It’s summertime and the livin’ ain’t always easy. Recently, I found refuge in reading, as I often do. I picked up a copy of E.B.White’s Here Is New York, written 66 years ago. In his forward, White writes, “This piece 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… 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 it 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.”
The opportunity to roam through the concrete jungle, with White’s unique homespun and sophisticated voice as my map, proved to be comforting but eerie. It was fascinating to visit my city through White’s vivid description, and experience a sense of charming continuity. However, the book’s closing pages took a prophetic turn: “The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’e mind. 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, tun the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
How did he know? Happily, E.B. White was no existentialist; this slim volume concludes with White’s signature optimism and faith in humankind: “This race- this race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man- it sticks in all our heads. The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.”
He concludes, “A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, surprise 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.”
In Here is New York, White advises, “Summertime is a good time to reexamine New York.” In my New York, in the summer of 2014, I could use a friend like E.B.White. Although I can’t sit with him in person over a cup of coffee, I found that re-visiting his books was more than the next best thing; I have a friend for life.