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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

Remembering the historic dinner with the Lowells, he says, “We were sitting around and talking about the newspaper strike, and I said something like, ‘It’s wonderfully quiet these days. We don’t have to read The New York Times Book Review.’ ” Epstein is generally credited with the epiphany that launched a thousand issues of The New York Review of Books: Why not start a magazine themselves? “We were sort of jokingly saying it would be fun,” Elizabeth Hardwick recalls. “We thought of it as a one-shot.” The next morning, Epstein called Bob Silvers and asked him to become its editor.

At the time, Silvers was an associate editor of Harper’s. “I never thought Bob would leave the magazine,” Epstein says. “He had what seemed like a very good job.” But Silvers had been thinking along the same lines. “There was a need for a book review, but it was thought to be hopeless,” he says, employing his signature indirect syntax. “In the absence of the Book Review, there were no reviews, no place for ads. Publishers were going crazy. The thought emerged that perhaps we could start our own.”

Silvers was a good choice. A member of the raffish expatriate crowd who collected around The Paris Review in the fifties, he became Paris editor of the newly formed journal when its founder, George Plimpton, decamped for New York. His roommate (or boatmate, as it happened) was the future bandleader Peter Duchin, who had acquired a Thames River barge and moored it on the right bank of the Seine, hard by the Crazy Horse Saloon. “Bob was a workaholic,” recalls Duchin. “He’d be off in the corner editing a piece while I was having a jam session.” Silvers shows up with some regularity in Duchin’s memoir, Ghost of a Chance, which offers a vivid glimpse of their floating salon. Duchin played Fauré on his upright piano while Silvers annotated galleys: “There was always something delicious to eat on the stove—a pot-au-feu, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne … ” They didn’t have a phone; writers were forced to board ship in order to conduct a meeting.

In 1959, Silvers returned to New York and the Harper’s job. Not yet 30, he had already gained a reputation as the possessor of a formidable intellect. The son of a poultry farmer who’d left Wall Street for the pastoral life in Farmingdale, on Long Island, he graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 17, one of those geniusy adolescents—Susan Sontag was another—who arrived at the university, Schopenhauer in hand, while their high-school classmates back home were reading Silas Marner.

A common refrain you hear whenever his name comes up is, Bob knows about everything. “He could go from the obscurantist dialectics of some long-forgotten seventies-era Marxist groupuscule to the niceties of modern Austrian politics,” observes Tony Judt, a frequent contributor to the Review. Nor was his copious store of knowledge confined to matters of literature and politics. He was also familiar with the latest theories of child-rearing—though he has no children of his own. “When I had a baby, he knew everything about that,” says Alexandra Schlesinger (wife of Arthur Jr.), who was his first assistant. “He knew what to feed the baby, he knew all about neonatal care.”

Newly installed in his job at Harper’s, Silvers commissioned Hardwick to write an article for the magazine on the state of our literary culture. The result, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” provoked a tumult. (Even the then-owner of Harper’s, Cass Canfield, wrote a letter of protest.)

Hardwick’s main argument was not just that reviewers were too quick to praise; they were dull. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory.” No critic or journal compelled one’s attention. The Saturday Review of Literature had a peak circulation of 630,000, but in order to maintain it, it had dropped “of Literature” from its name. The Times Book Review, then as now the most influential journal in America devoted primarily to reviewing books, was unexciting. Where in America could you find critics of the stature of such English literary titans as Cyril Connolly and V. S. Pritchett? “The adaptable reviewer, the placid, superficial commentator might reasonably survive in local newspapers,” Hardwick concluded, “but for the great metropolitan publications, the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting, should expect to find their audience.” Without knowing it, Hardwick had written a manifesto for The New York Review of Books.

“Here we are in the hectic whirl of putting out the new book review,” Lowell wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop that March. “Lizzie [Hardwick] is furiously engaged and in a way making inspired use of her abilities—for God knows we need a review that at least believes in standards and can intuit excellence.”