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.