E.B. White's words on New York prove prophetic 50 years later

The author wrote in the shadow of possible destruction, and his words have a renewed resonance and popularity today.

For The Record

October 21, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

It's a little book, a stylish little book that has been dug out for rereading and rethinking this past month.

In 1948, E.B. White wrote a magazine article titled "Here is New York." The article was published the next year in book form. More than 50 years later, White's observations about his frequent muse, New York, have been privately read and publicly spoken often since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

White's little book is hauntingly current even in the context of which "Here is New York" was written. White, a famous children's author and a signature voice of the New Yorker, had atomic war on his mind in the late 1940s. There was fear in the writer's voice. His words lately have been applied to America's latest threat.

"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," White wrote.

"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."

A wedge of geese, lethal chambers, black headlines -- the images have made the rounds: Andy Rooney read the passage on CBS' Sunday Morning; the excerpt is included in New York: An Illustrated History, a companion book to the PBS series; and New Yorker editor David Remnick read from Here is New York at a fund-raiser for the victims' families held in New York one month after the attacks.

Sales have jumped

Known more widely for books such as Charlotte's Web, White's Here is New York (Little Bookroom, $16.95) is a relatively obscure work. But since Sept. 11, sales have jumped. Online bookseller Amazon.com says in the month after Sept. 11, orders for the book were more than 10 times that of the previous month.

In 1948, White was writing about New York's new stature as the world capital and home of the United Nations. He could have been writing about New York in 2001.

"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."

Beyond the subject of vulnerability, White offered more about his home state in Here is New York. The 7,000-word piece -- written in a 90-degree room at New York's Algonquin Hotel -- is a nostalgic hymn to Manhattan.

"He bares his soul in that piece," says Allene White of Maine. Her late husband, Joel, was White's son, and she is the literary executor of White's collection of manuscripts and other surviving work, kept at Cornell University. "New York was his town. He was born in Mount Vernon, so the city was his back yard."

Affection for the city

Throughout his life, the points of White's compass gravitated toward a life in the country and a life in the city. His writing needed both. "I thrashed back and forth between Maine and New York for reasons that seemed compelling at the time," White wrote in 1977. "Money entered into it, affection for the New Yorker magazine entered in. And affection for the city."

Nowhere else is White's affection for the city so bared than in Here is New York. The city, White believed, offered people "the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." To White, Manhattan was a poem "whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive."

He wrote of his favorite New York -- the New York of the 1920s and 1930s, with all its great newspapers and delicatessens that delivered beer to your door and its boundless potential to lift the human spirit, or as this generation might put it, to reinvent people. "In the country there are a few chances of sudden rejuvenation -- a shift in weather, perhaps. ... But in New York the chances are endless." And he wasn't even talking about the Yankees.

New York also worried and depressed White. By the late 1940s, the city was changing too fast for him. The elevated railways had been pulled down. People were becoming too irritable. Newspapers were fewer. Getting into a restaurant was too big a deal.

White felt, perhaps, that it was his duty to observe and his prerogative to complain and lament. As Scott Elledge wrote in a 1984 biography of White, "The city he praises is a city partly gone and partly doomed." Indeed, White's essay -- his little book on New York -- ends on a solemn note. E.B. White symbolized New York in the form of an old, battered willow tree.

"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."

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