As I was looking though my bookshelf for something to read on the train, I noticed two slim volumes sitting quietly side by side: E.B. White’s Here is New York and Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York. I grabbed them both and used my time on the subway to revisit them, one on the way uptown, the other on the way down.
These two works have found themselves in each other’s company before, no doubt. They are, at least on the surface, ripe for comparison, in that they are both brief, personal love letters to New York City, though their authors are separated by, among other things, time and circumstance.
White’s essay, originally published as an article in Holiday magazine, and then in book form, was written in his sweltering hotel room during a visit to New York in the summer of 1949. He observes:
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and 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 the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. 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.
White falls into the third category of New Yorks—born in Mount Vernon, he was a New York settler until 1938, when he moved to Maine. Colson Whitehead, on the other hand, is a born and bred native. On being a true New Yorker, he writes in his 2003 book The Colossus of New York:
You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, ”It happened overnight.” But of course it didn’t. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can’t remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Or 15, 25, 100 neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.
Being a native New Yorker myself, I can relate to Whitehead’s idea of having one’s own New York, how each person here sees his or her own story in the city’s streets, all of them unique and specific to that person. I can also confirm that the starry-eyed transplants, the third of White’s New Yorks, give our fair city an energy that is unique to cities where almost everyone is from someplace else. But I must protest when White asserts that “[i]t 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.”
It is the very fact that we have all three of White’s New Yorks, the commuters, the natives, and the settlers, that this city has a passion that attracts the passion of others. Without a perfectly-balanced cast of Whites, Whiteheads, as well as throngs of itinerant men and women in white shirts, the curtain would go down on the never-ending universal drama that is New York. It is the constant ebb and flow of the tension and relaxation created by the intermingling of these three cities that allows New York to constantly generate the high-strung passion that is its life force.
Toward the end of Colossus, Whitehead writes that “Talking about New York is a way of talking about the world.” In the micro you see the macro, or as White movingly observes:
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment 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.
All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard.
White, E B. Here Is New York. New York: Harper, 1949. Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003