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E B White

September 28, 2001

Friend Susan told me that Paul Harvey read an excerpt on his show last Sunday from a 1949 essay by E.B. White. The essay was about NYC, and she was amazed at White’s prescience about the vulnerability of the city.

I was amazed that this essay should come up, because I read it less than a month ago. My mother had found a little paperback copy of the essay at a book sale at her local library and bought it for me.

By they way, your local library’s book sale is Saturday, October 20. Mark your calendar.

I read the essay again to find the passage in question; it wasn’t the thing about the essay that most impressed me. The passage is insightful but with an insight that millions had, even back then. We grew up thinking about it, preparing for it by ducking under grammar school desks or filing silently into windowless halls.

In the context of how the city had changed in recent years (i.e. 1945 – 1949), White noted this:

“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.

“… All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

“… The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, … home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.”

In the last line, White refers to the new United Nations.

What E.B. White had in mind, of course, was The Bomb. But even without The Bomb, the new vulnerability of cities to air attack was evident to anyone who witnessed WWII.

His point about the uniqueness of NYC as a target is true today. But the insight in the essay that most impressed me was about the timelessness of the city and the momentum that carries it forward. White discusses how the city insulates the citizen “against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

During his stay in town, there was the world’s largest air show, great ocean liners coming and going, an enormous Lions Club convention, a visit by the Governor. Most New Yorkers didn’t even notice.

As a friend in Brooklyn wrote: “But despite the terrible events things are very normal in New York. New Yorkers are pretty resilient, and will pull toether and keep going.”

This week, the National Geographic Channel aired a show from last year in which journalists visit Afghan rebels fighting the Taliban. Just a few hundred yards behind the rebel lines, life returned to normal — weddings, markets, children playing in the streets.

Thank goodness for that momentum. It almost makes me wonder why we fight.

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