Robert Silvers’ Legacy (& “The Fiery Lieutenant”)

The ending of Eugene Goodheart’s “Untethered” (see below) got me thinking about the recent death of Robert Silvers–founder/editor of New York Review of Books. What follows is the sort of magpie-minded essay that would’ve driven Silvers around the bend but there’s no escaping the river between his sensibility and my poor brain so let’s roll…

The novel, Stoner, Goodheart invokes as he imagines his own ending is a New York Review of Books Classic. Its preservation in print is one of many mitzvahs to minds in America that Silvers enacted or enabled. NYRB Classics is an institution that’s informed by an (almost) un-American clarity about uses of the past. Silvers et al. haven’t reprinted Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, but her credo: Loss of the past, whether it be collectively or individually, is the supreme human tragedy…” could be theirs. Though, thankfully, NYRB Classics is more up for laughs than St. Simone.  Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, for example, is now on the list.[1]

Not that it took that much wit to revive Amis’s famous comedy. But there are plenty of NYRB Classics that prove Silvers was out to re-create taste not simply affirm received opinions in the Anglosphere. I’m grateful his ear for unobvious prose gave me a chance to hear the voice in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. (I came upon that Classic last summer, though I wish it had been winter, per Hemingway’s advice about reading/writing out of season.) Jansson was a Finnish writer whose Moomentroll series for children has charmed readers all over the world, but The Summer Book is one of the less well-known works she wrote for adults. Its style and content aren’t that far from her kids’ books. The Summer Book tells the story of a grandmother and child summering on a Finnish island. The little girl’s mother has died and that death hangs over the narrative. But there’s nothing sentimental about the negotiations between the very old grandmother and the very young child, though kindness is almost always somewhere in the blue haze. A reviewer, Ali Smith, has noted how risky it is to limn Jansson’s artistry in The Summer Book:  “the writing so lightly kept, so simple-seeming, so closely concerned with the weighing of moments that any extra weight of exegesis is too much.” But Jansson’s own musing on the method of the Moomentroll books helps her exegete: “Every children’s book should have a path in it where the writer stops and the child goes on. A threat or a delight that can never be explained. A face never completely revealed.” Reviewer Smith put readers on Jansson’s path without putting too much weight on The Summer Book’s brief against death:

The child is intransigent; the old woman is always on the cusp of tiredness, constantly dizzy, fearful of losing her balance in a landscape where “the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” The threat of brevity, even on this timeless island in this timeless, gorgeous summer, is very marked. But Jansson’s brilliance is to create a narrative that seems, at least, to have no forward motion, to exist in lit moments, gleaming dark moments, like lights on a string, each chapter its own beautifully constructed, random-seeming, complete story. Her writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.

Jansson’s visions put me in mind of another NYRB classic—Maria Dermout’s The 10,000 Things. The setting for that novel is one of the Spice Islands—a half-a-world away (but on the same page) as Jansson’s Finnish shores. The 10,000 Things was translated from Dutch into English by the late Hans Koning who marveled (in his foreword to the reprint) at how Dermout “painted landscapes, still lifes, people in a world of myth and mystery.”

That world rises from an interlocking of animals, plants, men, women, children, pearls lucky and unlucky (“tears of the sea”) sea anemones, jelly fish with little sails they can hoist when the wind is right, crabs waving their claws at the moon, and everyone and everything in it has a role and a fate, has in a sense a soul of its own. In a sense, Dermout’s was an animism, built not on primitive superstition but on a love that encompassed all creation. In this world the great sin is to reject love when it is offered.

Koning invited me to the book party for the NYRB edition of The 10,000 Things and that was the one time I was in a room with Robert Silvers. Koning also invited Charlie O’Brien whom he’d come to know in the course of writing for First of the Month.  Koning’s feeling for O’Brien ran pretty deep. (His last unpublished novel, The Irish Deserter, was sparked in part by O’Brien’s politics and persona.) But he worried Charlie and me might be too rude for a NYRB eve. We didn’t end up embarrassing him (or ourselves) at the Silvery soiree, but Koning’s fears weren’t entirely unfounded. It occurs to me my last exchange with O’Brien hints why Koning wondered if we’d play well with Silvers and his kind. I just checked in with O’Brien since his birthday’s coming. He steered me to a YouTube remixer (here) whose grooves are below NYRB’s paygrade (though they’re pretty Prousty!).  For my part, I passed on a swatch of street style I thought O’Brien would dig–a t-shirt worn by a heavy sister with a message: “I’m too pretty to fuck from behind.” Not a joke for a genteel parlor.

O’Brien reported he’d had all of his upper teeth taken out. Waiting on new choppers, he noted he was “really pushing this bionic thing”—a nod to the artificial limb he’s had ever since one of his legs was amputated at the knee a few years ago. Which became an occasion for a poem, “Footloose,” (sample verse: “the new york library is losing its mind/ the books all speechless the windows blind/ a million ideas now no one can find/ walked out on one foot with Charlie O’Brien”) by the late Carmelita Estrellita. Another Firster whose trans ways might’ve made her feel out of order at a NYRB party. My common sense says me and my rowdy friends are/were a little too corporeal for Silver’s world. Yet that seems like a moot point now that I’ve read the moving tribute to Silvers written by the widow of Tony Judt. She recalled Silvers’ compassion for her husband after Judt was afflicted with ALS.  Silvers wasn’t a perfect respondent as Judt’s illness came down hard.  Mrs. Judt describes how the two men—“all mind, one rapidly losing his body, and neither quite knowing what to say”—tried to keep talking as they had in the past: “Tony struggling to keep up or care. He was just too sick.” It seemed an “impossible situation” but…

What happened next changed my view of Bob, but also of Tony. By then, Tony was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine, writing only with the help of an assistant or whoever was there to be his hands at the keyboard. He started composing pieces at night in his head and reciting them in the morning. He sent one to Bob, who immediately published it. They were back in touch.

II

I didn’t try to connect with Silvers at that party, though it probably wouldn’t have been too forward of me to speak up on behalf of First of the Month. Silvers had been in touch after we put out the second issue of First in 1999. He’d written a brief note in praise of First, which was generous of him since it was clear from the jump that NYRB’s version of New York intellect wasn’t our mag’s template. I’m sure Silvers knew his imprimatur might carry some weight in the world, though this editor never managed to leverage his bit of positivity, in part because I was stuck on distancing First from NYRB (and the Village Voice)[2] That tic notwithstanding, down the line I got a little ticked at NYRB’s failure to review our Annual, First of the Year.

But I heard from Silvers once more.  After my father, Benjamin DeMott died, Silvers wrote to say he liked the First piece I’d written about my dad’s life and times.  Yet he also wanted to correct my account of my father’s peculiar history with NYRB, which had begun in the early 60s when my dad first became a contributor to the journal.[3] What got Silvers mildly exercised was my report on how my pop paid for being prematurely anti-Podhoretz back in the day. Here’s the passage Silvers wished to amend. (Please be assured I wouldn’t ask for readers’ indulgence on this score if I wasn’t pretty sure my pop’s history with NYRB amounts to more than familial—or New York intellectual—yada yada.)

When DeMott gave a negative review to a book of essays by Norman Podhoretz (who had not yet renounced his leftism) – placing the author as a gossipy insider, indifferent literary critic, and incipient politico – he was attacked by Podhoretz’s friends on the letters page of the New York Review of Books. Take a glance at the plaints of William Phillips – “I think Doings and Undoings is an impressive achievement…Norman Podhoretz is one of the most gifted younger critics in this country.” – and Jason Epstein – “With respect to the rules of what rustic cult can DeMott say within a single paragraph that Podhoretz utters ‘simple, essential truths’ upon which ‘sanity depends’ while charging that he is a ‘writer whose literary taste and manner are undistinguished?’ If ‘simple, essential truths’ do not distinguish a critic’s taste and manner, what, according to Mr. DeMott, does?” DeMott seems to have won the argument: “Mr. Phillips’s point is that he, William Phillips, is right, therefore I am wrong. I know it’s difficult to upset a 1500-word case in 250 words, but I believe Mr. Phillips should have tried. He might at least have drawn attention to one ‘insight’ or shrewd critical observation in Mr. Podhoretz’s book that would have testified to virtues I ignored… Mr. Epstein’s questions deserve answers. I believe a good critic should be able to state complex truths (this isn’t Mr. Podhoretz’s talent).” DeMott’s early line on Podhoretz’s limits wasn’t a lucky shot. He developed his insight a generation later in an important piece explaining how neoconservatives (like Podhoretz) traduced the tradition of double-truth telling associated with their liberal mentors – Lionel Trilling, Robert Merton, and Richard Hofstadter. Originally published in Harpers (and later reworked in The Imperial Middle) that article probably belonged in The New York Review. But back in 1964, Phillips and Epstein won their little war with DeMott. After they weighed in on behalf of Podhoretz, NYRB’s editors’ lost DeMott’s number for more than three decades. He didn’t write for that journal again until 1999.

Silvers didn’t fault my account of my dad’s back and forth with Phillips and Epstein, but he recalled NYRB (meaning him!) gave my pop one more post-Pod shot back in the mid-60s, proposing he review a set of books about drugs. Silvers’ memory was right on, no doubt, but it’s still true that after my dad’s fight with Podhoretz’s fans (who were also F.O.B.s), over 30 years passed before he started writing for NYRB again. The small mystery of why Silvers reverted to my pop (out of the blue) in 1999 never got addressed, much less solved.

My dad’s tough-titty time out of NYRB was nothing compared to Bernard Avishai’s traumatic breakup with Silvers. Avishai recalls (here) how Silvers cultivated him when he was young writer in the 70s, inviting him to contribute dozens of pieces to NYRB and easing him into high mandarin circles. But then Avishai published his first book, The Tragedy of Zionism. That historical critique crossed one of his mentor’s red-lines and Avishai found himself excommunicated in the 80s: “We never spoke about, or even acknowledged, the rupture; that would have been uncivil, mawkish. But the assignments and calls ended.”

Avishai is more than forgiving and he’s probably right to invoke Silvers’ instinct for civility. Graciousness must be in the equation when one considers Silvers’ powerful impulse to avoid contention. But that impulse was powerful. I’m reminded just now Silvers licensed at least one minion who acted like a Jr. hegemon per this next story of NYRB-related perfidy. I’ve told this tale before too, but I keep going there in part because it takes in an imperishable resource for radicals—the late Lawrence Goodwyn’s thrilling account of the Polish August, Breaking the Barrier (1991). That testament to Solidarnosc was Goodwyn’s unexpected—but spot on—follow-up to his authoritative works on American populism in the 19th C., which had not only revived a disappeared democratic tradition but recovered a nascent political economy that’s still beyond our horizon.

Breaking the Barrier was another great refusal of dry, quiescent political discourse. Goodwyn caught the heated rush of the Polish August and broke it down, telling the truly revolutionary story of how Solidarity happened. I’ve always felt bad about my failure to read Goodwyn’s “Polish book” when it first came out since I’d been steered to his earlier work in the 70s. But me and other potential readers didn’t get much help from NYRBBreaking the Barrier was reviewed sniffishly there by Timothy Garton Ash who failed to mention Goodwyn had repeatedly (if gently) cited Garton Ash’s own book, The Polish Revolution, “as an urbane example of the simplistic conventional interpretation of Solidarity, i.e. the presumed causal role played by Warsaw intellectuals in its origins and development.” Goodwyn nailed Garton Ash in NYRB’s letter pages, pointing out the review amounted to “damage control.” [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1991/oct/24/solidaritys-sources/]

Garton Ash didn’t deny he’d failed to acknowledge in his review that Goodwyn had called him out for missing the story behind Solidarity’s rise.  And once he’d been exposed he should’ve been gone from NYRB. But Silvers hung tight with his regular contributor.

My guess is that he gave Garton Ash a pass in part because he found it hard to credit a thesis that seemed to rest on evidence “the people” knew better than “the intellectuals.” If that’s so, Silvers’ reflexive resistance to Goodwyn’s deep populism may seem more excusable in this age of Trumpery.

But Silvers’ enabling of Garton Ash’s de haut en bas babble has undermined NYRB’s moral authority. A few years back Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, who has just been named NYRB’s new editor, were twin targets of Paul Berman’s book-length polemic, The Flight of the Intellectuals. Berman was appalled by that pair’s icy realpolitik dismissals of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch dissident who has become a major critic of Islam and, as a result, will likely have “a large security detail for the rest of her life.”[4] Meantime those two NYRB stalwarts were writing warmly about Tariq Ramadam–the “moderate” Islamist academic, who famously refused to condemn the stoning of women. While it was Buruma’s brief for Ramadam in the New York Times Magazine that led to The Flight of the Intellectuals, it was Garton Ash’s snot that provoked most of Berman’s best lines.  Per Dwight Garner’s Times review:

[Mr. Berman] criticizes Mr. Garton Ash for pointing out in The New York Review of Books that Ms. Hirsi Ali had been awarded the “Hero of the Month” prize from Glamour magazine, as if this were proof that she couldn’t be taken seriously. Mr. Berman responds, in one of this book’s more memorable utterances: “I can’t help observing that here may be proof, instead, that Glamour magazine nowadays offers a more reliable guide to liberal principles than The New York Review of Books.”

I doubt Silvers looked back with pride on NYRB’s flirtation with anti-anti-Islamism.

III

It would be an act of hubris to compare NYRB’s record on this front with that of the little magazine you’re reading now.  First is a pipsqueak, after all. Still, I’m ok with the idea this mag is known in some circles chiefly for our “anti-Islamist apologetics.”

First writers such as Charles O’Brien, Fredric Smoler and the late Ellen Willis have enhanced post-9/11 discourse about terror and humanism. I won’t stop talking up their high dudgeon, but I grasp the danger of hammering on. (And we can’t all swing it like Charlie O’Brien!)

My own ambivalence about the polemical mode has been amped up lately by my re-reading of Eugene Goodheart’s “The Fiery Lieutenant.” (That essay is collected, along with “Untethered,” in Goodheart’s collection, Mostly Grave Thoughts, but it’s available online here too.) The title refers (per Goodheart) “to the absurd character in Crime and Punishment, who heats up with every grievance, major and minor.” Goodheart cops to the fact that he’s often been at the mercy of his own temper, which has led him into numerous battles “on the telephone with indifferent receptionists, inattentive clerks, uncomprehending customer relations specialists, my voice steadily rising in indignation at their stupidity and callousness.” Goodheart confesses his wife, “whose self-possession I admire but cannot emulate, finds my indignation the least tolerable attribute of my personality.” Yet he doesn’t rush to her side of the argument. Goodheart knows “human beings are born…screaming.” There really is a case to be made for the “emotion of indignation, because without it we would be no more than sheep. Aristotle defined man as a rational animal; a good case could be made for him as an indignant one. Without indignation and the rebellion it breeds, you’re not human.”  (See Truffaut’s case study, The Wild Child, which links the humanization of a feral child with the nurturing of his capacity for just rage.)  Goodheart doesn’t advise readers to give up (what another writer once called) “the saving right to reprove.”  And anyone who’s read his First pieces on Trump (or Mitt Romney) knows he’s down by law with that right. “The Fiery Lieutenant,” though, ends up implying anger is more of an indulgence than a useful energy.

On the way toward a conclusive statement about his own wish to avoid “disfigurements of indignation,” Goodheart recalls his face-offs with a petty, tyrannical college president—face-offs that had him worrying his own fury had turned him into his enemy’s secret sharer.  Not that he equates himself with his foe who was a genuine human horror as Goodheart sussed during their first face-to-face meeting: “He listened to what I said like a predator ready to pounce upon my every utterance…When his wide thin lips smiled, apparently with pleasure at what was being said, the smile was indistinguishable from a sneer.” Goodheart’s antagonist was a power-monger who was always going off on subordinates. Under the president’s sway, cowed faculty acted like cult members. He lived large on a small stage, yet he had “unrealized dreams of action on a larger stage. Years later, he…ran for Governor of the state and came dangerously close to winning.”

Goodheart doesn’t reveal the name of his enemy. It’s not really on point for his purposes since “The Fiery Lieutenant” is an essay in self-criticism not a piece of payback or investigative journalism.  But that detail about the political aspirations of the beast in his Ivory Tower indicates the mad president was the late John Silber, longtime head of Boston University (who once ran for Governor of Massachusetts).  I can’t help flashing on Trump as Goodheart riffs on Silber’s caprices—“If you want or love power for its own sake, you flaunt its arbitrariness.” But Goodheart’s rumination on his time in the barrel with the fiery college president also dovetails with the prime subject of this essay. It serves to underscore virtues of Robert Silvers whose recessive way of being seems to have been something like the antithesis of Silbers’ heavy manners.

Not that Silvers-at-his-best comes down to politesse.  I began here with bows to NYRB Classics but I wasn’t out to leave the impression Silvers mattered chiefly due to his work as a literary preservationist. Silvers wasn’t locked on high culture’s glory days. He not only helped sustain bright books of life, he sponsored criticism that disclosed why the best that has been thought and said wasn’t good enough.

I came across a telling sentence on this score on the Acknowledgements page of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal: “I want to thank Robert Silvers for the most fundamental and varied help.” There’s a lot to be said for Hardwick’s collection of essays on “woman and literature” (which were all first published in NYRB) but I want to cut to her critique of the meaner side of writers usually taken to be models of plucky sensitivity. In the midst of an essay on Bloomsbury, Hardwick indicts Virginia Woolf, E.M. Foster, and Henry James for crimes against humanism. She zeroes in on how all these authors invented characters who came from under the bourgeoisie and remained beneath the empathy of their creators.  In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway there’s Miss Kilman—“that object of the author’s insolent loathing.” The looks and whiff of this fictional shadow from the underclass are disgusting: “she perspires.” But, on the real side (as Hardwick grasps), it’s Woolf’s disrespect that stinks. Hardwick then turns to Forster’s Howard’s End where she finds the “same heartless, ill-mannered candor on the part of the author” whenever the vertical invader Leonard Bast turns up:

He knew he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich…But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable.

Hardwick moves on to Henry James’ vicious little story about a gossipy telephone operator, “In the Cage.” Here again, Hardwick protests against the spectacle of a genius pissing from a great height on the benighted. She speaks truth to litterateurs: “There are ways in which it is bad taste for authors to come down so heavily on the lacks of the luckless and deprived, to tell off these penniless souls as if they were Veneerings or Verdurins.”

Hardwick’s criticism shouldn’t be conflated with P.C. presentism. Her objections amounted to acts of imagination. I don’t know what-all Silvers did to facilitate them.  Given Hardwick’s acknowledgement, it seems likely his input mattered as Hardwick was in the throes of composition. But we don’t need to see proofs. Editor Silvers made his bones when he published Hardwick’s essays.

And there was more to come in that tradition. Such as Joan Didion’s great essay, “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” which traced stories told to justify the railroading of those black boys who came to be known as The Central Park Five. Under Silvers’ aegis, as Didion describes below, that article instantiated the truth strong minds shouldn’t countenance the scapegoating of unlucky Others.

Bob from the beginning knew what the piece had to be—he knew before I did—and he pushed me until I got it there. He knew exactly how dangerous the subject was, and his reaction to this danger was to make it more dangerous. His idea from the first was to get it right, to make it perfect, regardless of whatever negative reaction it might elicit in the city at that moment. When I first turned it in to him, it was clearly too long. His solution was to insist I go further. This meant making it longer. If that piece succeeds at all, it succeeds because he gave me permission to finish it.

An apt line to end on.

Correction: My musing on Robert Silvers’ links with NYRB Classics implicitly gave credit to Silvers for a “publishing program” that was conceived and executed by others. See the following comment by Edwin Frank for further clarification:

The books have been editorially independent from the Reviewfrom the get-go…We began publishing as an ongoing and regular enterprise in 1999. The core is the so-called classics series, in which we publish around 25 books a year, a mixture of newly translated and newly edited material and reprints. We also publish a collection of children’s books, a poetry series, a non-fiction list under the NYRB imprint and recently we also started NYRBComics. I founded the classics, children’s, and poets’ lists and oversee the publishing program, while my colleague Sara Kramer has been the managing editor since the beginning. She also acquires some books–the Janssons are hers–and in recent years we have been assisted by Susan Barba and Jeffrey Yang…Bob’s legacy is in no sense the publishing program. He never pretended he did have a hand in it, it should be said.

Notes

1 I doubt Lucky Jim really needs NYRB’s sanction. Rumors of laughs to be had in that classic comedy will surely keep it alive.  There is, though, a down-low novel from the early 50s by a homie of Amis’s that needs reprinting—Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter.

2 I’m still stuck on those antimonies as you can see from First’s latest mission statement.

3 The rich piece DeMott wrote on Lee Harvey Oswald after the Kennedy assassination was reposted recently at NYRB’s website.

4 Dwight Garner’s phrase.

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