E. B. White begins Here Is New York, his much-celebrated 1949 ode to Manhattan, by remarking upon the city’s peculiar ability to bestow “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” upon its inhabitants. According to White, New York is the domain of the individual—some mysterious quality within it particularly nurtures the man who desires solitude.
White explains how a vast, cosmopolitan metropolis like New York “insulates its inhabitants from life.” Whereas a small town thrusts certain common experiences and customs upon all its citizens, a New York resident can drift through his days almost anonymously, with every event and experience a personal choice. For White, this isolation is not entirely to be lamented. “Perhaps it is healthier to live in a community where, when a cornice falls, you feel the blow,” he remarks. But then he turns from this thought to linger yet again upon the “rare gift” of isolation.
In 2017, White’s depiction of 1940s Manhattan largely describes life everywhere. But if White were alive today, I doubt he’d view our increasingly atomized existences with much admiration. Despite the advent of “social” media, human beings are in many ways more detached from one another than ever before. Men walk the streets among strangers, each lost in the sounds of individual headphones and the delights of individual smartphone screens. They prefer to order food with apps and do their banking online, eliminating “inconvenient” human interactions. Both men and women put marriage off until later and later in life, preferring to hang on to the freedom of being “single” for as long as possible. Pornography’s pervasiveness has made even sex a lonely experience. The trends of modern secular society seem to proclaim that man is primarily not a member of a community, but a radical individual—a man made to be alone.
But here in E. B. White’s New York—Exhibit A for this alienation—First Things is working to proclaim a different truth. We strive to promote another conception of the human being, one that holds that man was made not merely for himself, but for God and for others. In the midst of our atomized world, First Things offers a community—a place, at least, where you will find others eager to combat the chaos of contemporary life. In the pages of our magazine and on our website, in our ROFTERS reading groups around the world, and at our intellectual retreats and public lectures, you’ll find a group of likeminded people ready to stand firm on true principles—among them, the assertion that it is not good for man to be alone.
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Ramona V. Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.