Feature

Remembering Robert Silvers, one of America's greatest intellectual benefactors

The co-founder and editor of The New York Review of Books died Monday. But his enduring gifts to our culture live on.

America has lost one of its greatest benefactors.

Robert Silvers, co-founder and longtime editor of The New York Review of Books, died on Monday at the age of 87. When he teamed up with freelance editor Barbara Epstein and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick in starting the magazine in 1963, they committed an act of patriotism, giving the United States something it lacked and sorely needed: a space for the rigorous cultivation and elevation of the American mind. Fifty-four years later, that space is still there — vibrant, thriving, alive. It is Silvers' enduring gift to our country and our culture.

Critics will say that the NYRB made mistakes, especially in politics, and that Silvers had a lot to do with these missteps. There's truth in that — and especially so during the late 1960s, when the magazine allowed itself to be swept up into some of the worst excesses of "radical chic." But then, what magazine that pronounces on public affairs for over half a century hasn't made a few blunders? Judged by that comparative standard, Silvers' political judgment (which includes robust, consistent support for dissidents the world over) comes off looking pretty good.

But then, politics has never been the main point of the NYRB, any more than it's the most important thing about the Times Literary Supplement, the British review that was the clearest model for what Silvers and his co-founders were trying to achieve. The point was and is culture — and almost always high culture, without apology.

From the start, the magazine ran lengthy, erudite reflections on history, literature, poetry, philosophy, psychology, drama, film, the natural and social sciences, religion, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, symphonic music, and opera. Attention to such subjects has always been somewhat rare in America — and not only because the number of people who care about rarified topics is never very large. High culture finds itself under special pressure in the U.S. because we are and have never been anything other than a democratic and egalitarian society. I mean this in the sense that Alexis de Tocqueville intended it: We venerate the tastes and habits of the common man and look with suspicion on those who value humanistic refinement, and on those who are refined, suspecting they consider themselves our superiors, which strikes us as elitist — an insult to our pride.

Our economy, meanwhile, lavishly rewards those who do the best job of fulfilling the desires of the greatest number. Quality tends to be treated as a function of quantity. The books, films, and other works of creative expression that are most commercially successful begin to seem best, with those that require greater thought, education, or patience to absorb, understand, and appreciate looking pretentious, arrogant, or both. All of it makes the defense of high art and arduous ideas a special challenge in the United States.

That doesn't means that the NYRB was America's first or only serious journal of ideas. Its original competitor, which it quickly surpassed in depth and scope, was The New York Times Book Review. Various monthly and quarterly journals have aimed to analyze culture in a serious way: Partisan Review, Paris Review, Commentary, The New Criterion, Boston Review. These have often done impressive work, but with small circulations, and only rarely on the highest levels for more than a decade at a stretch.

Then there are the "back of the book" literary sections of opinion magazines. The greatest of these, and the one that came closest to rivaling to the NYRB in quality, was the "Books and the Arts" pages of The New Republic during the 31 years that Leon Wieseltier edited them, from 1983 to 2014. There, too, readers could find rigorous, erudite essays about the arts and ideas. But of course, the reviews Wieseltier commissioned filled only half of the magazine. He couldn't really hope to match what Silvers could accomplish in every issue with his 40, 60, or 80 large-format pages.

The formula was simple: Give a talented writer a book, or two, or a dozen on a given subject and let her run with it, synthesizing them in creative, original ways — evaluating them, but also shedding fresh light on the topic. Together with Epstein, and then on his own after her death in 2006, Silvers was a master editor, calling forth excellence from his writers in issue after issue down through the decades.

Somehow he made it commercially viable. The magazine sold out its initial print run of 100,000 copies in 1963, and five decades later it's still thriving, boasting 136,000 paid subscribers, with every issue filled with page after page of full-color ads, most of them promoting university press books, which usually receive their highest profile reviews in the magazine's editorial pages. It's a singularly happy arrangement, bringing a group of rare writers together an appreciative audience of rare readers.

Not that Silvers' editorial judgment was flawless. On certain subjects he could be terribly insular, circulating endlessly through the same small stable of writers. ("Oh look, another Garry Wills rant about the Catholic Church." "Ah, Frederick Crews setting out to prove for the umpteenth time that Freud was a fraud.") But no magazine is perfect. Judged, once again, by a comparative standard, Silvers did his job very well indeed — perhaps better than anyone.

With any luck the New York Review of Books will be around for a long time to come. But that it has lasted this long, becoming an established institution and doing its best to elevate the American mind for 54 years, is an astonishing achievement — and one for which we have Robert Silvers to thank.

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