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In Conversation: Robert Silvers

As the New York Review of Books turns 50, its founding editor speaks with Review contributor Mark Danner about the poetry of Twitter, hiding the Pentagon Papers, and how his journal of ideas emerged from the flood of little magazines as possibly the unlikeliest success story in publishing.

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I should begin simply by wishing you a happy birthday.
Fifty years50 years of the New York Review.

From John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis and King’s I have a dream to tweets and drones and Barack Obama.
You could say the inspiration for the Review went back even further, to 1959 and Elizabeth Hardwick’s The Decline of Book Reviewing in Harper’s. That essay is crucial.

It was an attack you published on what she took to be the lazy criticism found elsewhereparticularly in the New York Times.
She wrote, The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricitythe lack, at last, of the literary tone itselfhave made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal.

Lizzie made it clear something different was neededsomething new! About that, she wrote, Nothing matters more than the kind of thing the editor would like, if he could have his wish. Editorial wishes always partly become true.

The newspaper strike came about three years later114 days without a newspaper printed. Lizzie and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, were having dinner with my friends Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Jason, then a senior editor at Random House, said there was no choice: The time had come to start a new book review.

This was one time you could start a book review essentially without money.
Jason saw that with no other place to advertise, the publishers in New York would cover the costs. He called and asked me if I could leave Harper’s and start a new book review. I went to see Jack Fischer, the editor of Harper’s. He said, good, it’ll be a great experience. You’ll be back in a month.

You didn’t have any notion this would become an institution in this way?
No. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it was very possible that I would come back, and it was very kind of Jack to say my job would be held open. I asked Barbara Epstein that morning if she would join me as co-editor. She said yes. We met the next night with Lizzie in the darkened Harper’s offices. We looked through the books that had come in for review, and we thought of various people who might write on them.

The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W. H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred DupeeLizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.

What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, I’d rather do another book. They all just assumed a new book review was needed.

Did you feel at the time that you were creating a particular kind of ideological community?
No, if anything it was an intellectual community. It was people we knew and admired: a community of writers we knew but who hadn’t come together in that way before, except for some of the critics who wrote for the Partisan Review. It was determined by friendships, by a shared belief in uncompromising quality in writing and by a sense that much conventional criticism was superficial and lazy, accepting the mediocre.

You describe those early days as a community of friendship, but soon you were publishing very harsh criticism by some of those writers of the work of others in that same community of writers. One famous example is Norman Mailer’s attack on Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group.
Her book came out just as we started regular publicationa very long novel, a best seller, about women who had been at Vassar and became entangled in each other’s lives, with much about sex and birth control.

It was considered quite risqué at the time.
Lizzie, notwithstanding her old friendship with Mary, disapproved of it and wrote a parody of it entitled The Gang, signed Xavier Prynne. But who would review it? When I called Norman, he said, I don’t want to take on Mary. I told him that no one else was willing to write on the book. And he said, Well, Bob, that’s a rather deadly challenge. And he did it. He said our Mary, alas, has fallen short of what we hoped for.


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