Today’s lecture in our Writing New York class is devoted to E. B. White’s Here is New York, which will function as a kind of overture to the course. We’ll introduce it whimsically, first with a clip of Speed Levitch’s homage to White from the documentary film The Cruise, then by recalling Hillary Clinton’s run for the Senate in 2000 and her debate with Rick Lazio.
Asked to “define a New Yorker,” Clinton displayed her customary learning and book smarts:
Well you know, E. B. White and others have done that over the years. And what’s so great about being a New Yorker or defining a New Yorker is that New York has always been a magnet for people from literally all over the world. People are drawn to New York because this is a place that you can stake your claim, you can build a future, you can dream your dreams.
It is the place that my grandparents came through as well. And it is a place that I’ve always known welcomed everyone from everywhere, including immigrants from Washington, D.C.
So for me, New York represents the best not just of America but of the entire world. . .
Later on, Governor Pataki disparaged Clinton’s response:
Rick Lazio looks, sounds and talks like a New Yorker. Mrs. Clinton quoted some guy, Wyatt or somebody–I don’t think he was from Brooklyn–with some definition of a New Yorker that she must have read somewhere. I don’t know who that guy was. I don’t know what he wrote. I don’t know where he was from. But it sure doesn’t sound to me like that guy was a New Yorker or understood New York the way we do.
Still later on, the governor’s daughter reminded her father that he had read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to her, leading the governor’s office to issue an apology of sorts: “He just forgot … The Governor values learning. He thinks everyone should be reading Charlotte’s Web to their kids.” Lazio, by the way, made the connection between White and Charlotte’s Web right away when asked. Out of politics for a while, Lazio is apparently now thinking of running for governor.
We’ll point out, however, that during this brouhaha White’s book was discussed in the media as if it were a timeless portrait of New Yorker and New Yorkers. And we’ll ask: In what ways is it, in fact, “timeless”? Which of White’s characterizations of the city are still applicable today? Which seem out of date? In what ways is White’s book not timeless but time-bound — and to what times is it bound?