Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is New York Here?, or, Weinberger v. White

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I enjoy E. B. White, especially his carefully crafted letters--which are entirely unrevealing but thoroughly charming nonetheless--I would never list him among my favorite writers, and I'm far from his biggest fan. Yet back in the spring I found myself defending him from what I saw as a misguided attack on his and William Strunk's The Elements of Style, and now I unexpectedly find myself called back into the lists again, this time by an essay in writer and translator Eliot Weinberger's excellent new collection Oranges and Peanuts for Sale (2009).

In "Where Was New York?", which was originally published as an afterword to a German translation of White's celebrated essay "Here Is New York" (1948), Weinberger excavates the essay itself from the decades of praise that have barnacled it, and in the process ruthlessly reveals it to be somewhat less than, as Russell Baker called it, "The finest portrait ever painted of the city at the height of its glory." Weinberger highlights the insularity and provincialism of White's New York, especially his lack of interest in (or even acknowledgment of) immigrants, minorities, and the outer boroughs. White, he points out, was writing as a man who had left New York behind; his account of 1948 New York is really a depiction of his nostalgia for the 1920s New York of his youth, and "To be nostalgic in New York means that one has stopped living as a New Yorker, that one is no longer thrilled by the new, that one's expert knowledge has become out of date."

Weinberger's essay is by turns sharply perceptive and tendentious; it is the sort of essay to which one can't help but respond, "Yes, but . . . " He is unquestionably right on nearly every point: White's New York is by no means everyone's New York--it wasn't then, and it isn't now, and like any vehicle for nostalgia it should be questioned relentlessly. But at the same time, title aside, White's essay doesn't really claim to be much more than it is: an impressionistic account of a middle-aged man's summer weekend revisiting the beloved city of his youth. If its ambit is circumscribed, the faces of the city it turns up are nonetheless real: White is no Joseph Mitchell, but then he also doesn't claim to be--he is "a transient, or vagrant, in from the country for a few days." So when he walks through the Lower East Side, he doesn't engage, but simply describes:
At the corner of Lewis, in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on-some sort of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency. Women push baby carriages in and out among the dancers, as though to exhibit what dancing leads to at last. Overhead, like banners decorating a cotillion hall, stream the pants and bras from the pulley lines. The music stops, and a beautiful Italian girl takes a brush from her handbag and stands under the street lamp brushing her long blue-black hair till it shines. The cop in the patrol car watches sullenly.
For nearly every moment of regret or nostalgia in "Here Is New York," White offers a counterbalancing scene like that one, of life going on in New York even as he has opted out.

While Weinberger is correct to note that White doesn't explicitly engage with any of the vast numbers of immigrants that are so crucial to New York's continuing vitality (and it is hard to imagine him doing so comfortably--Weinberger's critique of the fundamental insularity of New Yorker culture is his strongest point), he ignores the fact that White does make a point of highlighting their importance to the city's conception of itself:
The collision and intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races, creeds, and nationalities make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.
Moreover, White not only, as I noted above, acknowledges his own outsider status, but he openly argues that the arriviste New Yorker is the essence of the city:
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.
White's New York may not be Weinberger's New York, but then again, it wasn't really White's, either, and he knew it; nostalgia can be toxic, but nostalgia inoculated by an open relinquishing of the ground of the past to the succeeding lives of the future is as close to harmless as you can get. "Here Is New York," in isolation, would be a lousy way to understand New York, but as a piece of the puzzle--a puzzle that should also include Weinberger's rebuttal--it still has a part to play.

{The White essay, by the way, is not the only reason to seek out Weinberger's collection: his blow-by-blow indictment of the Bush administration, the media, and the American public, "What I Heard about Iraq in 2005," alone would earn it a place on my bookshelves--but in addition he offers a brief, personal account of the life of poet George Oppen; an entertaining look at James Laughlin's wonderful sort-of autobiography, The Way It Wasn't; the cryptic and unsettling "Questions of Death" ("10. Is self-mutilation practiced by the mourners?"); and more.}

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Levi. It does seem that Weinberger's take is mostly motivated by who White was and what he represented rather than by what White actually wrote, and disregards pleasures that can be derived from a limited narrator who acknowledges (implicitly or directly) his limitations.