In the summer of 1948, writer E. B. White (1899-1985) wrote what would become one of his most famous essays and also one of the best pieces about New York City: “Here is New York.”
According to White’s foreword (to the 1949 book version of the essay originally written for Holiday Magazine,) the essay was written on a summer visit to New York, during a “hot spell.” White then tells readers that his essay only momentarily captures a city in flux. Even within the short passage of time since it had been written, it seems, the piece had already become outdated.
“The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city,” White stated, “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.”
Cleverly, White sets up the reader to read an essay so definitively titled, “Here is New York,” and, indeed, he remarks upon the city’s quality of permanence—“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.” Yet he also warns readers that what he describes has passed. The Lafayette Hotel, for example, which he mentions in the essay, no longer exists, “despite the mention,” White humorously notes.
Even White himself, once a quintessential New Yorker, now lived in North Brooklin, Maine. His essay was written at the behest of an editor who had invited White to return to the city and revisit his old stomping ground. After agreeing (reluctantly) to write it, White stayed at the famous Algonquin Hotel (59 West 44th St), near his old New Yorker office (25 West 45th St).
And thus, through the remarkable essay White wrote that hot summer in July 1948, we tour the city: the city that was; the city that is experienced currently by many different populations, visitors, classes; the city that is becoming another city; the city that is changeless; the city that is in the very midst of changing.
White’s New York is a city that is crowded, it is tense, it is a city where anything is possible. It is a place that grants anyone within its environs two “gifts,” White calls them: that of loneliness and privacy. One can feel utterly alone in the world and yet constantly be offered the “excitement of participation” in events that occur nonstop. (White lists a murder, an air show, the arrival and departure of an ocean liner, a visit by the governor—all events that made no impact on him; the city simply “absorbs almost anything that comes along.”)
One can also feel forlorn and forsaken within (and because of ) New York, White asserts. But the very city that creates such negative feelings, also offers to ameliorate any woe. The chance for “rejuvenation” is everywhere.
White’s New York is a place where one extreme is merely balanced by another. It is a massive, crowded urban jungle. But its inhabitants experience daily life as regimented and normal as any small town, USA. It is a city of neighborhoods. Of small towns. But it is shot through with promise, the possibility of anything happening at anytime; greatness and invention are at one’s fingertips; and the city’s very echoes and memories prove that fact.
And yet, White tells us, all is not well. A postwar haze hangs over his essay like a storm cloud. The Cold War, after all, was just about to begin in earnest, and the threat of nuclear annihilation had seized the world.
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind,” White writes toward the end of the essay, after his nostalgia has faded, twilight has come and gone, and he is now firmly rooted in the present moment: “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.”
While so much has been made concerning White’s seemingly prophetic vision, his city is truly not of the modern, post 9/11 world. Indeed, the threat of true destruction was probably more highly charged in the years following the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than in the years following the attacks on 9/11.
And for me, this historical context, the postwar city in a new world, is central to White’s mentations. New York is America. And now “here it is.” By the late 1940s, the country had taken its place on the international stage without a peer. It was at once all powerful and full of possibility, and also hindered, in a sense, by its own power. It was forlorn after years of war, and yet rejuvenated by its energy, its promise.
One can certainly read White’s essay as a metaphor for the United States as a whole (after all, hasn’t the city always seen itself as a leader–if not the center– of the country?) But it can also be seen on a deeply personal level. Here was a man revisiting the city of his past. He is, like so many of the writers he so deeply admires, engaging in the age-old exercise of visiting oneself through “going home again.” On so many street corners, and as he peers out windows, listens to the sounds of the city, and notices the light playing off its surfaces, White is both here and there. “The city is like poetry,” he writes.
And thus, White tours the city remembering what was and seeing what is now. White’s critical eye and emotional bent create an amazing resonance, so many deeply stacked meanings that no matter how many times one reads this essay, new meanings emerge.
White closes his essay with a moment of tranquility as he contemplates a “battered,” much climbed, old willow tree
in a garden that symbolizes New York: “life under difficult circumstances, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: ‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.’ If it were to go, all would go,–this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”
Someone once remarked that the essay was a form of literature that belonged to the American pen. White’s essay goes a long way in proving that statement to be true. White’s accounting of New York is as varied as the city he describes: part memory and memoir, part history and nostalgia, part philosophy and history. It is, to me, a purely American piece of writing and thinking.
One of White’s stops: the Cafe Lafayette in the Hotel Lafayette at Ninth Street and University Place (above, c. 1910 and below in 1937). White notes that by the time his book came out, the hotel was gone.
“In the café of the Lafayette, the regulars sit and talk. It is busy yet peaceful. Nursing a drink, I stare through the west windows at the Manufacturers Trust and Company and at the red brick fronts on the north side of Ninth Street, watching the red turn slowly purple as the light dwindles. Brick buildings have a way of turning color at the end of the day, the way a red rose turns bluish as it wilts. The café is a sanctuary. The waiters are ageless and they change not. Nothing has been modernized. Notre Dame stands guard in its travel poster. The coffee is strong and full of chicory, and good.”–E. B. White, “Here is New York”(1949).