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The New York Review at 50

February 8th, 2013 - 3:03 pm

Joseph Epstein’s amusing Wall Street Journal article about The New York Review of Books the other day reminded me that it had been a long time since I had actually read anything in that once essential-seeming organ of the formerly chic Leftist establishment. Still, it’s clear from simply glancing at the Review that its politics haven’t changed over the years — it’s still predictably anti-American and anti-Israel. But as Mr. Epstein points out, its pool of talent has shrunk dramatically.  Where the Review once featured such A-list intellectuals as W.H. Auden and Hannah Arendt,  at their recent 50th anniversary celebration the marquee names included Joan Didion, Daryl Pinckney (who?), and Daniel Mendelsohn.

Ho, I mean to say, hum.

The New York Review  was never what one would call a beneficent force in American intellectual life, but there was a time when it was a conspicuous megaphone for the Left.  I wrote at some length about the NYRB in my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America and now that the Review is celebrating its golden anniversary, I thought I would share those thoughts with my PJM readers. I called the piece “A Nostalgia for Molotovs” and opened with two epigraphs:

From the beginning it was pointless to argue about the sincerity of Radical Chic. Unquestionably the basic impulse, “red diaper” or otherwise, was sincere. But, as in most human endeavors focused upon an ideal, there seemed to be some double-track thinking going on. —Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic, 1970

He oscillated . . . between identification with the Communists and violent hostility towards them. . . . At every stage, however, he endeavored to preserve his own reputation as a “Leftist,” and even to represent himself and his philosophy as the embodiment of “Leftism” par excellence. Consequently, even when attacking the Communists and reviled by them he made a point of directing far more vehement attacks against the forces of reaction, the bourgeoisie, or the United States Government.
—Leszek Kolakowski, on Jean-Paul Sartre, 1978

I went on as follows:

Barbecuing pork

On December 4, 1969, The New York Review of Books published “The Trial of Bobby Seale.” This special supplement contained a partial transcript of the 1969 trial of the infamous Black Panther leader who—along with Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and other members of the “Chicago Seven”—was on trial in Chicago for conspiracy to incite a riot. (Seale was also facing a first-degree murder charge in New Haven.) The trial riveted the nation’s attention. The disturbances instigated by Hayden (who said he expected twenty-five people to die in the melee) and others on the occasion of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 had already emerged as an iconic moment in the mythology of the counterculture. The episode was as significant in its way as the Woodstock music festival or college anti-war demonstrations.

The transcript published in The New York Review covers the proceedings of one afternoon in which a mistrial was declared and Seale was cited for contempt of court. (At one point, his conduct had been so obstreperous that the court ordered him bound and gagged.) The transcript was prefaced with an essay by Jason Epstein, a co-founder of The New York Review. It is a remarkable document. Epstein, like most leftists at the time, was clearly sympathetic to Seale. He was also clearly contemptuous of Judge Julius Hoffman, the presiding magistrate. Epstein assured his readers that the source of Judge Hoffman’s authority was “not in his juridical wisdom” (which, he claimed, was “hardly remarkable”) but “in an unmistakable theatrical gift.” The transcript was supposed to corroborate these contentions. It was also supposed to garner support for Seale. Epstein assured his readers that the evidence against him “was sparse.” The charges against the other defendants, too, Epstein suggested, were “metaphysically conceived.” Seale himself, Epstein explained, “had been invited to come [to Chicago] only at the last minute as a substitute for Eldridge Cleaver.” How then could he have been involved in a conspiracy?  In Seale’s case, according to Epstein, the evidence consisted of the allegation by an “undercover policeman” (read: an untrustworthy witness) that Seale, at a rally organized by Hayden and others, had urged his audience to “barbecue some pork.” Over the objection of the defense, Judge Hoffman construed this to mean “burn some pigs,” that is, policemen. Epstein did not offer his own interpretation of the phrase. Instead he launched into an exposition of the convoluted law governing conspiracy. It does not take any special hermeneutical gifts, however, to understand what Bobby Seale intended in his speech. What he said was, “If a pig comes up to us and starts swinging a billy club, and you check around and you got your piece, you got to down that pig in defense of yourself! We’re gonna barbecue some pork!” After Seale’s performance, Tom Hayden told the crowd to “make sure that if blood is going to flow, it will flow all over the city.”

“The Trial of Bobby Seale” was typical of the political reporting one could expect to find in The New York Review in the late Sixties. It was the kind of piece that gave the paper its special place in the annals of America’s cultural revolution. Plenty of other publications—Ramparts, for example, and Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, even old-Left stalwarts like The Nation—played important roles in defining the counterculture and propagating its spirit and its ideas. (The advertisements that ran in such publications in the late 1960s also give one a good sense of the radical atmosphere of the times.  Among the ads one finds accompanying “The Trial of Bobby Seale,” for example, is one for “the first-run campus premiere” of Fidel, a film brought to the world by “Review Presentations,” an offshoot of The New York Review of Books.  This “startling new film on Fidel and Cuba today” is described as “an extraordinary in-depth report on Fidel and the continuing revolution. Beautifully photographed in color, it shows Fidel among his people, listening, arguing, philosophizing, laughing, cajoling, reminiscing” and includes “a very moving section on Che called ‘The Ballad of Che Guevara.’ ”) Some of these publications were explicitly devoted to promoting the drug culture, rock music, and sexual “liberation”; some were openly Marxist, frankly admiring of Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and other totalitarian leaders; all were infused with some version of political radicalism. And as the Sixties wore on, all were “against the war” in Vietnam—that is, against U.S. intervention in Vietnam—and adamantly opposed to the use of American military power. But none commanded anything like the intellectual cachet that The New York Review enjoyed and, to a lesser extent, continues to enjoy among the left-liberal intelligentsia. And none was, at that critical moment in the Sixties, quite so effective—or quite so pernicious—in helping to institutionalize the gospel of political radicalism among America’s intellectual elite.

It is a curious story. The New York Review was the brainchild largely of Jason Epstein, the publishing wunderkind who created the distinguished paperback lines of Anchor Books at Doubleday and Vintage Books at Random House. By the late 1950s, the need for a serious, general-interest review was patent. The novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick, who was then married to Robert Lowell and who went on to become advisory editor at The New York Review, summed up the received feeling in “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which Harper’s published in 1959:

 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. Everyone is found to have “filled a need,” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.”

As Philip Nobile put it in Intellectual Skywriting, his intermittently hagiographic history of the first ten years of The New York Review, “everybody talked about a new book review, but nobody did anything about it.”

The necessary spur came during the 114-day printers’ strike in 1962-63. The strike shut down all the major New York newspapers, including The New York Times and the Herald Tribune, whose book pages, along with those of The Saturday Review, constituted the main sources of book reviews and, not incidentally, the chief venues for book advertising. (Looking back on the reviewing scene in The New York Review’s second issue in the summer of 1963, Edmund Wilson remarked that “the disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed.”)

Although Epstein’s association with Random House precluded his being the editor of the contemplated new book review, his energy, connections, and organizational acumen brought The New York Review into being. It was a fateful stroke that led him to appoint the precocious Robert B. Silvers as editor. (Epstein’s wife, Barbara Epstein, was co-editor from the beginning until her death in 2006, but it was always Silvers who imparted to the Review much of its intellectual and nearly all of its ideological sheen.)

Filling a need

Then in his early thirties, Silvers had been working as an editor at Harper’s since 1959. Something of a child prodigy, Silvers had matriculated at the University of Chicago in 1945 at the tender age of sixteen. He was graduated two and a half years later after, Nobile reports, “having numerous requirements waived.” Silvers was briefly press secretary for Connecticut Governor Chester Bowles, Jr., in 1950, after which he went to the Yale Law School for a few semesters. He then joined the U.S. Army, which posted him to Paris. In the mid-Fifties, Paris was still Sartre’s Paris: a Paris in which—among intellectuals, anyway—anti-Americanism was as de rigueur as were brittle intellectual snobbery and left-wing politics. Silvers seems to have found it an intoxicating combination. He lingered in Paris for some six years, absorbing the atmosphere and graduating from the Ecole des Sciences Politiques (where he met Raymond Aron) in 1956. He also worked part of the time for George Plimpton’s newly launched Paris Review (to which he contributed an interview with the novelist Françoise Sagan in 1956). His energy and editorial flair were apparent from the beginning. John P. C. Train, then managing editor of the Paris Review, recalls a “shy but formidable” figure who “made the Paris Review what it was.”

When the Algerian conflict escalated, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) embarked on a program of atrocities explicitly “designed to provoke the French army into savage reprisals.” The policy succeeded. Torture had been officially abolished in France in 1789, but within a few years the French army had been provoked into authorizing the torture of Algerian prisoners to extract information about terrorist plans. The result, as the historian Paul Johnson noted, was “a competition of terror.” The cause of Algerian independence was taken up by all right-thinking (that is, left-leaning) intellectuals. (Of course, the practice of torture by the French army was roundly condemned across the ideological spectrum.) Declaring that colonials had replaced the proletariat in the hierarchy of the oppressed, Sartre called upon French workers to “support Algerian fighters” in their efforts “to break the fetters of colonization.” Numerous first-hand accounts of atrocities perpetrated by the French army were published, much to the consternation of the French authorities. Sartre himself contributed a preface to one such contraband pamphlet, Henri Alleg’s La Question, thus conferring unimpeachable prestige on this mode of political activism. Alleg’s pamphlet provoked moral outrage throughout France. At the request of John Fischer, the editor of Harper’s, Silvers translated a chapter of another such report, La Gangrène, a grisly account by four Algerians of their torture in Paris at the hands of the French police.

I mention these details because the intellectual and political posture—indeed, even the social posture—of The New York Review clearly owes a great deal to Silvers’s extended holiday in Paris. By all accounts, Silvers is as shy of personal publicity as Sartre was addicted to it; and where Sartre was a graphomaniac who wrote and published millions of words, Silvers seems early on to have decided against writing. According to Philip Nobile, Silvers’s only published writing, apart from the two items mentioned above, is “A Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing,” which ran, anonymously, in a supplement to Harper’s about “Writing in America” in 1959. (He also published an interview with “David Burg,” the pen name of a young Soviet defector, in Harper’s in May 1961.) Silvers has disputed the influence of Sartre, claiming that his own views were more informed by the example of Sartre’s great critic Raymond Aron. But he brought to his editorship of The New York Review—especially in the 1960s and early 1970s—an engagé attitude very similar to that perfected by Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1950s and 1960s:  relentlessly haughty, cerebral, cliquish, at once socially ambitious and disdainful of society, ever in search of approved gauchiste “causes,” instinctively anti-American.

The trick was knowing how and when to mix these qualities—which to emphasize, which to downplay—and at this task Silvers quickly proved himself a master. In the beginning, highbrow elements, leavened by celebrity, predominated. The first, trial issue of The New York Review was cobbled together on short notice in the winter of 1963.

The very bulk of the issue was a testament that its time had come. It contained forty-odd pieces, including F. W. Dupee on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Dwight Macdonald on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Politics of Hope, Philip Rahv (a founding editor of Partisan Review) on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Mary McCarthy on William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and W. H. Auden on David Jones’s Anathemata; there were also reviews by Norman Mailer, Lionel Abel, Steven Marcus, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and Alfred Kazin; Robert Penn Warren contributed a poem, Irving Howe wrote about The Partisan Review Anthology. William Phillips, another founding editor of Partisan Review, reviewed Elias Canetti’s huge book Crowds and Power. Richard Poirier wrote about Frank Kermode, William Styron wrote about Frank Tannenbaum, Midge Decter wrote about recent novels, and Robert Jay Lifton wrote about Arata Ossada’s Children of the A-Bomb. Elizabeth Hardwick contributed two pieces, as did Robert Lowell (an obituary of Robert Frost, who had just died, and a poem) and John Berryman (a review of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand and three “Dream Songs”).

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