E.B. White’s New York


Before moving to the city, I obsessively read about it.

Throughout my research, people often referenced E.B. White’s essay, “Here is New York.” I didn’t get a chance to read it until after I’d already moved, and perhaps it was better that way. Much of what he says can only be understood by experiencing it.

A former New Yorker, White wrote the essay on a visit in the summer of 1948. He recalled arriving in the city as a young writer, bolstered by his proximity to the giants of his field.  He had been living in Maine for quite some time by the time he wrote it, but his memories of the city remained vivid. Many of his observations are as true now as they were 60 years ago.

“To a New Yorker,” White writes, “the city is both changeless and changing.”

Seven other observations:

the gift of loneliness & the gift of privacy
“The strangers of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending on a good deal of luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

there are three new yorks:
the new york of commuters, of natives & of settlers.

“Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”

it is a work of art, a mystery.
“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniments 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 elusive.”

it’s for the ambitious.
“The city is always full of young worshipful beginners — young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers — each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants.”

it’s not for the weak.
“The city is uncomfortable and inconvenient; but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did they would live elsewhere.”

it’s a microcosm of the world.
“The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of the world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.”

it’s 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.”

(About the image: Greenwich Village, 2007)

Edit: This post made it to WordPress’s Freshly Pressed for Oct. 7. Thanks, WordPress, and thanks to the wonderful comments!


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37 thoughts on “E.B. White’s New York

  1. Fucking A on the post. A native New Yorker myself I lack the POV to see it as a settler- I always have said it would be a great place to visit, I can see that when I entertain cousins from far away- but I have to live here and I can’t wait to get the hell out. Are those all from the same essay? I’ll have to look it up. excellent post. I don’t give out compliments too often. Good work.

    • I most likely wouldn’t have had this love for the city had I not lived elsewhere. Growing up in the Bronx, I definitely hated several aspects of the city and was curious about moving to suburban Virginia (which my family and I did, when I was 14). Ten years later, I’m back in New York 🙂

      It’s a short book (50-some tiny pages) and, as you can see, extremely quotable. Highly recommend it. Thanks for stopping by, Damian!

  2. Pingback: e.b. white’s new york (via explore. dream. discover.) « The Occasional Opinion

    • Awful? I’m assuming you’re referring to the “It’s destructible” part. I see it as reality. There are pros and cons to living here, as with anything in life. The key is acknowledging them and knowing which cons you can live with. That’s not to say I’m content with possibly being blown to smithereens, but I wouldn’t not live here just because of that possibility.

    • I’m sure your friends would have understood. For many people, New York is best experienced as a tourist destination. I have my own list of places I wouldn’t live in (having actually lived in some of them).

  3. I love new York; everyone loooves new York, and you speak of ny with so much passion just as described by White evidently from your previous post of a wonderful staycation, of finding “new adventures in the all too familiar”. But being Ive been here for more than 15 years, I’ve been plagued with the “time-to-go” feeling one too many times! But thanks to the “settlers” and my own passions, there is always something to look forward to any time, any day.

    • Hey, Toni! You know, I probably would have had that “time-to-go” feeling had I never moved to Virginia. Living in different places not only gives you perspective, it also strengthens you in a way that’s only achieved by leaving your comfort zone. New York isn’t too shabby a place to be stuck in, though. I’m selfishly very glad you’re still here!

  4. Pingback: E.B. White’s New York (via explore.) | Literating

  5. Oh I loved reading the snippets of the essay… reminded of a quote I read about Hollywood once…I wish I remebered who it was who wrote it.. but it said “Hollywood is not a place but a state of mind”… HAving been a long time LA resident… I can vouch for that…

    • Nice point. I actually haven’t been to LA and for years have harbored an unwarranted disdain for it. Don’t worry; it’s on my travel list. Thanks for stopping by.

    • I enjoyed it so much I had to stop myself from posting the whole thing. As for his other essays, I’d love to hear some recommendations.

  6. I love new York; everyone loooves new York, and you speak of ny with so much passion just as described by White evidently from your previous post of a wonderful staycation, of finding “new adventures in the all too familiar”. But being Ive been here for more than 15 years, I’ve been plagued with the “time-to-go” feeling one too many times! But thanks to the “settlers” and my own passions, there is always something to look forward to any time, any day.

  7. Everyone of these observations applies in equal measure to Mumbai (Bombay), India’s City of Dreams and NYC’s soul-sister!! They are both tough and exacting, vulnerable and yet incredibly strong, durable with a feisty spirit – love them or hate them, can’t ignore them! I love them both.

    Great post! Congratulations on FP 🙂

  8. well the 9/11 was truly a disaster for me and my family.
    because of this incident my bro lost his job. in a good software company and was sent home. 😦

  9. A very good post.. i liked reading it .. and knowing all that about New York .. was really helping incase i wanna settle there !!!

  10. Thank you for posting. It’s a beautiful essay. Also check out Up at the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, who was from NC and wrote magnificently about New York.
    To expound on one point of EB White—I am from Brooklyn and I agree that New York natives do give the city its solidity. My Irish grandfather was a sandhog who was nearly killed while helping to build the Lincoln tunnel. My father and uncles are FDNY. My family have been/are bus drivers, longshoremen, quarry workers, housekeepers, secretaries, nurses and teachers. A writer (me). So solidity, yes, in abundance. But we also give New York passion. It’s not the passion of settlers, like my husband, who will always remember the excitement of learning the rhythms of the city. Ours is the passion for your home, the place you come from, the place you, above all else, belong to.

    • I agree, Kathleen. I’ve encountered many born and bred New Yorkers, even after they’ve moved elsewhere, who are extremely proud of being from here. I used to drive a car with a Yankees plate in Virginia, and New Yorkers came up to me at gas stations, school parking lots (Not as creepy as it sounds. I was an education reporter) to tell me how they missed the city. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  11. Pingback: e.b. white’s new york (via explore. dream. discover.) « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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