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The Ma and Pa of the Intelligentsia

The office was chaos. “You walked in and it looked like a fan had spread papers over everything,” recalls Minot. It was that glorious and long-ago time when people smoked cigarettes; Luc Sante rolled his own. Silvers had a brass stand-alone ashtray filled with butts. The furniture was secondhand—not shabby-chic but shabby. (For some reason, Silvers’s desk was adorned with the presidential seal.) But where else could you meet Susan Sontag, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joan Didion? Oliver Sacks would pop in for a chat; A. Whitney Ellsworth, the magazine’s Wasp publisher, arrived with his hunting dogs.

The work ethic was deeply ingrained. Silvers sometimes spent the night at the office. In the late afternoon, he’d rush out to a lecture at the Council on Foreign Relations, show up at a dinner party, and then head back to the office to deal with the next breaking crisis. One night, just before the outbreak of the Iraq war, he phoned Tony Judt and begged him to revise a full-page ad that was about to run in the Times protesting the war. Judt was in London, nursing a head cold, when Silvers called. “Woozy with decongestants but given an adrenaline surge by the urgency of the matter and Bob’s distinctive powers of persuasion, I sat down, hammered something out, and fired it back by fax in the middle of the night”—New York time.

Silvers had not one but four assistants. Nathaniel Rich, now an editor at The Paris Review (and the son of the Times’s Frank Rich), started out as an intern at the Review. He sat at one of the four desks clustered in front of Silvers’s desk, “like one of the law clerks in a Dickens novel.” The clerks had erected a wall of galleys to protect themselves; Silvers would start dictating a letter to whoever peered over the trench. “I was right in the line of fire.” Rich was a Yale graduate, but the look was hardly Ivy League. One of the assistants had a shaved head and tattoos: Rich describes him as “a mix between New York intellectual and San Diego surfer boy.” People around the office thought he was a messenger.

Silvers’s zeal as an editor is legendary. Every contributor has stories about messengers arriving with a packet of galleys at their door on Christmas Eve or getting a call from Silvers at their remote farmhouse in Provence as they were sitting down to Sunday dinner. Daniel Mendelsohn recalls the time Silvers called him with a single proposed revision: “We did think that the word compelling could be avoided.”

The goal is always to make pieces—one of Silvers’s favorite words—“stronger.” He edits by pencil and often goes through five or six galleys. He shows me a tribute by Sam Tanenhaus, current editor of the Times Book Review, in Le Monde. Tanenhaus describes Silvers as impitoyable—pitiless. Silvers jabs his finger at the word and repeats with delighted emphasis, “Impitoyable.

From the beginning, the Review leaned to the left and wasn’t shy about it. (One of its most controversial articles was a piece on the growing racial unrest in American cities illustrated with a diagram on the cover showing how to make a Molotov cocktail.) The magazine’s birth coincided with the birth of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, an event it closely monitored. Ellen Willis, Tom Hayden, Andrew Kopkind, and other veterans of the New Left (Greenwich Village branch) were regular contributors. Mary McCarthy sent dispatches from Hanoi; the crusty muckraker I. F. Stone hammered away at the Johnson administration’s disinformation campaign in Cambodia. Throughout the sixties and early seventies, amid its erudite coverage of books about medieval art, Latin poetry, and the history of literary criticism, the Review trained a keen eye on the events that would define that turbulent era: the trial of Bobby Seale, the Columbia riots, the march on the Pentagon.

Progressive in its politics, it was anything but doctrinaire. Paul Goodman’s “Reflections on Racism, Spite, Guilt, and Violence” was a skeptical look at the notion that blacks were the victims of white middle-class racism; Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Violence” asserted that the New Left was ignoring Marx: “The old society” would be brought down not by violent revolution but by the contradictions of capitalism. Then there was Christopher Lasch’s series of pieces on the tendency of the left to distract itself with cultural issues—the genesis of his classic The Agony of the American Left. If the Review was radical, its radicalism was nuanced.

Philip Nobile claimed in his envious book-length tirade, Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and The New York Review of Books, that by the early seventies, the Review had receded into “a literary magazine on the British nineteenth-century model, which would mix politics and literature in a tough but gentlemanly fashion.” Nobile exaggerates. There was plenty of acerbic political commentary in the years that followed. The Review continued to rail against the Reagan era’s push for tax cuts and the consolidation of military power. But it was also refining the tone of high-minded, clubbable Oxbridge urbanity that has prompted the magazine’s detractors to refer to it as “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” Thumbs up for David Lodge on Frank Kermode, Frank Kermode on John Bayley, and John Bayley on David Lodge.