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Robert Silvers: 1929-2017

Robert Silvers, who died this week aged eighty-seven, was one of the founders of The New York Review of Books in 1963; the others were Barbara and Jason Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and the publisher A Whitney Ellsworth. Silvers was the first joint editor of the review, with Barbara Epstein. After her death in 2006, he became sole editor.

For John Banville, a regular contributor (with Fintan O’Toole and Colm Tóibín making up an Irish triumvirate), Silvers was simply “one of the most significant cultural figures of our time” and the NYRB under his editorship “a unique phenomenon: unapologetically intellectual, politically radical, distinctive in its high-toned New York fashion and wholly committed to civilised values”.

The paper (as apparently Silvers always called it) first made its appearance at a time when the New York Times, including its book review section, was off the streets due to a prolonged printers’ strike. But the extent to which its emergence was a reaction to the temporary dearth of literary reviewing may later have been exaggerated for the sake of providing the review with a simple “foundation myth”: in fact the writers who came together in the NYRB did not have a high opinion of the Times’s book pages, so the strike may have been less a problem to be responded to than the opening they had been waiting for. The first issue was a great success. With essays by Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, WH Auden, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal and John Berryman, it isn’t hard to see why.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker perhaps gets to the nub of the review’s importance when he writes that it “raised the brow not just of American criticism ‑ bringing elements of rigor, argument, and expansiveness to reviewing and reporting that remain intimidating to this day ‑ but of American intellectual life. In one way, he harvested the best of the growing world of American academia as it boomed through the sixties and seventies, but in another way he helped direct that harvest. In keeping alive a paper of high scholarly values that was still meant for the general reader, he sustained ideals of commonality that were becoming, in every other way, endangered.”

These qualities of “the paper” – a relative “expansiveness” in terms of the space that could be devoted to a subject (particularly to accommodate necessary historical background), a preference for rigour, clear exposition and calm argument over anger or animus (though the late Tony Judt wasn’t averse to occasionally showing his claws) and a commitment to a common intellectual culture informed by broadly humanistic perspectives rather than whatever theory had most recently taken possession of the academy – have been an inspiration to many others who have since attempted, within their means, to perform a somewhat similar function in their own geographical space.

Judgments on Silvers as a person seem to vary. Adam Gopnik speaks of his “immense social charm and grace”, but others found him “monarchical”, difficult, temperamental and demanding; Andrew O’Hagan felt he rather preferred ideas to people. He certainly seems to have had style and panache. James Wolcott in Vanity Fair remembered him at a book party in honour of the elderly Gore Vidal:  “ ... the middle of the room was completely vacated, as if Moses had parted the Red Sea: on one side ... were the majority of attendees, making the usual rhubarb; on the other, Gore, in a wheelchair, surrounded by a few disciples and Bob Silvers, who looked as if he had just stepped off a yacht, exuding Schweppervescence”.

The NYRB’s outstanding success is of course based on shrewd financial management as well as inspired and painstaking editing. It was bought from its original editors for a rumoured $5 million back in 1984 by the Mississippi patrician Rea S Hederman, whose family controlled a number of (very right-wing and racist) newspapers in that state. Hederman is still the review’s publisher today and operates it on a determinedly commercial basis. By making money for the publication, he told an interviewer last year, he can give its editors more resources to put toward their writers. The NYRB’s circulation is steady at 135,000 in print and another 15,000 online, while its ad revenues are stable, something Hederman considers an achievement in an era of sharply declining revenues elsewhere in print.

This solid commercial support has enabled not only intellectual excellence but also, it seems, a certain indulgence of eccentricity. One of the most engaging tributes to Silvers this week came from Alexandra Schwartz. Now a staff writer at The New Yorker but formerly one of Silvers’s (four) personal assistants, Schwartz went to work at the review when she was twenty-four and he was eighty-two. She and her colleagues had the task of seeing that the wishes of the autocrat were carried out to the letter (most importantly, that every message sent out above his name was correct in spelling, syntax and grammar) and smoothing out, in so far as possible, the difficulties that might arise from his tendency not to reply to mail or acknowledge submitted manuscripts until he was ready – or had rediscovered them – sometimes months later.

Silvers didn’t do email, or indeed computers. On the rare occasions when he was unable to come in to the office, proofs of the edition’s pages, taped to large manila sheets, would be despatched to his apartment by taxi.

He would phone the office every morning at ten-thirty, sometimes already on his way in a taxi, to have his e-mail read to him by whichever assistant had had the ill fortune to come in first, and to dictate his replies ... (We all shared the computer that connected to his e-mail address ... When work was slow, you could sift through the treasure trove of his past digital correspondence. Bob himself never looked at the screen, and would edit printouts of his e-mail drafts in pen or pencil, sometimes after they had been sent.) When he didn’t have a lunch or dinner obligation, he ate at his desk, which, like his papers and his clothes, was covered with the mysterious remnants of meals haphazardly consumed in the line of duty.

Schwartz refers to the “editorial first-person plural, related to, but distinct from, the royal ‘we.’ Editors use it in communication with their writers to disperse responsibility for bad news and to imply that difficult decisions have been reached by consensus ...” But, she remarks, there was only one “I” behind that plural screen. Certainly it seems to have been the case that it was Silvers’s personal combination of gifts – precision, patience, intelligence of course, high standards, a knack for matching writer and book, and a thick enough hide not to mind very much if others found him impossibly demanding – that made, and make, the New York Review of Books special. But one might also suspect that the quality, and accumulated experience, of his support staff helped and the constancy of a publisher whose successful business model made such a romantic, old-fashioned and unlikely project still feasible in the twenty-first century.