Here Is New York, p.1E. B. White
(c) E.B. White 1949, 1976
Introduction (c) Roger Angell 1999
Cover: E. B. White in New York City, circa 1935
Photo courtesy of Allene White
This edition marks the 100th anniversary of E. B. White's birth and retains the spelling and copyediting eccentricities of the first edition.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
White, E.B. (Elwyn Brooks), 1899-1985
Here is New York / by E.B. White ;
with a new introduction by Roger Angell.
Originally published: New York : Harper & Bros., c1949.
1. New York (N.Y.)--Description and travel. I. Title.
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof, including photographs, in any form whatsoever, without written permission of the publisher.
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Introduction: Roger Angell
Here is New York
In a foreword to this slim book, published in 1949, E. B. White takes note of the changes that have come to New York City since its contents first appeared, in the form of a Holiday magazine article, a year earlier. The Lafayette Hotel, on Ninth Street, where he nurses a drink at the cafe and watches a sunset, has already passed, "despite the mention." But he declines to revise his text, and says that it is the reader's, not the author's, duty to bring New York down to date. This is sound advice, even after fifty years, during which time New York has continued to alter itself at the same almost unimaginable pace. Many of White's places and references in Here is New York are long gone. The Third Avenue Elevated, the neighborhood ice-coal-and-wood cellars, Schrafft's restaurant on Fifth Avenue, the ancient book elevators at the Public Library, the old Metropolitan Opera, the Queen Mary and her mournful horn, and the dock from which she departed--all have vanished from sight and almost from memory. The thought occurs that this book should now be called Here Was New York, except that White himself has foreseen this dilemma. The tone of his text is already valedictory, and even as he describes the city's gifts he sees alterations "in tempo and temper." Change is what this book is all about.
In 1947, I was a young editor and writer with Holiday, a new and lively monthly that invited top-level authors and artists and photographers to participate in the emerging postwar travel boom, born out of the favorable rate of the dollar abroad and the arrival of the long-distance airliner. Holiday paid well and was lavish with expense accounts, and previously housebound talents--V. S. Pritchett, Saul Bellow, Frank O'Connor, William Faulkner, Ludwig Bemelmans, Flannery O'Connor, S. J. Perelman--were quick to update their passports and come aboard. Their pieces perked up the general level of travel writing, and looked good on the magazine's ample pages, which also presented photography by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and Arnold Newman. E. B. White was an inveterate non-traveler, however, and when Ted Patrick, the editor, invited him to leave his home in North Brooklin, Maine, and revisit his old haunts in New York for the magazine, he went along with the idea mostly because of me, I suspect, and because of the season. I was his stepson, and his byline in Holiday would be a thrill for me and perhaps even a little career boost. And besides, the assignment would take him out of New England in mid-July, which was hay fever time Down East. He called me up and said OK, he'd give it a try. He told me that Patrick's letter, offering the assignment, had begun with the thought that he might "have fun" writing about New York, and he wanted me to tell him that the project had almost foundered right there. "Writing is never 'fun,' " he said ominously. Just the same, he came down (by train) in hot weather, put up at the Algonquin, across the street from his old New Yorker office, and then went home and wrote. The rest, including the heat wave, is in the book.
Modest and effortless, White's prose almost effaces the brisk efficiency of his plan--a whole city (well, it's mostly Manhattan) delivered in seventy-five hundred words--and the elegance of his beginning and closing lines. That final sentence, about a tree in an East Side garden, has stayed clear in my mind for half a century, just as it has for many thousands of other readers, I imagine, perhaps because of the power of its reversed verb, "not to look upon," within the murmured thought. Only when I read the book again, just recently, did I realize how much of it is written from the point of view of an exile. The Whites--E. B. ("Andy" to his family and friends) and my mother Katharine (and their son Joel) had become year-round Maine residents in the late 1930s, but then came briefly back to the city to lend a hand at the short-handed wartime New Yorker, where they both worked. Now they were back in North Brooklin for good, and White's piece, one can see, became a chance for him to revisit himself as a younger man: a would-be writer just starting out in New York in the 1920s, alone but burning "with a low steady fever" of excitement at being on the same island with Heywood Broun and Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner. He says this himself, but the piece also resounds everywhere with loneliness and isolation and the romance of what has been lost: the great old newspapers, the young intellectual and his lady love whispering together in a restaurant booth, the memory of speakeasies and "so many good little dinners in good little illegal places." Even as he looked at the great city, he was missing what it had been.
I'm not sure that New York in 1999 can offer "the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy," the way it did in the book. It's hard to feel private in the surging daily crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, say, or lonely on a side street packed solid with gridlocked traffic. The lunch lines at the little midtown restaurants have grown so long that lunching out itself is in danger of oblivion; more and more offices feature their own cafeterias, so that their workers need not experience the city at all during their workday. New York is still made up of small neighborhoods, as White was at pains to describe, but they have grown self-conscious about it and tend toward self-destruction. In no time, the little run of blocks has a chic name--"NoHo" or "Carnegie Hill"--and the local plumber and liquor store have been driven out by the impossible rents and replaced by a luxury deli, an art dealer, or another Parisian infant-wear boutique. The couple who put their little all into an apartment here because it was cheap and felt fresh now hold on to it because it has turned into an investment. "Remember when--?" they say to each other. "Wasn't this where--?"
Another loss, perhaps a greater one, is of the combined sense of separation and connection that New Yorkers once felt with their resident or just-arrived celebrities--"this link with Oz," as White puts it. Thanks to television--the biggest altering force of our century--the traveler from Little Rock or Spokane now checks into his Broadway or Gramercy Park hotel and, within a click, finds the same stars and faces waiting for him that he left at home: Oprah and Jay Leno, Homer Simpson and Michael Jordan. The old New York street encounter--Garbo under that big hat, Vladimir Horowitz with a silk bow tie, Paul Newman squeezing a melon at the next counter--has almost gone by the boards, anyway, thanks to street loonies and the paparazzi. Most celebrities are dead or in the Hamptons.
If Andy White could visit New York once again (he died in 1985), I think he would want to rush back home to Maine the same afternoon, appalled by its crime and violence, dismayed by the worsening conditions in the inner city and the enormous, widening distance between the city's
That night, I'll leave my old copy of Here Is New York, (with its inscription: "Rog: Read all about it!--Andy") at his bedside, suspecting that if he picks it up and lets himself read it once again he may sense that each new embodiment of this great and trembling capital has felt wildly out of sync with its recent or distant predecessors, however sweet in memory. When he thinks back to our morning swing through the Park and the faces of the earnest southbound power-walkers and the northbound bikers and runners and swooping skaters, men and women in equal numbers, he will know that this is still a city that calls to his "young worshipful beginners" from the Corn Belt or Mississippi. It has never been more difficult or expensive for them to hang on here but they would not be anywhere else, not for the world. Perhaps there are fewer poets and reporters among them, and more filmmakers and MBAs and fashion designers and budding curators, but each has embraced New York with the same intense excitement that brought young E.B. White here (all the way from Mount Vernon, twenty miles to the north) when he was just out of Cornell, and then made him try to hold onto that time in this book, years later, when he was older and had left New York for good. Like the rest of us, he wanted it back again, back the way it was.
This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell. The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum. I wrote not only during a heat wave but during a boom. The heat has broken, the boom has broken, and New York is not quite so feverish now as when the piece was written. The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention. But the essential fever of New York has not changed in any particular, and I have not tried to make revisions in the hope of bringing the thing down to date. To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light--and not even Harper is that quick. I feel that it is the reader's, not the author's, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.
Here is New York
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city's walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It 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. I am sitting at the moment in a stifling hotel room in 90-degree heat, halfway down an air shaft, in midtown. No air moves in or out of the room, yet I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings. I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state, eight blocks from where Nathan Hale was executed, five blocks from the publisher's office where Ernest Hemingway hit Max Eastman on the nose, four miles from where Walt Whitman sat sweating out editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle, thirty-four blocks from the street Willa Cather lived in when she came to New York to write books about Nebraska, one block from where Marceline used to clown on the boards of the Hippodrome, thirty-six blocks from the spot where the historian Joe Gould kicked a radio to pieces in full view of the public, thirteen blocks from where Harry Thaw shot Stanford White, five blocks from where I used to usher at the Metropolitan Opera and only a hundred and twelve blocks from the spot where Clarence Day the Elder was washed of his sins in the Church of the Epiphany (I could continue this list indefinitely); and for that matter I am probably occupying the very room that any number of exalted and somewise memorable characters sat in, some of them on hot, breathless afternoons, lonely and private and full of their own sense of emanations from without.
When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone. The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants. My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century. But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) was a young man just arrived in this country and before he could understand a word of English, he had taken his girl for their first theater date to The Wizard of Oz. It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled--a man of straw, a man of tin. Wonderful! (And still only eighteen inches away.) "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz.
New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. Since I have been sitting in this miasmic air shaft, a good many rather splashy events have occurred in town. A man shot and killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. It caused no stir outside his block and got only small mention in the papers. I did not attend. Since my arrival, the greatest air show ever staged in all the world took place in town. I didn't attend and neither did most of the eight million other inhabitants, although they say there was quite a crowd. I didn't even hear any planes except a couple of westbound commercial airliners that habitually use this air shaft to fly over. The biggest oceangoing ships on the North Atlantic arrived and departed. I didn't notice them and neither did most other New Yorkers. I am told this is the greatest seaport in the world, with six hundred and fifty miles of water front, and ships calling here from many exotic lands, but the only boat I've happened to notice since my arrival was a small sloop tacking out of the East River night before last on the ebb tide when I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I heard the Queen Mary blow one midnight, though, and the sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss. The Lions have been in convention. I've seen not one Lion. A friend of mine saw one and told me about him. (He was lame, and was wearing a bolero.) At the ball-grounds and horse parks the greatest sporting spectacles have been enacted. I s
I mention these merely to show that New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul. In most metropolises, small and large, the choice is often not with the individual at all. He is thrown to the Lions. The Lions are overwhelming; the event is unavoidable. A cornice falls, and it hits every citizen on the head, every last man in town. I sometimes think that the only event that hits every New Yorker on the head is the annual St. Patrick's Day parade, which is fairly penetrating--the Irish are a hard race to tune out, there are 500,000 of them in residence, and they have the police force right in the family.
The quality in New York that insulates its inhabitants from life may simply weaken them as individuals. Perhaps it is healthier to live in a community where, when a cornice falls, you feel the blow; where, when the governor passes, you see at any rate his hat.
I am not defending New York in this regard. Many of its settlers are probably here merely to escape, not face, reality. But whatever it means, it is a rather rare gift, and I believe it has a positive effect on the creative capacities of New Yorkers--for creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.
Although New York often imparts a feeling of great forlornness or forsakenness, it seldom seems dead or unresourceful; and you always feel that either by shifting your location ten blocks or by reducing your fortune by five dollars you can experience rejuvenation. Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city's tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale. In the country there are a few chances of sudden rejuvenation--a shift in weather, perhaps, or something arriving in the mail. But in New York the chances are endless. 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.
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