Saturday, January 7, 2017

How do you write about the city? On "Here Is New York"

I read E.B. White's "Here Is New York" for Deal Me In 2017.

White wrote this sprawling essay in the 1940s. NYC has changed quite a bit since then, and was changing moment-by-moment even as he was writing about it. That quality is something he tries to capture in the essay - that even as he sits alone in a stifling, hot room, all the city’s activities swirl around him.
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry…
What I liked best about this essay is how it shows the challenge (futile, perhaps, but worthwhile) of trying to tackle a subject as big as the city. White is trying to capture what the city is and what it means to people, but there’s so much of it, so what does a writer do?

He approaches the city from different angles - making observations about various groups of people, neighborhoods, the way you can remain fairly insulated from major events if you want. He’s trying to throw a net around a massive fish, and in the dark it struggles and eludes capture. Now and then he records glimpses of its body and sometimes clues as to what it is as a whole, but it slips away.

(These are issues general to writing - what details do you focus on, and what do you leave out? When is a work of writing complete?)

White glides from general statistics to descriptions of specific streets. He discusses a trend and tosses out an anecdote. He breathes the romance of the city and lays bare its darkness (“the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and poverty”). You get a sense of what the city is, while realizing that there’s so much you still don’t know. And I like how White does this - with the essay unfolding not so much as a walk, but as if White had wings and were hovering here and there, pointing things out, before going off to have a drink.
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.
Whatever the city is, humanity and its burning questions are caught up in it. (For instance, how can so many people live more or less peacefully in a cramped space?) He hopes that the city will endure. It must.

3 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

I really should read this easy. Though the closet that I have lived to New York was Brooklyn, I have always been connected to it in many ways.


My father talked about New York of the 1930s and 1940s all the time. That is one reason that I think that I would get a lot out of this.

Jay Carr said...

I really liked your take on this essay, especially when you say it's as if "He’s trying to throw a net around a massive fish, and in the dark it struggles and eludes capture. Now and then he records glimpses of its body and sometimes clues as to what it is as a whole, but it slips away."

I guess sometimes you have to hunt the big game (or fish) even if they are nearly impossible to catch.

Happy to have you in Deal Me In this year!

HKatz said...

@ Brian - definitely read this.

@ Jay - thanks! Yes, it's important to go after these big things and get something of what they are even if you can't get the whole thing.