A Nostalgia for Molotovs: "The New York Review"

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, April 1998 | Go to article overview

A Nostalgia for Molotovs: "The New York Review"


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


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"

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

The New York Review of Books occupies a 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. Some of these publications were explicitly devoted to promoting the drug culture, rock music, and sexual "liberation", most were infused with some version of adolescent political radicalism. As the Sixties wore on, all were "against the war" in Vietnam, suspicious (to say the least) of American power, entranced by the thought of their own higher virtue. 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,(1) "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. …

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