I bought a grey hardcover copy of an E.B. White essay titled “Here Is New York” today. It was one of those things you want to find more of in used book stores, little publishing oddities, a 54-page essay, hard bound, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, the name and address of the original owner carefully written on the title page. Even with one monochrome photograph and a hand sketch in the back there isn’t enough copy to fill the whole thing: there are four whole blank pages in the back of the thing, just flapping away in luxurious uselessness. It cost a little over two dollars, and I finished reading it in less than an hour. There are nice big margins on each page to pad it up to fifty-four pages. Probably just too long for The New Yorker, so they pumped it up to the size of a very tiny book.
It was written in the summer of 1948, a brief little piece on New York, how it feels, how it tastes, what it is. It was a brief little read that made you feel better for reading it, made you feel a little cosmopolitan, a little nostalgic, left a pleasant aftertaste. I usually wouldn’t write about it, but buried in there was one of the strangest and most unnerving passages I have encountered in a book in a long time. It is both a complete and accurate prediction and a totallyy weird coincidence, something that E.B. White took from his own memories of the war but which weirdly echoes our own time. I don’t really have much more to say about it, so I’ll just quote the passage in full:
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak about much 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. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, the black headlines of the latest edition. // 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.”Whoa. Weird.