The Rebirth of the NYRB
What blew the dust off The New York Review? In no sense, really, has the paper returned to its New Left sensibility of the late 1960s: Chomsky, Hayden and Willis have not been reinstated; young lions like The Baffler's Tom Frank and The Village Voice's Rick Perlstein have not been invited to contribute; Eric Foner, Bruce Cumings, Richard Rorty, Chalmers Johnson, Stephen Holmes, Anatol Lieven, Elaine Showalter and Carol Brightman continue to publish much of their finest work not in The New York Review of Books but in the more radical, eccentric and sprightly pages of the London Review of Books. In short, the Review's liberal (and establishment) soul remains intact. What has changed significantly, in the age of Bush, is the Review's style of rhetoric and degree of political focus and commitment.
Longtime editor Robert Silvers is not eager to discuss the Review, but he does allow, "The pieces we have published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American destructiveness, American relations with its allies, American protections of its traditions of liberties." He worries that critical voices are being silenced: "The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the effect of muffling dissent."
The Review's response to that atmosphere is a most welcome return to form. By forcefully articulating what was essentially the European position on Iraq and the "war on terror," the Review has recovered much of the élan and urgency it possessed in the late 1960s. "They have been quite influential," notes Brady Kiesling, "in consolidating the gut feeling of a whole intellectual class that Bush is a frighteningly weak and ignorant President." "One didn't think of it in recent years as being particularly a political magazine," says Norman Mailer, who has contributed to the Review off and on since 1963, and who is a principal actor in the paper's current revival. "I think that The New York Review, which has been evolving for many years, has evolved one more time."
In 1959 Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an acerbic essay for Harper's titled "The Decline of Book Reviewing." "The book-review sections as a cultural enterprise are, like a pocket of unemployment, in a state of baneful depression insofar as liveliness and interest are concerned," she professed. Three years later, during the winter of 1962-63, a newspaper strike kept the New York dailies off the streets for several months, and Hardwick and her friends came to realize that a Sunday afternoon without the New York Times Book Review was bliss. In 1963 Hardwick, along with Robert Lowell and Jason Epstein, launched the Review and in the process assembled a stellar cast of writers. The editors who helped to create the Review--Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, both of whom are now 74--are still at the helm today.
In the mid-1960s political developments at home and abroad drove the paper to the left. I.F. Stone, Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture were among the first to expose the folly of the Vietnam War, and they did so at length in the pages of the Review. In its most militant and pugnacious phase in the late 1960s, the Review published several of Noam Chomsky's most magisterial essays, alongside articles by writers like Hayden and Kopkind, whose 1967 essay on Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by a drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the cover, which drew a firestorm of outrage and became the centerpiece of the neoconservative campaign against the Review.
After Vietnam, the Review jettisoned its radical sensibility and moved closer to the center. To a considerable extent, a tight circle of New York intellectuals, Ivy League stars, Nobel laureates and Oxbridge luminaries replaced Chomsky and his cohort. The paper still printed the work of dissidents, but they now tended to be dissidents from within the establishment. If Chomsky did much to shape the Review's identity in the 1960s, it was Silvers's close friend, the Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin, who helped to define the Review after Vietnam with his emphasis on liberalism, pluralism, individual liberty and the dangers of political extremism. (Vaclav Havel, to some extent, played that role in the 1990s.) "There was a very drastic shift," says Chomsky, whose work stopped appearing in the Review in 1975, and who insists today that writers who had "any connection with activist sectors of the peace movement" were "virtually eliminated, except for token participation." (Silvers declines to discuss Chomsky or his allegations: "I don't feel it's right for me," he says, "to get into a personal account of my relationship with any writer.")
Some left-leaning members of the Review family evince frustration with the paper's trajectory. Says Gore Vidal, "It's essentially bien-pensant on most matters." He produces a familiar litany of complaints about the Review: stodginess, Anglophilia, nonchalance toward younger contributors. Vidal has a long history with the Review, whose editors have routinely published his literary criticism but have rejected some of his most brilliant and acerbic political essays--including "The Holy Family" and "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," the latter of which appeared in The Nation. "I am forbidden politics" at the Review, he professed in a 1991 letter to a friend, portions of which appear in Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal: A Biography. The Review, Vidal wrote, "grows not only duller and duller, the fate of most papers, but the writers do not question the status quo and the examined life is too dangerous for their pages."
Perhaps. But the Review's political virtues should not go unnoticed. The paper was always hostile to neoconservatism: Silvers and Epstein never followed Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer and other New York intellectuals into the Republican camp. Indeed, one of the most piquant surveys of the neoconservative throng was undertaken by Alfred Kazin in 1983--and published in The New York Review of Books. Down through the years, the Review has maintained its commitment to New Deal/Great Society liberalism and to civil liberties, racial equality and human rights.