If the name rings a bell it may be because White is the author of the hugely successful children’s title Charlotte’s Web. Plus he contributed to The New Yorker magazine for quite some time and publishing peeps will recognise him as one of the co-authors of The Elements of Style, a manual for writing and editing. Recently though, I had the pleasure of reading his words in a very different capacity. For my 29th birthday a thoughtful friend gifted me with a copy of his essay ‘Here is New York’. This gorgeous hardback edition was published by The Little Bookroom in 1999 to mark the 100th anniversary of E.B. White’s birth.
The book opens with an introduction by Roger Agnall, White’s stepson and, in 1948, a writer with Holiday magazine, where this essay first appeared. Agnall recalls how, in the summer of 1948, White agreed to leave his New England home and re-visit his life in New York City for the purpose of composing an essay at the request of the magazine’s editor Ted Patrick.
Reading his essay now, over 60 years after its initial publication, is a strange experience. It’s amazing how much of White’s observations are still relevant; “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.”
White spent much of the 1920s in the City before leaving to settle in Maine in the 1930s. Returning years later to write this essay he almost ruefully observes plenty of changes; “Police now ride in radio prowl cars instead of gumshoeing around the block swinging their sticks. A ride in the subway costs ten cents, and the seats are apt to be dark green instead of straw yellow. Men go to saloons to gaze at televised events instead of to think long thoughts. It is all very disconcerting. Even military parades have changed some. The last triumphal procession in Manhattan simply filled the city with an ominous and terrible rumble of heavy tanks.”
The glimpses he provides into a New York City of the past are wonderful, really evocative. It was impossible to read his words without undertaking my own mental trek through the city’s streets. Despite occasionally appearing exasperated at the City’s exhausting metamorphosis and hectic pace, White’s words can’t hide his love.
Here is New York is as a love letter to the city. It is also a beautiful example of extremely well-executed prose. Definitely worth a read whether you’re a local, tourist or just appreciate a good essay.