E. B. White

Essays of E. B. White

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

“[A] reason I like the city better than the country,” wrote accustomed New Yorker Andy Warhol in his propulsive capsule of personal philosophy, “Is that in the city everything is geared to working, and in the country everything is geared to relaxation. I like working better than relaxation.”

Such is the person we find in New York City, popular culture would have us believe, the urgent doer. Everything is being done all the time with purpose if not expediency. And the resultant neurosis, like Warhol’s, or existential drama, like that of Patti Smith, or Dorothy Parker, is something borne alongside wild cab rides and excellent take-out.

Can we ever blazon our mark on this City, Parker seem to ask once, or does it merely mark us?

If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I may blazon my mark;
And what if I don’t, and what if I do?

From Dorothy Parker’s “Philosophy”

Like Parker, American essayist Elwyn Brooks “E. B.” White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) wrote for fifty years at The New Yorker1 and offers us this slice of the metropolis:

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town.

From E. B. White’s “Here is New York”

The idea of this collection of strangers sits well with me and I think most inhabitants would agree it is a city of anonymity.

And yet, there are boundaries to that privacy, that isolation.

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost every body wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. Since I have been sitting in this miasmic air shaft, a good many rather splashy events have occurred in town. A man shot and killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. It caused no stir outside his block and got only a small mention in the papers. I did not attend. Since my arrival, the greatest air show ever staged in all the world took place in town. I did not attend.

From E. B. White’s “Here is New York”

As White notices, we have immunity to things outside our boundaries. But not always. The results can be grand (see Rebecca Solnit’s study of human intervention and compassion in the face of disaster) or repetitively grating. White addresses the latter:

New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified—a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that changes always an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment…”

From E. B. White’s “Here is New York”

New York City was White’s residence, a place he understood thoroughly (like filmmaker Sidney Lumet or poet Grace Paley) but never called “home.”

As a result his portrait of this inimitable city is diverse and complex. He seems to ask, is New York a thing or an atmosphere? Should we give it qualities of personhood? Does it inhale and exhale? How do we engage?

essays of E. B. White
New York City. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Essays of E. B. White present the dry humor and self-effacing ploy of an English author (he wasn’t) and the loving detail of a highly observant and philosophical man (he was). It is also steps apart to give us something universal about place.

White’s essay about the 1939 World’s Fair set in Queens and false thoughts on the poisoned promises of the future – something by its essence never arrives and is always anticipated – could be republished every fifty years on the hour.

It is all rather serious-minded, this World of Tomorrow, and extremely impersonal. […] When the night falls in the General Motors exhibit and you lean back in the cushioned chair (yourself in motion and the world so still) and hear (from the depths of the chair) the soft-electric assurance of a better life—the life which rests on wheels alone—there is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood. I didn’t want to wake up.

From E. B. White’s “The World of Tomorrow”

Illustration by Maira Kalman from Kalman's book "Principles of Uncertainty" in the Examined Life Library.
“If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour…” from New Yorker Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty.
My favorite piece in Essays of E. B. White is “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” an essay of leaving New York for good. White tears through all of the little collections that amass in homes—”as much paraphernalia as an aircraft can hold,” the things we’ve made precious by caring. What to get rid of, what to keep, disposing of the indispensable.

It is an essay about abandonment. Of things, of city, of self.

I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like outgoing tide. But this did not happen. […] You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes real ingenuity and great staying power.

From E. B. White’s “Goodbye to Forty-eighth Street”

White moved to Maine – he called it his home – and remained there until he died in 1985. When Andy Warhol died, two years after White, his massive collection (hoard), all acquired on the streets and shops of New York, was untouched and eventually sold at auction. The artist as a collector had taken shape. He never moved his things, never divorced himself from the City. Did he ever relax? Did he change the map of New York?

Installation view, Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago, Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago
Installation view of the Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago from July 1970 – September 1970. Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago

It is easy to become enamoured by White’s deceptively blithe musings of place (he is what we non-New Yorkers would call “down to earth”, lines like “I wasn’t prepared for the World’s Fair and it certainly wasn’t prepared for me”) and take his detachment for granted.

White is, indeed, one of many writers who occasionally sets down his pen, takes a lengthy look in the mirror, and draws a self-portrait, concluding “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him is of general interest.” A grievance throw at New Yorkers by non-New Yorkers all the time.

essays of e. b. white
E. B. White by Maira Kalman.

I prefer contemporary writer and New Yorker Durga Chew Bose’s simple singlet “The best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write.” For some, writing is simply done

Again, the doing. How many writers are outwriting their thoughts right now?

White continues:

The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person according to his mood or subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.

Like Ernest Hemingway, a writer born the same year as White, who wrote truth must be the point of origin of all writing, White believed “Candor […] is the basic ingredient.” It might not always be interesting, but one should still look, write, and present. In a word, care.

Perhaps that is what Warhol meant by “relax”, it is strive, to care. In New York we (I flex between “we” and “they” for I have lived there but am not of there) are always striving. Relentlessly American that way.

So do we ever impose ourselves on the city or is it only onto us? Grace Paley wrote of this:

At the Battery
I am standing on one foot
at the prow of great Manhattan
leaning forward
projecting a little into the bright harbor

If only a topographer in a helicopter
would pass over my shadow
I might be imposed forever
on the maps of this city.

From Grace Paley’s “At the Battery”

That such a city could hold the minds and aspirations of so many, without knuckling them together in defeat, and without wholly changing its maps, never ceases to amaze me. New York holds it all together, remains and yet still moves. It is this being that White wrangles with in Essays.

While White wrote and Parker posed and Warhola vascillated, so many other were making their way, as the case may be, like James Baldwin selling wares in the streets at seven, or Billie Holliday who cleaned brothels at age 10, or Joan Didion imbibing the pain of her grief-soaked apartment.

All overlapping, crossing paths, intersecting. They might, as White said, “all be strangers” but they certainly have this grand, grand thing in common.