Read Here is New York Online

Authors: E.B. White

Here is New York

BOOK: Here is New York

© E.B. White 1949, 1976
Introduction © 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.
p. cm.
Originally published: New York : Harper & Bros., c1949.
eISBN: 978-1-59017-479-1
1. New York (N.Y.)—Description and travel.   I. Title.
F128.5.W58   1999
974.7’l—dc21                   98-43732

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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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
magazine article, a year earlier. The Lafayette Hotel, on Ninth Street, where he nurses a drink at the café 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
, 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.
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
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 impoverished minorities and grossly rich Upper East Siders, and turned off by a sharp diminishment in charm and tone. Fifth Avenue, he would find, has been Trumped, and Broadway Disneyfied. New Yorkers, who once prided themselves on their sophistication, talk eagerly about money and celebrity now, and dress uniformly in black; they’re in great shape but don’t seem to be having much fun. Still, I would urge White to stick around for the weekend (he could stay at my place), and while he was here I’d take him to Central Park, which has never looked better or been more enjoyed. Then I’d take him past one of our visiting Hollywood movie crews, tying up an entire neighborhood while it tries
to capture the lift and light of a West Side street corner for twenty seconds of movie-time; I’d take him to Grand Central Terminal, which was giving way to honky-tonk in the Forties, as he noted, but has just lately seen its cathedral glories restored. We’d head down to the East Village for a poetry reading (how he’d laugh), and to one of the new galleries in Chelsea, and then to dinner in a little Vietnamese restaurant on Carmine Street (“Any
in this?” he’d ask, warily regarding his first course). Or else we could eat in that evening—not attend, in his phrase—but nevertheless sense the amazing range of choices available around us. Every “enormous and violent and wonderful” event here is still optional, even when the option is passed up.

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