In 1948 the great writer E.B. White wrote an essay that is lyrical love poem to the city of New York: Here is New York.If you like or love New York (heck, even if you hate it) and have not read this essay, you should.The essay is available in various essay collections and as a slim, standalone volume through various booksellers. Ask a librarian about it. If you are in New York, wander into the New York Public Library and ask, and you will make a librarian’s day.
White is one of the best writers I have ever come across, ever. This particular essay, though, is full of magic turns of phrase. The essay’s title is Here is New York, but the text reveals White’s personal vision of New York. I love and admire White’s perception New York City as it is, in many ways, even these decades later, very much my New York.
Here are a just two of the clusters of marvelous phrases White uses in the essay to describe the city, which he dubs, simply “New York” as if the City was the lead character in a Broadway play, part drama and part comedy, acted out daily on the theater that is the city’s streets, aided and abetted by millions of secondary characters:
“New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant.”
“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 illusive.”
One more quote from the essay, and then I will move on to my main point for this post. I re-read the essay the other day and this paragraph jumped out at me (remember now, White wrote the essay in summer of 1948, which was only a few years after the end of WWII. White must have been aware of the devastation in Europe and England brought about by bombs and planes, but the words, today, in our post-9/11 world, seem eerily prescient:
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s 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, turn 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.”
So, now to my main point and my idea. I wish someone would take the essay and take Humans of New York (http://www.humansofnewyork.com/) and put the two together into a stage play called, of course, Here is My New York.And, someone should invite high school and middle school students in New York to share their New York by writing and submitting art work, images, and essays of their own.
I even made a picture to help get the ball rolling (see bel0w). In my next post I will share My New York with you. I have been visiting the city for more than 30 years, first as a impoverish college student, and then later as a tourist and later still as a business woman. White says, at the close of his essay, that not to look upon the “mischievous and marvelous monument” that is New York “would be like death.” How true for me, which is why I went first decades ago and why I return again and again.