E.B. White’s Here Is New York has been described as a ‘remarkable, pristine essay’, and The New York Times lists it as one of the best ten books ever written about the ‘grand metropolis’ of the city. White’s essay was originally an article written for Holiday magazine; he declined to revise it at all before it was published in book form in 1948. New York is one of my absolute favourite cities, and I have been eager to read White’s essay for years; thankfully, my parents bought me a lovely slim hardback copy, introduced by Roger Angell, for Christmas.
In Here Is New York, the reader receives the privilege of going ‘arm-in-arm’ with White as he strolls around Manhattan. Of course, the view which we receive of the city is an antiquated one – seventy years can hardly pass without a great deal of change, after all. White himself writes of his decision not to revise the piece: ‘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.’ Angell justifies this lack of revision: ‘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.’ Angell rather touchingly adds that ‘Even as he looked at the great city, [White] was missing what it had been.’
Here Is New York is not a long essay, by any means, and is made up of just 7,500 words. In his introduction, Ansell writes that whilst this book is ‘of modest length… it speaks more eloquently about what lasts and what really matters than other, more expansive pieces.’ White is not always complimentary about the city, although one can tell that he is impassioned of his chosen topic; rather early on in the essay, he writes: ‘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.’
As a modern reader, I was obviously unfamiliar with many of the places which White mentions. However, his descriptions feel wonderfully vivid, as though one could walk around the corner and find oneself somewhere he has mentioned, which has not stood in that particular place for decades. Much of what he says, with regard to the inhabitants of the city for instance, still feels pertinent: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’
Here Is New York has a wonderfully, and sometimes sadly, nostalgic feel to it, and throughout, White’s writing is both measured and intelligent. New York is a character in itself throughout the essay, and it is recognised in all of its grit and beauty. I shall end my review with a gorgeous and sweeping description of the city, as White saw it all of those years ago: ‘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. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’