E.B. White’s New York in the 1940’s: Spot the Difference!

eb-whiteE.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) wrote Here Is New York as a long essay or a very short book, whichever you prefer. It’s 1948, and the first thing he notices about the city is the loneliness, despite all the crowds. I bet every foreigner in a major city feels the same way. George Orwell felt the same way about Paris (Down and Out in Paris and London) and so did every other American or Englishman who visited that city. There’s no “small town” feeling of intimacy in a city like New York, so maybe it’s an urban thing? The second thing White notes in his book is something I’ve written about in all my other reviews; everyone here is a newcomer. In Wags, the Bowery winos were all from outside the city. In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, none of the musicians were from New York. Willa Cather (author of My Antonia) stayed in the same area as the author, “to write about people from Nebraska.” Thomas Wolfe was another writer transplanted from out of state (discussed in The Village by John Strausbaugh) and so was Bat Masterson, Allan Ginsberg, Jeanette Walls, and just about every other famous New York writer (with the exception of Priri Thomas, Elizabeth Wurtzel and The Marx Brothers) so with the exception of a select minority, relatively few New Yorkers are “lifelong residents.”

He ponders the vast water brought in from upstate and pumped to the top floors, and then ponders the food. There’s not a single farm in the city, so how do they bring in all the grub? He notes that only tourists, and never the residents, visit the Statue of Liberty. He writes about the people that work here-office men, secretaries, laborers-who never explore the city. Too bad he didn’t talk to or about the NYU and Columbia students while he was here. The colleges, though they existed at the time, were nowhere near as vast then as they are now.

E.B. White refused the publisher’s urge to update this essay every time it was printed. “Let the reader discover,” he used to say. I say to myself, why should anything in this book be updates? As far as I can see, nothing in this city has changed!

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