e.b. (1899-1985)

cities, culture

Today’s E. B. (Elwin Brooks) White’s birthday. Like everyone else, I knew him from Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but when I moved to New York, one of the first books that was given to me (by dear Mark Shulman) was his essay, Here Is New York. It absolutely floored me with its brisk beauty. It appeared first in Holiday magazine sixty years ago, and even though so many of the references (e.g., the Third Avenue elevated line, old speakeasies, the coal chutes into cellars) have faded away–along with the magazine that published it–his simple observations about urban life still hold true. He even has a premonition:

The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the prefect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence…this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and nations…housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.

Of course, he’s referring to the United Nations building that was rising from the skyline at the time. But it is quotes like these that get me tapping out about him first thing in the morning:

Many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village. Let him walk two blocks from his corner and he is in a strange land.

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something ….Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.

My newfound respect for him led me to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style which, along with Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, is always on my desk. (E.B. was commissioned to update his old professor’s little book after he had passed away.)

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