily readable short book,from the pen of a much regarded Pulitzer Prize winner, highly commendable to Gothamites everywhere.
on 26 October 2014
I ordered it on Saturday afternoon and it arrived the next day, Sunday, at 2pm.
It's a smashing little book, perfect for a grey afternoon.
Maybe I shouldn't be so happy; all those van miles, folk working on a Sunday ... but hey, it's lovely.