A Half Century of Criticism: The New York Review of Books

It is one thing to see something fifty years old and think “I was alive when that happened!” and something else to see something a half century in the past and say, “I remember that!” One is history, the other, memory. The New York Review of Books recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by reprinting its first issue, which you can read here or buy a paper copy here. I was a (very) young man when this issue was printed — I didn’t read it then; I don’t know if it was distributed outside of New York City at the time, but I did start reading the Review not long after when the Vietnam War became an issue. This magazine was one of the first to oppose that war and nothing that I have ever read since has caused me to think that was a misinformed position. Still, that doesn’t mean that the NYRB was, or is, right about everything. But here, what I mean to do is look at this first issue as an historical artifact and examine what it has to say. Many of these books and writers were known to me at the time and some are still being read.
There was a newspaper strike in New York in 1963 and a business-minded publisher, Jason Epstein, realized that publishers would buy ads in a magazine devoted to books. Epstein was connected in New York’s literary world and soon teamed up with Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer unfairly known mostly for being Robert Lowell’s wife. Epstein’s wife, Barbara, became an editor and Hardwick recommended Robert Silvers of Harper’s as co-editor. Whitney Ellsworth became publisher. This group worked together for years running the magazine. Robert Silvers is the last of the team still alive. He still edits the New York Review.

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

Various lights of the New York literary scene signed on to contribute — Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Dwight MacDonald, Phillip Rahv, and so on. Most of these people knew each other, many had been associated with the Partisan Review. Now they reviewed each other’s books gratis to kick off the new magazine. The result was what the New Yorker called “the greatest first issue of any magazine ever”.

Staff of the  Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right.

Staff of the Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right, FW. DuPee at left.

The lead essay is a critique of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, written by F.W.DuPee, who had been instrumental, as editor of the Partisan Review,  in getting Baldwin to return from France to report on racial matters. It is jarring now to read the word “Negro” when applied to African-Americans, or black people of any nationality. It is even more jarring when the writer refers to “the Negro problem”. Those troublesome darkies! What a problem they pose! I am reminded of 19th Century references to the “problem of the Feminine”. Both terms assume that the person writing is the norm, that Negroes or women are somehow apart from the standard, normal sort of human being.
Baldwin’s book consists of two essays that appeared in magazines toward the end of 1962, “A Letter to My Nephew”, (retitled in the book version as “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”, DuPee calls this title “ominous”) and a much longer one, “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (retitled for the book, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”). Baldwin describes the problems of the Negro (his term) in America and warns that there is a great deal of anger being suppressed that will, eventually, find some voice. He writes of a meeting with Elijah Muhammed and the Chicago Muslim organization. Black Power, urban riots, and the Black Panthers are yet to come, but Baldwin is prophesying their birth. That is the part of the book that brings a response from DuPee. But Baldwin’s overall message is that blacks should not allow their humanity to be corrupted by the “American problem” while whites try to discover their own souls. DuPee rejects entirely the essay “Letter to My Nephew”, but it has a message for him, one of the “innocent and well meaning people” who have perpetrated a great wrong that they will not acknowledge because they believe that their hearts are Good. Baldwin to his nephew:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

Life is tragic, says Baldwin. Inevitably, it ends in death. The most significant word in the two essays is “love”. Love requires courage because it means directly confronting the tragic nature of humanity:

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

DuPee never once uses the word “love” in his review. His analysis of Baldwin’s book winds up basically supporting the notion that American blacks need to be non-violent, not because — as Baldwin pointed out — that was more comfortable for American whites, but because anything else would be harmful to the gains he thought that blacks were making. He is also clear on the fact that any kind of black uprising would be crushed. Baldwin is aware of this, too, and suggests that making whites fearful will only cause them to be more violent than they already are. And the angry outbursts of the ’60s and ’70s did wind up being fatal to many black people. Even so, it does not seem to be true that racial progress was slowed by these violent events — it may be that they served a purpose by demonstrating that, however nice the words used by “innocent” whites, they masked a deep-rooted inability to achieve the kind of spiritual state that Baldwin proposes. Baldwin to his nephew:

Many of [the innocents] indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.

White American racial attitudes show up in other essays. A book review by John Thompson includes these words:
“…all of us need desperately to extend our knowledge of the life of American Negroes.” Then he scurries on to add, “Naturally, I do not exclude Negroes when I say ‘us’.”
Well, no, John, that isn’t what you meant, naturally, to say, because that is incredibly insulting, whereas, without that hurried bit of expiation, your comment is merely condescending and stupid. Of course, being English, you may beg a little bit of excuse.

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

One might ask “just how different are the races themselves”? And that brings up The Origin of Races by Carleton S. Coon which seeks to prove that they are very different and some more advanced than others. Coon said that there are five races and that they each evolved independently into Homo sapiens. Congoid/Negro races evolved some 200,000 years later than Caucasians. Well, that explains so much, doesn’t it! Reviewer of this book is John Maddocks, who is not further identified. Mr. Maddocks, though, is very astute and he recognizes a pile of crap when he steps in it. He mentions that other anthroplogists and geneticists have serious doubts that the five-fold evolution of H.sapiens is at all likely, and he notes other shortcomings of Coon’s work. He is a little taken aback that a scholar of such eminence would promote a thesis that will so benefit racists. Maddocks writes:

No great imagination is needed to see how this conclusion has delighted the theoreticians of apartheid. Professor Wesley C. George of the University of Alabama leans heavily on Coon in a document called The Biology of Race, prepared for the governor of his state. So too does Mr. Carleton Putnam, who specializes in open letters to the President which are then reprinted in Southern newspapers and even as advertisements in The New York Times, with titles such as Race and Reason and Evolution and Race: New Evidence … In these and other ways the campaign to suggest that race prejudice can be given a scientific foundation goes with a more vigorous swing than it has for many years.

And Maddocks sees that providing a rationale for white supremacy is what the book is meant to do:
“…it would be over-generous to think that Coon’s present book could be innocently tactless. The uses that would be made of it were, after all, entirely predictable.” Yes. But it would be a good many years before it was revealed, via the publication of Coon’s letters, that he had been actively seeking to help white racists, especially the aforementioned Carleton Putnam, though Coon was careful to keep his own name out of the segregationist literature except as it referenced his books.
Another article that touches on these matters is a review by William Styron of Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen. Originally published in 1947, a recent reprint is reviewed here. Styron was, at the time, researching his novel about the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia and was familiar with Tannenbaum’s book. According to Tannenbaum, race relations in the US were an outgrowth of the specific kind of slavery there. Other places, with different kinds of slave institutions have less racial discord, said Tannenbaum. So far as that goes, most readers might agree with Tannenbaum. The problem is that some, like Styron, take Tannenbaum’s arguments too far and make far-fetched claims for racial harmony in, say, Brazil which are not borne out by the facts. Still, there are differences between the US and other Western Hemisphere nations in black/white relations and those differences, and why they occurred, are of great interest. Tannenbaum’s book is still a starting point for this discussion, though Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black has shifted the argument.
The main problem with the NYRB‘s handling of race relations is that it is directed toward a very small audience — the White Citizen Councils of Alabama were unlikely to ever read Maddocks’ takedown of Dr. Coon. The NYRB is not a publication that would have been of value at the time for either black or white Americans trying to deal with the great set of problems that confronted them because these problems were not of much immediate concern to the small cultural elite representing there, with the exception of such as DuPee, who helped bring Baldwin back from France to report on the situation. But even these few were apt to lapse into confrontational mode, informed by fear, when having to face the fact that blacks could be harboring great anger. They were, as Baldwin said, innocents who would have to be brought slowly, and with love, to knowledge.

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

The elitism of the NYRB shows up in various ways. Mary McCarthy reviews William Burroughs’ The(sic) Naked Lunch. The review is favorable but includes this puzzling statement: “This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction — the others are entertainment.”
Now it is hard to see how Burroughs’ work is any more science fiction than Gulliver’s Travels, a book McCarthy compares it to, or, say, works by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley that everyone recognizes as serious. The point is, McCarthy is using the term “science fiction” as a derogatory identifier. If it’s good, then it isn’t science fiction, except maybe this one book by Burroughs that can’t easilly be pigeon-holed. But McCarthy’s attitude was widely held. At the same time that this essay was published, J.G.Ballard was writing stories that he claimed were not science fiction, even though they were being published in science fiction magazines. The notion that a genre tag, like “science fiction”, would diminish a work was adopted even by people working in said genres.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

This attitude is especially evident here when a writer uses the term “comic strip” in an essay. It is always derogatory. It is pretty funny to read a review, by John Hollander, Yale English professor, of a collection of comic strips by Jules Feiffer (who also has a strip in this issue of the NYRB) that includes this statement:

There are often non-books on the best-seller lists, and lately they have been appearing for children as well.
It is a deplorable tradition. And yet, it has been almost redeemed by the few cases in which a really unique imagination has found form there. The splendid Gothic Victorianism of Edward Gorey is one of these, I think, and the collections of what are by no means really cartoon-strips by Jules Feiffer are surely another.

“By no means really cartoon-strips”? What the hell? If it’s good, you see, then it can’t be a comic strip. But then Feiffer himself was shortly to publish an article in Playboy, expanded into a book in 1965, that concludes that comics are only “junk”, and kid’s junk at that!
It is startling to hear an artist put down his own work that way, and I do think that Feiffer and Ballard grew somewhat less defensive as they achieved both popular success and critical appreciation. Still, at this time, they adopted the manners of the class that they wished not to alienate, the one where they felt they belonged.
This cultural defensiveness seems to be a common attitude of the NYRB elite and one of them, Dwight MacDonald, tried to turn it into an artistic credo. MacDonald’s book, Against the American Grain, reviewed in this issue, includes an essay called “Masscult and Midcult”, that has achieved classic status. [Read it here]
MacDonald says that you have High Culture, which is for the elite, and Folk Art, which is for the masses. The problem is that Midcult stuff which pretends to be Art but is really mass produced simplifications of High Culture aimed at bourgeois tastes. MacDonald tries to make this distinction clear but only muddies the waters as he displays his own ignorance of, for instance, jazz. But he is most revealing when he tries to say that art aimed at the non-elites is Okay, so long as it doesn’t get uppity:

Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little kitchen-garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters. But Masscult breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of domination.

That is a pretty amazing analysis of medieval times coming from a communist — or, rather, former communist, MacDonald having passed from Stalin through Trotsky to calling himself an anarchist. Less to do with classical anarchism, like Saint-Simon or Fourier, than an excuse for sloppy thinking, I believe. Anyway, his reviewer, Barbara Solomon:

Somewhere in “Masscult and Midcult” Macdonald finds himself in Ortega y Gasset’s bed—the masses are destructive of civilization, the elite, the preservers of tradition. It is a perfectly valid conclusion, and yet once Macdonald arrives at it he shies away from the implications. A world for the elite? It is not easy for a long-time left-winger who is also American to say: “I am Charles de Gaulle.”

Here, I must say, I have never read a favorable review of “Masscult and Midcult” anywhere, although it still has life — possibly due to the insecurity of people who write for a living, possibly due to the term “midcult” having been selected into the English language.
The important part of the essay for the purpose here is this bit:

The past cultures I admire — Periclean Greece, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, are examples — have mostly been produced by communities, and remarkably small ones at that. Also remarkably heterogenous ones, riven by faction, stormy with passionate antagonisms.

Dwight wants to be Athenian. Not a slave, of course, but the kind of guy who hangs out with Socrates and Plato and admires beautiful Alcibiades. Okay, but this great phase of Athenian culture lasted only 80 years at best, the second half of that being Periclean and then, around the time Socrates drank hemlock, descended into not-greatness. So, if the period following the Persian Wars but before the post-Periclean collapse is what MacDonald wanted in a contemporary version, perhaps in post WWII America, before the Nixonian collapse, he thought he might find it.
(I have to insert here MacDonald’s comment about Mary (NoSFForMe) McCarthy — “Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty..?” Oh yeah! Takes one to know one, Dwight.)
Race relations and cultural definition are the major topics of this issue of the NYRB, but other matters are discussed: the Cold War, for example. This was a time when Khruschev was attempting to take the USSR from Stalinism into a place more kind to its citizens. There is a review by Philip Rahv of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, now allowed publication after Khruschev’s public revelation of the gulag. Rahv thinks it’s a pretty good book although, he sniffs, it’s too small to be a “great work of art”. (Philip: how big is the “Mona Lisa”? How large a canvas did Van Gogh require for his sunflowers? How many pages does a writer have to fill to have a great work, as opposed to a small one? Aren’t you conflating two different meanings of the word “great”?) But this is interesting:

Thank God, the world is still unpredictable after all. No one, not even the most astute Kremlinologist among us, could possibly have foreseen that the party-hierarchs would be prevailed upon to permit the publication of a work so devastating in its implications.

There is also a review of several works on the Soviet economy, which Khruschev was also trying to reform, bringing in experiments with computer models and profit-making. The review does not mention these but is more interested in the question of how much the USSR is spending on its military — this is, after all, only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Khruschev’s experiments failed and when a great drought devastated the 1963 grain harvest, the USSR was in dire economic straits. Brezhnev and Kosygin replaced him in 1964. The economy went back on a military footing without much regard for consumers. Cultural expression was suppressed and Solzhenitsyn exiled. But in the 1980s a group of Soviet officials took Khruschev’s attempted reforms to heart and, well, the world is still unpredictable after all.
There are a couple of essays on American politics. Dennis Wrong reviews James MacGregor Burns’ The Deadlock of Democracy. Burns has a list of ailments in the American political system and a list of remedies for them. Some of the ailments are familiar: a minority in Congress can stifle legislation, districts are often gerrymandered, there are barriers to voting, and so on. Burns proposes some Constitutional amending to cure these ills. Wrong is not so certain that this will help. What is certain is that no such reforms happened then and are unlikely to take place any time soon.

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]


Burns was one of many New Deal Democrats who became boosters for John Kennedy’s New Frontier. Arthur Schlesinger was another and his paean to Camelot, The Politics of Hope, is reviewed here by Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald guts the book with some lovely invective and without much regard for facts. (It wasn’t Lincoln who made that statement, it was Jackson). He presents Schlesinger, who he calls a friend, as a lickspittle toady to power. Seduced by Kennedy glamour, Schlesinger has become a hypocrite who admires a forceful presidency more than a democratic one. Schlesinger sees no reason why a president shouldn’t ignore the Bill of Rights if national security is an issue. “Why is it always the liberals who want to take away individual freedoms?” asks MacDonald. Well, we all know now that it isn’t only the liberals, that power of every persuasion will seek to extend itself, but MacDonald’s concern about the loss of individual freedom remains important. As for Schlesinger, after Kennedy’s death, he became estranged from the White House and wound up writing The Imperial Presidency (1973), warning that the Presidents had used national security concerns to expand their power in a way that made a mockery of the Constitution. Of course, there was a Republican in the White House at the time.
Feminism is not mentioned in this issue of the Review. It is possible that this is due to a Queen Bee attitude — the best-known of the female reviewers here are Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy and both were famously indifferent to feminism. An issue or two down the line and Mary McCarthy’s The Group was reviewed by Norman Mailer, who called it a “lady book”. McCarthy was a woman who the male members of this intellectual elite feared; she could have been remembered as a feminist champion. But people belong to their times and it is hard to demand that they should have responded to issues in ways that reflect the times to which we belong.
There are a good many other items in this issue of the NYRB. There is, for instance, poetry — three poems and reviews of a number of recent books of poetry. With one exception, the reviews are favorable. One might leap to the conclusion that poets are always kind to one another, but if one did so, one would be leaping into the very pit of wrong-headedness. Still, the review by W.H.Auden of David Jones’ Anathemata is very generous.
Auden showed this same generosity in a lot of his criticism, collected as The Dyer’s Hand, and reviewed here by John Berryman. Berryman states that Auden is not by trade a critic but praises him as an informed person who tries to increase the reader’s appreciation, rather than trying to boost himself through negative criticism.
That kind of negative criticism shows in a silly review of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And, to a lesser extent, in one of John Updike’s The Centaur (by Jonathan Miller). The NYRB has had a great problem with Updike over the years — first, he was mid-cult, then he was misogynistic, and so on. On the other hand, the recognition by the NYRB reviewer that J.D.Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction is not at all good, delights me, because I spent money I could not afford on that waste of paper (and on Franny and Zooey, too. Lord! If I could trade all the bad books I purchased when I could not afford them for one good book that I missed out on when it was available…)

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

There is lots of other material here — forty-four contributors, including great poets, critics, novelists, essayists, but there’s no point going on about that. One last review deserves mention — I suspect it will be the one essay most reprinted from this issue of the NYRB: Norman Mailer’s review of Morley Callaghan’s memoir, That Summer In Paris. Mailer waves aside most of the book as uninteresting — memoirs are an “inferior art” — but it contains “a superb short story”. The story, which has been widely discussed, concerns a boxing match between Callaghan and Ernest Hemingway, refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, that took place that summer in Paris. Hemingway had a penchant for calling smaller men into the ring and showing off by pounding them — later on, he did this with Cuban fishermen — but he made an error by taking on Callaghan, who had done some real boxing. So, Callaghan knocks Hemingway down when Fitzgerald, the time-keeper, over-extends the round. Hemingway over-reacts and snarls at Fitzgerald, who later asks Callaghan to apologize, and so on. A real literary match here, folks. But Mailer gets to the meat of the situation:

It is possible Hemingway lived every day of his life in the style of the suicide. What a great dread is that. It is the dread which sits in the silences of his short declarative sentences. At any instant, by any failure in magic, by a mean defeat, or by a moment of cowardice, Hemingway could be thrust back again into the agonizing demands of his courage. For the life of his talent must have depended on living in a psychic terrain where one must either be brave beyond one’s limit, or sicken closer into a bad illness, or, indeed, by the ultimate logic of the suicide, must advance the hour in which one would make another reconnaissance into one’s death.
… It is not likely that Hemingway was a brave man who sought danger for the sake of the sensations it provided him. What is more likely the truth of his long odyssey is that he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life, that his inner landscape was a nightmare, and he spent his nights wrestling with the gods. It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself. There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.

And that, possibly, is the critical insight that will last longest from this first issue of the great New York Review of Books.
Dwight MacDonald wanted to be part of a small cultural community and the New York Review of Books was put together by a coterie who all knew one another and had worked together and sometimes were passionately riven, just as MacDonald fantasized. Many had published or participated in the Partisan Review. The Partisan Review had several editors among the reviewers here, MacDonald and DuPee among them, and The Partisan Review Anthology, a collection of essays culled from twenty-five years of publication, is reviewed in this issue.
The PR was godparent to the NYRB. But fairly quickly, the New York Review grew to include all kinds of writers from all over the world, many of whom have never met one another. The world is too large for the tiny fiefdoms of MacDonald’s fantasy. A recent article by Timothy Garton Ash [paywall] says that contributors to the NYRB belong to a “republic of letters” and states that the NYRB stands in for a European review of books, of which there are none so good. (Readers of the London Review of Books may need to be reminded that, during the London Times lockout in 1979, the NYRB founded the London Review. First issues were inserts in the NYRB.) And the NYRB has outgrown silliness like typing genre literature, television, and comics as not being worthy of notice. The Fiftieth Anniversary issue includes a review of George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice books and the television series Game of Thrones. Margaret Atwood has reviewed Elmore Leonard (favorably) in its pages and comics artists like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman are taken seriously. (Though the NYRB wound up with a useless clunker of a review when they assigned Harold Bloom to review Robert Crumb’s Genesis.) Right now the magazine has the highest circulation it has ever had — about 150,000 — even as other periodicals are dying. It still produces essays worth reading, whether you agree with them or not, and hopefully will continue doing so for another fifty years or more.

Notes:
reprint of the first issue of the New York Review of Books
50th anniversary issue
Washington Post article on the 50th anniversary

Some of the books mentioned above:
Dwight MacDonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
W.H.Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
David Jones, Anathemata, The
Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris
Arthur Schlesinger, The Politics of Hope and The Bitter Heritage: American Liberalism in the 1960s

2 comments on “A Half Century of Criticism: The New York Review of Books

  1. james atlas says:

    I have written a book called THE SHADOW IN THE GARDEN: A BIOGRAPHER’S TALE, about my adventures in the biography trade, and it has several pages on Philip Rahv. Could you tell me where you got the photograph of Rahv and other PR editors? I would like to use it in my book. And congratulations on your fascinating blog, which I have just discovered. James Atlas

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