November 15, 1995
A few years ago, in a gloomy little book called Real Presences, George Steiner performed an anticipatory autopsy on our Age of Criticism and proposed a prophylactic fantasy. “Imagine a society in which . . . all discourse, oral or written, about serious books or paintings or pieces of music is held to be illicit verbiage a counter-Platonic republic from which the reviewer and the critic have been banished.” The reader’s first, dismayed reaction is likely to be: but that would be a world without George Steiner! In my case, dismay was succeeded by a shudder of pure horror. For it would also be a world without the New York Review of Books. Suddenly “our current misere,” our “secondary city” of “busy vacancy” and “mandarin madness,” our “Byzantine dominion of secondary and parasitic discourse” (Steiner), seemed ever so much cozier.
Too cozy, perhaps? That’s the usual complaint. The warm, tingly feeling Spiro Agnew imagined stealing over liberals as they opened each new issue of the Review has been noted and derided on the other side of the political spectrum as well. Well, so what? Who wouldn’t like to spend a few hours every couple of weeks in an Ivy or Oxbridge common room, snuggled in a plush red leather armchair, fine sherry in hand, contemplating the rich Oriental rug, glancing occasionally into the flickering fire, lulled by the murmur of eminent Old Boys and Girls in erudite conversation ...? Only a nasty old leftist or rightist ideologue, that’s who.
It’s thirty years now that the Review has been purveying these guilty pleasures, and here’s their first anthology. Considering their extraordinary success, why so long? Possibly because to issue an anthology is, usually, to define oneself, make a statement, take a stand. Which is just what, back to and including the legendary first issue, the Review has gracefully avoided doing. The Review appeared not only without a manifesto but with barely an explanation-- nothing more than the lofty and incontestable observation that “the serious discussion of important books is itself an indispensable literary activity.” (Edmund Wilson’s famous dig in the second issue, that “the disappearance [during a printers’ strike] of the Times Book Review ... only made us realize that it had never existed,” also went unelaborated.) And since then, next to nothing: no editorials, no interviews, no memoirs, no romans a clef. “The Case of the New York Review,” Dennis Wrong’s widely-discussed 1970 critique in Commentary, went unanswered; a similar throw of the gauntlet would probably have called forth an entire issue of Partisan Review. The First Anthology, the ideal occasion, one would have thought, for a retrospective and apologia, comes with no preface at all: only two short (though of course graceful) paragraphs saying “It was so hard to choose!” This is reticence elevated to a principle.
Well, if they won’t join the quarrel, we’ll just have to quarrel without them. Not, however, about The First Anthology. It could scarcely be better, though it could doubtless have been just as good with a completely different table of contents. (I’m sure it was hard to choose.) A few selections are merely fine; most are superb: Robert Lowell on Plath, Isaiah Berlin on Herzen, V.S. Pritchett on Balzac, Joseph Brodsky on Nadezhda Mandelstam, Robert Hughes on Warhol, Richard Ellmann on Joyce, Gabriele Annan on Dietrich, Susan Sontag on photography. There’s Dwight Macdonald at Lyndon Johnson’s White House Arts Festival, Elizabeth Hardwick and in Watts, and Primo Levi in Auschwitz. There’s an inspiring memoir by Andrei Sahkarov, a hair-raising memoir by Oliver Sacks, and a rollicking memoir by Gore Vidal. Weight and wit: vintage NYR.
Even the anthology’s one clinker, Hannah Arendt’s alternately obscure and pedestrian “Reflections on Violence,” very much belongs here, since it nicely illustrates one of the Review’s characteristic weaknesses: a soft spot for distinguished windbags. Line up the several specimens of this class with their opposite numbers from the London Review of Books-- Arendt and Berlin vs. Perry Anderson and E.P. Thompson, Stanley Hoffmann vs. R.W. Johnson, Theodore Draper vs. Paul Foot, Murray Kempton vs. Christopher Hitchens, George Kennan vs. Ian Gilmour, Vaclav Havel vs. Boris Kagarlitsky -- and you see why the NYR is now only the second most interesting journal in the English-speaking world.
As this list suggests, on politics and society the Review hasn’t, for my money at least, quite come up to the level of its writing on history, literature, and the arts, (The proportions of the Anthology suggest that maybe the editors think so, too.) This is no very ignominious failure. In any case, the occasional deadwood has been more than made up for by the presence of Paul Goodman, I.F. Stone, Emma Rothschild, Robert Heilbroner, Christopher Jencks, Andrew Hacker, Barrington Moore, Amartya Sen, and above all, the two most original and important social critics of the age, who came to national attention in large part through the Review: Noam Chomsky and Christopher Lasch.
Discussion of the New York Review can easily turn into a version of the Glass Bead Game, with contributors’ (and non-contributors’) names as counters. Nothing wrong with that-- I certainly haven’t finished dropping names. Actually, a NYR trivia quiz would undoubtedly be more fun, and perhaps even more use, than another run through the standard left critique: it’s timid, it’s bland, it’s white, it’s male; too few new voices, too few cutting-edge topics, too few Italian-American contributors. No doubt some of these complaints are valid; at any rate, the editors’ longstanding non-response seems to constitute a plea of nolo contendere. They might, though, have noted in their defense that you can only produce something interesting by ignoring what doesn’t interest you. The responsibility of editors is to publish the truth, but not the whole truth.
I don’t, however, mean to hobble anyone else’s hobbyhorse-- as a matter of fact, just about to climb onto a couple of my own. What, for example, happened to Chomsky? “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” and “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” are much the best and most important things ever to have appeared in the Review. It’s hard to imagine that the editors did not recognize this or to understand why they subsequently gave Chomsky up to Z, Black Rose, and Radical America without a struggle.
The Review’s drift toward the center in the mid-Seventies had other unfortunate consequences. I don’t blame the editors for pulling in their horns ideologically-- it’s hard to keep on announcing crises (even real ones) without losing one moral balance and rhetorical edge. Besides, they had other, equally tasty and nutritious fish to fry-- titillating our minds is no less important than ministering to our souls. There was no dereliction of duty, no trahison des clercs. But there was a missed opportunity. In becoming more academic and Atlanticist, the Review gained a high finish and sponsored many delightful excursions into scholarly hinterlands. But they might have invested their intellectual profits a bit more adventurously. One prerogative of an institution with so much surplus prestige is a tutelary relationship with the next generation. “They should have more young people,” Elizabeth Hardwick admitted to an interviewer in the early Seventies; “but where do you find them?” How hard did they try? I can think of quite a few young, very gifted, non-academic writers who were scrambling for a foothold in the Seventies and Eighties and who could have learned a good deal from the Review’s editors. A partial list: Paul Berman, Sven Birkerts, David Denby, Barbara Ehrenreich, Russell Jacoby, Walter Kendrick, Scott Malcolmson, Greil Marcus, Jim Miller, Jim Sleeper, Ellen Willis, James Wolcott. True, these writers are all established now, in one way or another. But one’s audience matters, and they would be better writers if they had written (or in the case of Willis and Wolcott, written more often) for the Review.
Silvers and Epstein will undoubtedly, and deservedly, go down in literary history as great editors. But a great editor should be a coach as well as a scout, a pedagogue as well as a technician, a mentor as well as a schmoozer. Silvers/Epstein were uniquely placed to instruct talented young writers in the virtues and the graces, to impart a sense of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty-- not only, as they have done, by example, but with hands on. They had the wit, the tact, and the clout to have, let’s say, warned Bruce Bawer off premature magisterialness; teased Scott Malcolmson into an occasional macho or Eurocentric fling; put Christopher Hitchens on a strict budget of abusive epithets; fed David Denby some intellectual red meat; coaxed Walter Kendrick and Ellen Willis into giving sex, theory, and rock ‘n roll a rest now and then; persuaded Barbara Ehrenreich and James Wolcott to cool the wisecracks; forbidden Paul Berman to prate about Parisian intellectuals. They could have rescued Russell Jacoby and Walter Karp from disgraceful neglect. They might even have saved Alexander Cockburn-- the most talented political writer of his generation and still, in his sober intervals, the best-- from the ravages of chronic polemical intoxication.
Perhaps this is implausible. Possibly no combination of editorial genius and saintliness could have produced a new generation of Dwight Macdonalds, Edmund Wilsons, Irving Howes, Susan Sontags, and Gore Vidals. But the Review’s editors didn’t give the impression of straining every, or any, nerve in that direction. All the more regrettable this, since at the same time editorial Darth Vaders were busy on behalf of the Empire. “Conservative journals, such as The New Criterion and Commentary assiduously, and wisely, cultivate younger writers,” as Russell Jacoby pointed out in The Last Intellectuals. “The New York Review ... never did; partly as a result fewer writers on the left had the same chance to acquire a public voice.”
What they have done for the left, though, is to have kept the center vital. Not to be able to respect at least some of the most respected figures in one’s culture would be painfully alienating. Think of it this way: if it were not for Garry Wills, Ronald Dworkin, James Fallows, Ronald Steel, J.K. Galbraith, Thomas Powers, Solly Zuckerman, and other NYR regulars, then George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Irving Kristol would hold the intellectual ascendancy in American political life. That would be awfully hard on my morale, at least.
Even though nowadays the Review usually lacks the moral intensity of the Stone-Chomsky-Goodman-Lasch era, that is not the sole virtue of literary and political criticism, nor always the most important one. It rarely lacks clarity, breadth, rigor, subtlety, or wit. To practice all the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic virtues simultaneously is, after all, supremely difficult. The Review has succeeded better than most other American journals. If you’re in the mood to make them an anniversary present, you might say: better than any.