Thoughts for the Day on the Stylish E. B. White
For our first assignment, pairs of people fanned out into New York neighborhoods and wrote up the results. Our inspirations were an essay about Chinatown and E.B. White’s Here is New York. The Chinatown essay was terrific in seeing Chinatown both as the historic residence of male workers and, today, as one center of global Chinese commercial interests and identity. But, in this blog, and on this particular day in September, I wanted to say a few words about E.B. White.
First, you have heard of him before, even if you didn’t realize it. He’s the
same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web, a book you may have read as a child and that may even have been the first time you cried over a book, when Charlotte dies. He’s also the E.B. White who wrote Elements of Style, a writer’s handbook used for decades in college courses and still one of the absolute best guides to writing that I know. Finally, he was – like you –someone who loves New York and came here from somewhere else to spend some time and hone his skills.
Some parts of Here is New York that I love really stand out for me. First, the idea that there are at least three kinds of New Yorkers mingling on city streets at any given moment – commuters, those who have come to the city to live, and natives. People like you, who have come to the city to live, may actually get to know the city more than commuters and even natives who stick to their neighborhoods, often defined as a few square blocks. Second, the idea that, “The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity” (p. 47). And, third, the evocation of the threat to the city, that “for the first time in its long history, is destructible” (54).
Writing just after World War II, White refers to nuclear weapons. But his words echoed in 2001 when a photo exhibit called Here is New York opened in Soho and is being recreated this Fall at The New York Historical Society. My last book, The War Complex (Chicago, 2005), had an evocation of the events of 9/11 and the subsequent Fall. I’m attaching typescript since I’ll always remember the Duke in NY Arts and Media students who spent that Fall with me.