@NewYorker (1941) - The great paradox about this age of perfect communication, of course, is that nobody knows anything about what’s going on. We ourself read six newspapers every day, listen interminably to the radio, and spend a good deal of our time talking to industrious prophets who have just flown in from the warring cities and the capitals and the battle fronts. Our guess is that we know rather less about the state of the world than an ancestor of ours who lived in Connecticut and depended for his information on old copies of The Federalist delivered occasionally by a man on a horse. He got his news late and in fragments, but in the end the picture in his mind was probably clear and sensible; we hear about everything the minute it happens, in staggering detail, and, generally speaking, it just adds up to balderdash.
This is not only because the stage these days is too big for any man to comprehend, or because an event described by ninety- five eyewitnesses is apt to be less satisfactory than the same thing reported on by one, or even because the current government spokesmen are sometimes apt to be rather coy about their facts. It is caused mostly by our own frantic state of continual reception. We are too busy listening to hear anything in particular, too overwhelmed by the parts to see any outline of the whole. History, to be understood at all, should be absorbed a very little at a time, in solitude, and always a step or two behind the actual march of events.
If we had the organization of this magazine to do over again, we would employ an elderly hermit to lie on a couch in a small, quiet room, perhaps eating an apple. He would read exactly one copy of the Times every month and then, whenever our editorial way grew dark, we’d drop in for a minute and ask him what the hell was really up.
-Wolcott Gibbs, Talk of the Town, first appeared in The New Yorker on June 7, 1941. Reprinted in the new anthology Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker edited by Thomas Vinciguerra.