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Posts Tagged ‘E. B. White’

17 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters & Personal Essays

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Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from 'Paris vs. New York' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

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.

Malcolm Gladwell's hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2013

E. B. White’s Poignant and Playful Obituary for His Beloved Dog Daisy

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“She suffered from a chronic perplexity. … She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

Literary history brims with famous authors who adored their pets, and E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — was chief among them. His beloved Scotty Daisy, one of the dozen dogs he had over the course of his life, was the only witness to White’s wedding to the love of his life, and it was Daisy who “wrote” this utterly endearing letter to Katharine White on the occasion of her pregnancy. So when Daisy was killed by a swerving cab, White exorcised his grief the best way he knew how: by seeking solace in his literary flair and writing — soulfully, wittily beautifully — about his dear canine companion. From E. B. White on Dogs (public library), the fantastic collection of the author’s finest letters, poems, sketches, and essays celebrating his canine companions, compiled by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White — comes this moving obituary White penned for Daisy, originally published in the New Yorker on March 12, 1932.

OBITUARY

Daisy (“Black Watch Debatable”) died December 22, 1931, when she was hit by a Yellow Cab in University Place. At the moment of her death she was smelling the front of a florist’s shop. It was a wet day, and the cab skidded up over the curb — just the sort of excitement that would have amused her, had she been at a safe distance. She is survived by her mother, Jeannie; a brother, Abner; her father, whom she never knew; and two sisters, whom she never liked. She was three years old.

Daisy was born at 65 West Eleventh Street in a clothes closet at two o’clock of a December morning in 1928. She came, as did her sisters and brothers, as an unqualified surprise to her mother, who had for several days previously looked with a low-grade suspicion on the box of bedding that had been set out for the delivery, and who had gone into the clothes closet merely because she had felt funny and wanted a dark, awkward place to feel funny in. Daisy was the smallest of the litter of seven, and the oddest.

Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment. Persons who knew her only slightly regarded her as an opinionated little bitch, and said so; but she had a small circle of friends who saw through her, cost what it did. At Speyer hospital, where she used to go when she was indisposed, she was known as “Whitey,” because, the man told me, she was black. All her life she was subject to moods, and her feeling about horses laid her sanity open to question. Once she slipped her leash and chased a horse for three blocks through heavy traffic, in the carking belief that she was an effective agent against horses. Drivers of teams, seeing her only in the moments of her delirium, invariably leaned far out of their seats and gave tongue, mocking her; and thus made themselves even more ridiculous, for the moment, than Daisy.

She had a stoical nature, and spent the latter part of her life an invalid, owing to an injury to her right hind leg. Like many invalids, she developed a rather objectionable cheerfulness, as though to deny that she had cause for rancor. She also developed, without instruction or encouragement, a curious habit of holding people firmly by the ankle without actually biting them — a habit that gave her an immense personal advantage and won her many enemies. As far as I know, she never even broke the thread of a sock, so delicate was her grasp (like a retriever’s), but her point of view was questionable, and her attitude was beyond explaining to the person whose ankle was at stake. For my own amusement, I often tried to diagnose this quirkish temper, and I think I understand it: she suffered from a chronic perplexity, and it relieved her to take hold of something.

She was arrested once, by Patrolman Porco. She enjoyed practically everything in life except motoring, an exigency to which she submitted silently, without joy, and without nausea. She never grew up, and she never took pains to discover, conclusively, the things that might have diminished her curiosity and spoiled her taste. She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.

Katharine S. White with Daisy on a leash, New York City, 1931

In the introduction to the anthology, White’s granddaughter poignantly observes that her grandfather revealed so much of himself through his writing about his dogs, riffing on his remembrance of Daisy:

My grandfather also suffered from a chronic perplexity, I believe, and he spent his career trying to take hold of it, not infrequently through the literary device of his dogs.

In this particular case, it seems, Malcolm Gladwell was wrong in asserting, “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.” Dogs, for White, were about dogs, but also about how to be human.

E. B. White on Dogs is superb in its entirety, dancing across the entire spectrum from the soul-stirring to the heart-rending to the infinitely heartening. Complement it with John Updike’s harrowing poem on the loss of his dog, then lift your spirits with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs and Jane Goodall’s charming children’s book about the healing power of pet love.

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23 AUGUST, 2013

How to Tell Love from Passion: A Timeless Litmus Test from E. B. White and James Thurber, 1929

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“By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner.”

In 1927, E. B. White pulled some strings at The New Yorker, where he had been working since shortly after the legendary magazine’s birth in 1925, and arranged for his friend James Thurber to be hired as an editor. Over the decades that followed, Thurber would go on to produce some of the magazine’s most beloved literature and art. But arguably most delightful of all is his collaboration with White himself: Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do (public library), originally released in 1929 as White’s very first prose publication, is an unspeakably wonderful joint collection of prose poking fun at the conventions of marriage, romance, and love, but not without channeling through the charms of wit some profound truths about the human heart.

Featuring forty-two lovely drawings by Thurber, reminiscent in both style and cultural progressiveness of Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite Danish guide to sexuality and secretly, systematically picked up from the floor beneath Thurber’s desk by White, the essays explore such subjects as feminine types, the sexual revolution, the perils of marital claustrophobia, and frigidity in men. But perhaps most notable is a chapter titled “How to Tell Love from Passion.” It begins:

At a certain point in every person’s amours, the question arises: “Am I in love, or am I merely inflamed by passion?”

It is a disturbing question. Usually it arises at some inopportune moment: at the start of a letter, in the middle of an embrace, at the end of a day in the country. If the person could supply a direct, simple, positive answer — if he could say convincingly, “I am in love,” or, “This is not love, this is passion” — he would spare himself many hours of mental discomfort. Almost nobody can arrive at so simple a reply. The conclusion a man commonly arrives at, after tossing the argument about, is something after this fashion: “I am in love, all right, but just the same I don’t like the way I looked at Miriam last night.”

Largely to blame for the problem, White argues, is the fact that love seems to defy definition — which, granted, hasn’t precluded some of literary history’s greatest minds from having famously tried.

Even after one has experienced love, one finds difficulty defining it. Likewise, one may define it and then have all kinds of trouble experiencing it, because, once having defined it, one is in too pompous a frame of mind ever again to submit to its sweet illusion. By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner. The same holds true of passion. Understanding the principles of passion is like knowing how to drive a car; once mastered, all is smoothed out; no more does one experience the feeling of perilous adventure, the misgivings, the diverting little hesitancies, the wrong turns, the false starts, the glorious insecurity. All is smoothed out, and all, so to speak, is lost.

Despite the loosely defined catch-all readers and writers have mutually agreed upon when using the l-word, Thurber and White venture their very own definition, which they self-derisively call a “usual hazy interpretation” but which is nonetheless rather wonderful:

The strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person … the pleasant confusion which we know exists.

So how, then, does one identify true love when it presents itself? We return once again to the opening example of the letter-writing moment of doubt — dispelled, to the delight of the literarily inclined, by the tell-tale quality of punctuation choice:

Let us say you have sat down to write a letter to your lady. There has been a normal amount of preparation for the ordeal, such as clearing a space on the desk … and the normal amount of false alarms, such as sitting down and discovering that you have no cigarettes. (Note: if you think you can write the letter without cigarettes, it is not love, it is passion.) Finally you get settled and you write the words; “Anne darling.” If you like commas, you put a comma after “darling”; if you like colons, a colon; if dashes, a dash. If you don’t care what punctuation mark you put after “darling,” the chances are you are in love — although you may just be uneducated, who knows?

A literary inclination, however, turns out to be more of a disadvantage than advantage in matters of recognizing true love:

This vexing disbelief in one’s own illusion of love is experienced most alarmingly by persons of literary inclinations. Yet with them the reaction comes in quite the opposite manner. Writing is a form of sexual expression (Zaner goes further: he says writing is sex), and it takes just as much out of a person. Thus, a person with a bent for creative literature approaches the task of writing a love letter with an excitation of the spirit surpassing anything in the realm of pure eroticism. He anticipates it for hours, mulling over in his mind the possible material, enlarging on anecdotes, rounding off pledges of affection, sharpening similes, sharpening pencils; he comes to the writing of it with immense zeal and a rather nice control of lyrical prose; he ends on a splendidly poised and correctly balanced note of tenderness and faith and love; and then, having signed, sealed, and posted the missive, is suddenly overcome by the realization that by the very act of composition he has annulled the allure of the subject herself — cares no more about her, for the moment, than he does for an old piece of butcher’s twine, which, all in all, is so alarming a discovery that he usually gets a little bit sick thinking about it, and has to go out somewhere and hear some music.

And yet, as history’s famous epistolary couples can attest — just look at the love letters of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas — literature and love do go hand in hand. White, however, finds this literary love suspect:

I have seldom met an individual of literary tastes or propensities in whom the writing of love was not directly attributable to the love of writing.

A person of this sort falls terribly in love, but in the end it turns out that he is more bemused by a sheet of white paper than a sheet of white bed linen. He would rather leap into print with his lady than leap into bed with her. (This first pleases the lady and then annoys her. She wants him to do both, and with virtually the same impulse.)

Still, culture’s common cynicisms about love aren’t spared the snark:

The medical profession recognizes two distinct types of men: first, the type that believes that to love a woman is not to desire her; second, the type that believes that to desire a woman is not to love her. The medical profession rests.

White ends on a note of irreverent reflection on the very premise of the essay:

The fact of the matter is, it’s very difficult to tell love from passion. My advice to anyone who doesn’t feel sure of the difference between them is either to give them both up or quit trying to split hairs.

Months after Is Sex Necessary? was published, White would fall in love and marry his first and only wife, the literary agent Katharine Angell who had gotten him the New Yorker gig, to whom he would write many wonderful love letters until death did them part.

For a contemporary complement of no lesser charm, see Alain de Botton on how to think more — meaning, better — about sex and revisit Vonnegut’s vintage sexology of choice.

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