My mother died on the fall equinox in Friends Homes, a retirement community in the old Quaker settlement of New Garden, on the outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina. Having suffered a series of brutal strokes and a deepening dementia over her previous eight bedridden years, she had left contradictory instructions about arrangements for her death. She told my father, firmly, that she didn’t want a memorial service. And she told me, just as firmly, that she wanted “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—“the cradle-song of death which all men know,” as W. E. B. Du Bois called it—sung at her memorial.
It has been suggested by some historians that “Swing Low” (along with “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” which figures movingly in the current film Twelve Years a Slave) may be among those songs with coded meanings related to the Underground Railroad—as much about finding safe haven in the North as finding a home in heaven. Frederick Douglass wrote about such double meanings in My Bondage and My Freedom: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan.”
Serendipitously, my mother got both of her memorial wishes. On October 27, a Sunday morning, my brothers and my sister, our spouses, and some of our children, joined my father to distribute her ashes in the woods between Friends Homes and the New Garden Cemetery, under the same trees where the ashes of my father’s mother, like him a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, were laid to rest. Then, we went to a Quaker meeting nearby, all fifteen of us, unannounced, and joined in the hour of silence, broken only when someone was “moved by the spirit”—hence the “Quaker” moniker—to speak.
My father, clearing his throat just as he did when we were children sitting impatiently through the meeting back home in Indiana, was the first speaker. He explained why we were there and he mentioned my mother’s two requests. He sat down and the silence descended again. Then, in a rich baritone—and even though “silent” meetings never include the singing of hymns—a member of the meeting began singing the chorus of “Swing Low.” Everyone knows the beauty of this song, spread across the world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers after the Civil War, how the melody enacts the meaning of the words, swinging down to the word “low,” then even lower for the word “chariot,” before swooping upward “to carry me home.” Other voices joined in, adding harmony and an echoing “swing low,” and even, stunningly, a soprano descant.
The next day was my fifty-ninth birthday, and my wife and I stopped by the woods again. We could see up over the rise to the New Garden Cemetery, where the poet Randall Jarrell, who lived for many years in this neighborhood, is buried under a huge oak tree, surrounded by nameless British soldiers in unmarked graves, who died far from home in the Battle of New Garden in the American Revolution.
Nearby, also in the cemetery, is a stone marker indicating the site of the old New Garden Meeting House, and marking the location of the brick schoolhouse where the Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin taught slaves to read. Born on October 28, my birthday, in 1798, Coffin had migrated down with his family from land-poor Nantucket—the Coffins are mentioned in Moby-Dick—to settle in flourishing New Garden.
Coffin later moved to Indiana to get out of the slaveholding South, and served as director of a bank in our hometown of Richmond. In Indiana, he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who modeled a character on him in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Coffin, as it happens, was the subject of my very first published essay, written, I am sure, with a great deal of help from my mother, when I was twelve. My essay won first prize in a little contest for kids sponsored by our local paper, The Palladium-Item.
It suddenly dawned on me, there among the pines and red clay, that Levi Coffin, a leader in the Underground Railroad, had found hiding places for escaped slaves in those very woods around New Garden where we had distributed my mother’s ashes, and that some of the runaways may well have sung some version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to give themselves courage.
Back home in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, I thought about how I’ve always associated “Swing Low” with Dickinson’s familiar poem that begins:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
While I can’t imagine there is any likely influence here, Dickinson would have been aware of Negro Spirituals through the work of her literary adviser, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist who led a regiment of free African-American soldiers during the Civil War and also avidly collected “slave songs” in the barrier islands of South Carolina, where he was stationed with his troops. “I remember that this minor-keyed pathos used to seem to me almost too sad to dwell upon, while slavery seemed destined to last for generations,” Higginson wrote in 1867, “but now that their patience has had its perfect work, history cannot afford to lose this portion of its record.”
I like to believe that the slave songs, or “sorrow songs,” as Du Bois called them, may have helped Higginson understand the “outsider” aesthetic of Emily Dickinson’s poems, with their folk meters drawn from ballad and hymn and their roughhewn rhymes. Perhaps that’s why, when he helped to edit Dickinson’s poems after her death in 1886, Higginson gave to her untitled poem about stopping for death the title “The Chariot.”
My mother was an artist. I knew that she, too, had felt far from home during our twenty years in Indiana, painting abstract paintings that no one understood, and enduring the hard flat cold windy relentless Indiana winters year after year. A year in Japan, where she studied traditional fabric-dying techniques with the Living National Treasure Keisuke Serizawa, renewed her creative vocation. Her favorite color was indigo.
Coming back to her native North Carolina must have seemed a homecoming of sorts for her. Something about “Swing Low” seemed to match her own longings, early and late, that some great winged bird or a touring band of angels would swoop down from the sky, scoop her up, and take her to some warmer, friendlier place.
Leaving us, of course, behind. From another—equinoctial—Dickinson poem:
’Tis not that Dying hurts us so—
’Tis Living—hurts us more—
But Dying—is a different way—
A kind behind the Door—
The Southern Custom—of the Bird—
That ere the Frosts are due—
Accepts a better Latitude—
We—are the Birds—that stay.
Following are reminiscences of Robert B. Silvers by some of the Review’s writers.
Anne Applebaum • Christopher de Bellaigue • Christopher Benfey • April Bernard • Jeremy Bernstein • Glen Bowersock • Sarah Boxer • Stephen Breyer • David Bromwich • Peter Brown • Andrew Butterfield • Roberto Calasso • Michael Chabon • J. M. Coetzee • Robert Darnton • Natalie Zemon Davis • Elizabeth Drew • Freeman Dyson • Helen Epstein • Martin Filler • Jonathan Freedland • Jamey Gambrell • Robert Gottlieb • Stephen Greenblatt • Michael Greenberg • Alma Guillermoprieto • Sue Halpern • Joshua Hammer • Simon Head • Richard Holmes • Pico Iyer • Morten Høi Jensen • Diane Johnson • David Kaiser • Daniel J. Kevles • Enrique Krauze • Jeri Laber • Hermione Lee • Perry Link • Jeff Madrick • Hilary Mantel • Avishai Margalit • Michael Massing • Jessica T. Mathews • Edward Mendelson • Adam Michnik • Ivan Nabokov • Thomas Nagel • Jay Neugeboren • Geoffrey O’Brien • Tim Parks • Thomas Powers • Julia Preston • Francine Prose • Ahmed Rashid • Nathaniel Rich • Marilynne Robinson • Kenneth Roth • Ingrid D. Rowland • Malise Ruthven • Luc Sante • Orville Schell • Frederick Seidel • Adam Shatz • Tamsin Shaw • David Shulman • Samuel Silvers • Charles Simic • Peter Singer • Annie Sparrow • Patricia Storace • Colin Thubron • Helen Vendler • Garry Wills • Paul Wilson
April 26, 2017
Bob was a very important figure in my life. Only someone truly open to new ideas, no matter how unfashionable, could have published in 1973 an unsolicited essay on “Animal Liberation” from a young and little-known philosopher. The very idea of “animal liberation” was unknown and liable to be met with ridicule, and indeed The New York Review of Books was ridiculed for publishing the essay. But Bob’s decision to publish that essay led directly to my book of the same title, which Bob edited and published. I will always be thankful for what Bob did. He played a vital part in triggering the modern animal rights movement, and thus in reducing the suffering of billions of animals.
My fondest memory of Bob is from a tropically warm day in June 2013. New York City had recently installed a public bike sharing system, and Bob had asked me, as the Review intern, to sign him up for it. When the key finally arrived in the mail he got up from his desk and said, “Alright, let’s go.”
I followed him with disbelief down onto the street and over to the nearest bike station. Christ, I thought, now I’m going to have to teach an eighty-three-year-old how to ride a bike. With a sigh, I showed him how to work the key and retrieve a bike from its little rack, and then looked on as he struggled to get up on the seat. Eventually he succeeded and very quickly gained speed. I jogged behind him until I couldn’t keep up any longer. There I stood and looked on as my octogenarian boss raced down the street, through the red lights of an intersection, and down toward the Westside Highway, where he banked right and disappeared from view. It didn’t take long for me to begin rehearsing the speech I would give when I later had to explain to my colleagues that it was my fault the editor of The New York Review of Books had been flattened by a truck. Ten minutes passed, feeling like ten hours. Then came Bob from the opposite direction, as confident and lithe as a Tour de France contender, a broad grin on his face. He suavely alighted from the bike and slipped it back into its rack. “Ok,” he said. “Back to work.”
—Morten Høi Jensen
The first time I saw Bob Silvers was in London in the Sixties, at a party. I was too shy to talk to him, but fell in with everyone else when he decreed that the whole group should go see something—I forget what—and led us all trooping behind him through the London night, with me wondering why we were all following the pied piper and what we would find or see. I always meant to ask him if he remembered that night. He was that kind of leader whom people trusted and would follow, a quality he brought to the Review and to life.
Bob’s friends—indeed all who read his reviews—will remember with gratitude Bob’s learning, his talents, his dedication, and his sense of humor. Bob committed his working life to the transmission through the Review of a tradition—of human culture, of critical thought, and personal liberty. And Bob succeeded. He created a forum that helped us separate sense from nonsense, and that directed our time and attention to books and articles that deserved them. He insisted on substance written without neglect to style. His legacy, embodied in the Review, will live on; sometimes I think, like that of Iona’s monks, through times that require it.
—Justice Stephen Breyer
I first got to know about Bob and his extraordinary talents as an editor in a rather unusual way. In the winter of 1967 I was sent to Vietnam as a correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review. At that time the Johnson administration was still fighting the war flat-out and to win. The US Army was at its peak strength of 500,000-plus soldiers and there was a huge civilian army of US aid officials and CIA operatives working under the acronym of CORDS—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.
As conceived by LBJ, CORDS was the New Deal parachuted into East Asia, flooding the Vietnamese countryside with good works and so winning Vietnamese “hearts and minds” away from the Viet Cong. Visiting correspondents were given minders to set up their opening rounds of interviews. When I turned up for my first interview I found myself in the company of a fellow journalist who had also just arrived in Saigon and had been assigned the same minder and the same slate of meetings as I had. The journalist was Mary McCarthy, the very special correspondent of The New York Review of Books.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to Mary McCarthy because as we made our way from one American office building to the next amid the noise and chaos of downtown Saigon, she was generous to the point of saintliness in answering my flow of questions about the war, the Review, and the significance of the interviews with US officials we had just sat through. She opened up for me a vision of what the best kind of reporting could be like.
This vision was Bob’s as much as hers. He had sent Mary McCarthy to Vietnam and paid for it (a big investment for the Review in those days) because he was confident that her approach to writing about the war would be close to what he wanted, and he was right. Rereading her Vietnam pieces exactly fifty years after they first appeared one is struck by how brilliantly they bring together the skills of the reporter, the scholar, the public intellectual, and the novelist. Running through all the pieces is that kind of acute moral sensibility best described by Tony Judt, who also worked closely with Bob: “a collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth telling; the [contrarian] quality of awkwardness and dissent.”
These qualities were Bob’s as much as they were McCarthy’s and Judt’s. Bob was himself a public intellectual of distinction but, unlike any of his peers, he devoted these qualities entirely to achieving excellence in others.
He was a brilliant, demanding, funny, painstaking, and inspiring editor, a walking chronicle of postwar literary-political history, an intimidating sweetheart, and very dear to me. At the end of an editorial session, once he had identified all your piece’s weaknesses, evasions, and missed opportunities, he would close with a brusque, even peremptory, but always, somehow, hopeful, “See what can be done.” In the world according to Bob Silvers, there was always something to be done.
I was not exactly courted by Bob. My first encounter, which left me breathless, happened ten years ago, when I sent him an essay I’d written on George Herriman and Saul Steinberg. Bob said he wanted only the Herriman half. I sent him the Herriman half, and before I knew it, my essay was in galleys. How strange it was to see my words in that lovely blobby New York Review typeface with the scrawl of Bob at the top: “Again thanks for such a good piece. We hope for any corrections soon. My best, Bob.”
Bob asked for a second essay from me, about blogging. In the blink of an eye, I received a note from him. “Please don’t think these various points and markings are sent in any critical spirit. They are putting forward, you might say, a vision of a piece that would both explore in a more elementary way what blogs are and what you take the qualities of bloginess to be. It may be a Utopian vision of an article but I hope you’ll consider what we’ve tried to say.” The “we” and the “they” were creeping more and more into our editing relationship. But the balmy praise came from Bob alone: “Again thanks for such a finely done piece on a difficult subject.”
The unraveling began when I wrote a piece about how the cartoonist William Steig’s ties with the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich (famous for his orgone boxes) might have shaped his children’s stories. Bob knew a lot of Reichians, it turned out, and we couldn’t agree about “the Reichian connection.” My piece never ran. My next stumble was on Errol Morris’s book on photographic evidence, Believing Is Seeing. I remember getting snagged on details involving Raglan sleeves, cardigans, and cannonballs. Eventually, the judgment came down from Bob: “I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by it.”
Years passed. We had many phone conversations; all left my heart pounding and my mind reeling; few led to publication. Then last year I sent Bob my review of the comic-book memoir The Arab of the Future by the half-Syrian, half-French cartoonist Riad Sattouf, who used to work at Charlie Hebdo. The editing was rough going. Bob challenged my comparison with Maus. And he thought I was painting the Syrians with too broad a brush. It wasn’t my brush, I argued; I was merely trying to get across what Sattouf was implying. Down came the gavel: “I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by the review as it stood.”
This time, though, I persisted. I kept revising, calling, hoping for a return to our halcyon days. Bob kept sending new galleys, new questions, new apologies. I was sure I knew where this was all leading, but in the end I was wrong. Bob’s last words to me were: “A galley of your piece, which comes off strongly. We hope for any corrections soon. My best, Bob.”
My wife Claude and I have known Bob for over sixty years; it was possibly in 1954, certainly in 1955, when we first met him. He was coming afresh to Paris from his stint in the US Army, by way of interludes as advance publicity director—a “flack”—for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (he regaled us with many amusing stories about that) and editor of the World Assembly of Youth magazine (a monthly, I believe). He was then “discovered” by George Plimpton and Blair Fuller and hired to become the editor of the relatively new literary magazine The Paris Review, and this is when we first knew him.
We have many memories of these early years with Bob, among them a long weekend with Francine du Plessix in the villa belonging to her parents at Saint-Maxime; there Bob plunged into the Mediterranean, swimming a surprisingly agile crawl with measured strokes, but moving way, way out, virtually beyond our sight, arms pumping away, a tiny white whale, disappearing for at least an hour, to the great concern of his friends on shore: we’d not until then seen him as an athletic type. During that same weekend, he gave us a very brief and rare glimpse of American naiveté when, after requesting a sleeping pill and being given a French opiate suppository, he started chewing it and, munching away, drinking water, complained that French pills were very difficult to swallow…
Over the years we saw Bob quite regularly in New York when he was at Harper’s, living in George Plimpton’s ground-floor bicycle storage room and later, once the Review had begun, in his New York office. Bob’s workaholic habits, his extraordinary, lively intelligence, his bonhomie, kindness, and loyalty were even then legendary, as was his ability to find time for an active social life as well as for the Review. I remember innumerable luncheons and dinners, concerts and events, also the only Stephen Sondheim musical I ever saw, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in company with Bob, both ensconced in the balcony. I remember many dinners with Bob when we would meet at the 57th Street office, go nearby to Patsy’s or Jean Laffite, have a stimulating dinner and then I would walk him back at 11 PM or so to his office amid the stalagmites of books and the tiny black-and-white television set perpetually playing basketball games. On one of those occasions Bob gave me, as a very amateur Joycean, the tear sheets of a highly enjoyable article he was about to publish that demonstrated the ineptitude of the so-called “definitive” edition of Ulysses that had just then appeared, an article which became a long-running and highly amusing source of attack and counter-attack; but the final result was that the “definitive” edition discreetly disappeared in favor of the old 1961 Modern Library edition it was supposed to replace.
With Grace Dudley, Bob’s life appeared to take a new shape, and this extraordinary companionship, so full of mutual respect, understanding, admiration, and love, gave a rich new dimension to Bob’s non-office existence: he could at last receive his friends and authors in the comfortable home that he and Grace maintained. There one could immediately sense that marvelous atmosphere, a mingling of personalities, intellects, knowledge which so well reflected Bob’s mind and that of the Review. I remember on one occasion at lunch a visiting foreigner was not quite sure how he could translate the word “kitsch”; many definitions were offered, the most memorable, to my mind, being Joseph Brodsky’s: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu”…
On their infrequent visits to Paris, we would have lunch or dinner in one of our local bistros, where Grace could have both the Belvedere and the Quincy she adored, and pronounce her anathemas on whatever she considered unwarranted cultural and intellectual reputations; and I certainly remember once when seeing Grace alone with a copy of the Review in hand, her saying, “Il est tellement merveilleux, et la Review aussi.” When we talked to Bob in Lausanne just after Grace’s death in December, he was so overwhelmed he could barely keep from sobbing. In that lovely Swiss cemetery, he now lies next to her, at last at rest.
April 11, 2017
Reviewing for Bob Silvers was like playing in the sprinkling rain of a mighty fountain. Books would arrive at any time, in packages of widely different sizes, with scholarship of every sort. The thrill was to make this shower of many rainbows fit together, like a game of consequences. One did this for the sheer joy of it. For this is what Bob communicated in every request and in every subsequent comment—the challenge to make entire worlds (often long dead or distant worlds) come alive. To work on a review for Bob was to be doused in the sheer, bubbling delight of Bob’s own unquenchable enthusiasm and alert, discerning curiosity. It widened the heart to know of such a fountain.
I have one overwhelming memory of Bob. We are sitting in his favorite restaurant (near the office, of course) when my wife contacts me on Bob’s mobile phone to say that her mother has died. While I sit dazed, knowing I must leave, Bob has paid the bill and run into the street like a twenty-year-old, has flagged down a taxi for me and darted back. I’ve rarely seen such agility of mind and body, spurred by such warm concern. Like so many others, I will dearly miss that nimble and creative mind: will miss his famous and treasured adjectives in response to my reviews, and his intuition that this or that book is right for me. No editor can have left among his writers such feelings of deep privilege and affection.
Bob Silvers and I exchanged faxes and e-mails for some thirty years, from 1985 until shortly before his death, but met only once, at the New York Public Library on the occasion of the second Robert B. Silvers lecture in 2003.
In the beginning he marked me down as a potential reviewer of Africa-related books, but soon discerned that I had little of interest to say about politics. By the mid-1990s he had worked out what projects would really engage me, and I began to look forward to the FedEx packages that regularly arrived from New York: review copies of new books accompanied by brief notes from Bob suggesting what approach he thought might work best.
Bob Silvers had a sure feel for which among contemporary currents of thought were significant and which were merely a matter of fashion. This power stemmed, I believe, from a coherent and historically informed world view. He knew more than a little about most things under the sun, but never tried to impose his ideas on me as a contributor. He had a keen eye, as I found, for faulty logic, for clichéd thought, and for slack prose. These and other qualities made him the great editor he was.
—J. M. Coetzee
Every piece written for Bob included three or four conversations on the phone. Most were narrowly focused on the work at hand, but not all. Sometimes he was reminded of an incident from the past—growing up with five thousand chickens on his uncle’s farm, say, or a long-ago conversation with Bobby Kennedy. And sometimes it was the world that intruded. In June 2006 Bob wanted a piece about George Tenet and asked me to call him. I did but as soon as he got on the phone it was apparent that something was badly wrong, he had been knocked askew.
“I have very bad news,” he said. His voice was low, hoarse and exhausted. I had never heard him so undone. “Barbara has died—just died—it happened only half an hour ago—completely unexpected—we knew she had cancer but we hadn’t expected this… so soon.” I knew the two of them had been putting out the magazine from the beginning. I felt terrible about intruding at such a moment. “You’ve seen her every day for forty years,” I said.
“Forty-three,” Bob said. “And even before that I knew her very well. It’s like losing part of yourself. She didn’t like to speak of it—she had great reserve—no, no service of any kind, she was dead set against all of that. She did speak of a cocktail party. But no one is up to that yet.” I suggested maybe we should put off Tenet for a week.
“Oh no,” said Bob instantly. “We must go on—we can’t… just stop. We must go on about things.” And that is what we did.
April 4, 2017
When I was in prison, Bob published some of my essays in The New York Review of Books. It was a gesture of solidarity that I will never forget. But it was also a way of extending help—a prisoner who was published in the world’s most important intellectual forum was protected against the whims of prison guards and party aparatchiks. I met Bob after 1989, when he came to visit Poland, and he immediately offered both moral and financial support to Gazeta Wyborcza. I met with him many times over the years, and, for me, he always represented the very best in the American democratic and intellectual traditions. By editing TheNew York Review of Books, he advanced many great contemporary debates. He occupied a unique place in the intellectual life of our time, a place that no one else is likely to fill.
I can’t remember the first time Bob asked me for a review; I was very much surprised when, on the occasion of my delivering the Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, he said I had been writing for the Review for forty-five years. What I chiefly remember of our interactions (for we rarely saw each other) was his kind gratitude for each piece, and his equally kind acquiescence when I felt unable to take something on. What most surprised me was that Bob, with his strong interest in politics and world events, wanted my apolitical self to write for him at all. I had read the Review from its first issue because of its authors, and was honored to be among them.
Only once did Bob respond to a review with a demurrer. I had, as usual, written what I had to say and sent it off. A day later, he phoned me and said gently, “Helen, I think this is a chapter of a book you want to write.” I had gone inordinately over the suggested length, not even noticing. Of course he was right; I cut the review in half, and eventually wrote that book. He was one of the few contemporary editors to offer generous space to his reviewers, and we all benefited, not least from writing the books he encouraged. I was shocked to hear of Bob’s death; he and the Review seemed immortal.
It was in 1969, I think, that Bob made a short stop in England on his way to Israel for the first time. Isaiah Berlin was keen to make Bob’s visit to Israel a success. Isaiah liked Bob immensely, but he was afraid that Bob’s attitude to Israel was “complicated” beyond necessity, namely, that it was ambivalent. He arranged for Bob a dress rehearsal in his Albany flat in London, to which he’d summoned three young Israelis who were in Oxford at the time and whom he believed would present Bob with the right mixture of criticism and care.
So there we were: Amos Oz, Gabriel Moked, and me. I don’t remember much about that meeting but I do remember being struck by how well dressed Bob was. In those days, I expected an editor of a lefty magazine to be wearing a weatherworn corduroy jacket over a shabby turtleneck sweater. I was surprised to see Bob with his piercing dark eyes and shining teeth, strikingly handsome in a black tailored suit, like Marcello Mastroianni in a high society Fellini film.
Bob was keenly interested in Israel. Interested but not obsessed. The intensity of his interest I ascribe to two conflicting sources: on the one hand he strongly held the view that Israel was treating the Palestinian Arabs badly. On the other hand, his brother, who spent a significant amount of time in a Northern kibbutz in the early years of Israel, conveyed to him that something interesting and humanly meaningful was emerging there. Bob held his brother’s views in high regard. So it was a combination of moral outrage and the early influence of the brother that, in part, accounts for Bob’s deep involvement, throughout the years, with all things concerning Israel.
Later, of course, I would also be struck by everything Bob was known for: a fierce and fearless integrity, intellectual brightness, a stubborn and demanding streak, a deft mastery of what the world is like, and, above all, his total devotion to his work as editor. Years later Sidney Morgenbesser took me to Bob’s office. Sidney had an uncanny ability to leaf through a book and to figure out what’s in it. Bob greatly appreciated Sidney’s quick eye and even quicker wit. Bob used to consult with Sidney on a regular basis. When Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle landed on Bob’s desk, it was Sidney who told him: “Try Avishai.”
Little had I anticipated the kind of Bermuda Triangle the piece got me into: an avalanche of reactions from all sides. I quickly realized that one of the distinct privileges of writing for the Review was that it endowed you with an illustrious group of enemies. It was Bob who taught me that a reply to criticism is best served cold.
Like many others, I, too, was dumbfounded byBob’s “work ethic.” I use the expression with caution, for it is strongly associated with Max Weber, a hero of Bob’s from his time as a Wunderkind at the University of Chicago. The Review under Bob was not particularly kind to sociology, yet Weber remained his hero. Still, it would be misleading to describe Bob as a workaholic. There was nothing addictive in his devotion to his writers. Weber would be hard-pressed to find a better example than Bob of someone for whom work truly was a calling.
It was a calling that had all the intensity of religious conviction, but rather than God, it was in the service of what is right and noble and decent in the human striving for a better life and a better society.
I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to write for the two greatest editors of this era, William Shawn of The New Yorker and of course Bob Silvers. I thought that The New Yorker’s methods were exacting, and indeed they were, but The New York Review’s were beyond my imagination. Some Review contributors have mentioned receiving from Bob an A galley, a B galley, and a C galley of a piece on its way to press. I wonder how they got off so light. It was common in my early years at the Review to get an F galley; and then to start again, with AA, BB, CC, DD. It struck me as slightly insane. After my first article for the magazine had gone to press I encountered Bob at a book party in New York. Cheekily—I can’t imagine where I got the nerve—I registered my concern about such a demanding regime. Bob looked down at me—he was very big—smiled, and said, “You see, that’s because we want our pieces to be perfect.”
Bob had an old-fashioned courtliness, increasingly rare in this rough age. And if one came to know him at all well, one knew that his longtime companion, Grace, Countess of Dudley, was a crucial and essential part of his life. Grace was also generous of spirit to Bob’s writers. In recent years Grace was very ill in Lausanne and couldn’t return to New York, so on top of everything else he did, Bob made a biweekly commute to Switzerland to be with her. (He worked on the magazine and even called writers from there, of course.) When I commented to him that this transatlantic travel was heroic and superhuman, he replied, “It’s the least I can do.”
As most people who dealt with him know, Bob could unleash a fearsome temper in making an argument or in reaction to a writer’s copy coming in longer than he’d specified. But it was never personal; nor was it lasting. Once he’d won his point—as he usually did—he moved on. If he was convinced, Bob gave way: in my last piece for him I wrote of Trump’s inauguration address that it was a cousin to his convention speech—meaning of course that they had the same negative tone. In a proof, Bob crossed that out and wrote in the margin in his crabbed handwriting, “We’re not aware that speeches can have cousins.” Once I explained what I meant, my wording stood.
For all of Bob’s ferocious seriousness about the state of this nation and the world, there was also a merriness about him. I think he understood that unless we could find humor in what was going on we’d go mad. Bob laughed easily and a lot. He saw the humor and absurdity in situations—and as a correspondent from Washington I had much absurdity to offer him. He made it fun to talk about the latest outrages. He also understood journalism. Once, a source for a piece, a well-known Washington figure, wrote him a vituperative letter complaining about my alleged misdeeds. I’d got it all wrong, out of context, and so on. I’d never seen such an angry letter from a source and I was worried how Bob would react. In time, he called me and said, casually, “I see that you must have quoted [name] accurately.”
Bob never made a change that the author didn’t agree to. Sometimes this went to great lengths. When we were closing that last article—about the first weeks of the Trump administration—a piece that called for frequent updating until the presses rolled, I was vastly relieved when it finally went to press—or so I thought. A full day later, when I’d turned to other matters, Bob called with one question, about a minor issue that likely no one would have noticed. And so we fixed it.
For my generation in Mexico, The New YorkReview was our first window on the Anglo-Saxon intellectual universe, scarcely known to earlier generations. Naturally my dream was to write for it. I remember having lunch with Bob around 1985. I had had the temerity to send him—unsolicited—a book review. He rejected it but invited me to eat with him and, patiently, he gave me incisive instruction on the art of writing review essays. “Be concrete” he said to me, “Tell a story.” His counsel at that lunch meeting was invaluable in teaching me the importance of putting across an argument with precision and clarity.
A few years ago, Bob asked me to write about some books on the political thaw in Cuba. For him, the theme touched a deep chord. In our conversations, he detailed his own visits to the island, his initial support for the Cuban revolution, and how he (along with Ted Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger) had helped rescue the persecuted poet Heberto Padilla and bring him to this country. With Bob’s questions, his extraordinary range of information, and the books that he sent me (even on a subject like the antiquated automobiles still running in Cuba) he sought to open up a vision of the Cuban regime that was nuanced but critical. “This is only the beginning,” he said to me about that series of articles. He seemed to be looking ahead to the denouement of a history (a story) that had marked his life.
“We’re not giving up,” he wrote to his friends at the time of the celebration of the Review’s fiftieth year. Nor did we, nor will we, his devoted readers, writers, and friends. His example will never permit us to do so.
—Enrique Krauze (translated by Hank Heifetz)
Shortly after I began writing for the Review I was at a dinner in London when a beautiful American woman, who happened to be my father’s stepsister, told me that she recalled having lunch with Bob in New York in February 1963. They had been at a French bistro on the West side, and Bob said, “Just a moment, I want to stop by a newsstand.” She answered, “But Bob, there is a newspaper strike!” They did stop however and there was one paper for sale, which he bought and gave her. It was the first issue of The New York Review of Books. The impression I retained from this anecdote, of the editor and his companion admiring the sacred object while standing on the sidewalk, was immensely powerful, and the fact that my father’s stepsister had been involved made me feel as though I was almost related to Bob. I devoted my next email to him to describing this story, and the pleasure I had felt in hearing it. But my letter was met with silence, and in this way I learned not to intrude in Bob’s private life.
Over nearly two decades, I wrote for Bob dozens of times, had an NYRB collection in my name, and was on occasion a main ingredient in the Mulligatawny that is a Review front cover. But I never lost the sense that I was on probation. This wasn’t simply because Bob held a minority stake in my professional well-being—from the commission in hand at the time of his death (“no longer than 3,500 words, such are the limitations being lowered on us”) to a review of my own book waiting in line. It had to do with the sense I had that he was a man of principle, that his principles were good ones, and that by involving myself with him I could be part of their propagation. And so, in the tradition of an elder in whose authority I had complete belief—a schoolmaster, a priest, a father—I wished very much to please him.
I believe I am one of the few people to have written an entire book in atonement for some ill-judged sentences in TheNew York Review. The painful mishap came early on, in 2001, when I wrote a piece about Turkey that touched on relations with the Armenians. Awareness of the Armenian suffering at the hands of Ottoman Turkey was abysmally low in those days, and without noticing it I had imbibed the Turkish line that the Armenians were exaggerating. In my piece I alluded with what now seems an unseemly disregard to Armenian casualties in the course of “rioting” against the Ottomans in the 1890s, and to some half a million Armenian deaths during the 1915 massacres.
In a letter to the Review, James Russell, a Harvard professor of Armenian history, accused me of conniving in a Turkish cover-up, and Bob of belittling Armenian agony with a blitheness he would never have permitted himself in relation to the Holocaust. I did some reading and realized that Russell’s points were sound. What I called rioting was better described as a pogrom, and at least double my “half a million” had fallen in the genocide of 1915. The strength of Bob’s reaction to the letter had, I think, something to do with this accusation of double standards. When we spoke by phone he seemed too furious to get his paragraphs going. He suggested that I was a patsy of the Turks. I answered back, saying that I expected him to see the difference between a mistake and sinister intent. The conversation ended badly.
I fumed and hopped, and yet the sense I had of letting him down, and with him the principles he incarnated, urged me to go in deeper. Rebel Land (2010) was the toughest book I have written—going around eastern Turkey digging out secrets, distrusted by ordinary people, harassed by policemen, intelligence agents, and army captains. And while Bob did not acknowledge the genesis of the book, he assigned it to Roger Cohen, who gave it one of the most generous reviews I have received.
I ended up learning my lessons with Bob. Do not dilute first principles; do not mistake comradeship for intimacy. How reassuring it was, when my editors at TheEconomist strapped on their webbing and boarded the merry pro-invasion flotilla in the Iraq War, to know that Bob had stayed behind and was calling it out for the tawdry fantasy it was. Not that he ever claimed expertise on the Middle East, or anything else. (The way he would say that he had been educated on a particular subject by a piece in the Review was an example of generosity and sly self-congratulation on his worth as a “middleman.”) He seemed to operate by instinct, informed by some consultation—but mostly instinct.
The pleasure I derived from him at the end was essentially the same pleasure I derived from him eighteen years ago. There is no more bracing experience for a writer than to have his work given serious attention by a sniffer-out of vanity, shallow opinion, and superfluous adjectives.
—Christopher de Bellaigue
I knew Bob Silvers only briefly, toward the end of his life, but I seem always to have known the New York Review of Books. It was, like him, a grand assurance that writers and thinkers would receive the degree of respect and attention appropriate to their calling, if not always to the level of their achievement. It was a forum open to excellence, to good prose and new thought, a kind of citadel of culture whose very presence signified what might be aspired to. For me, the conversation with Barack Obama arranged by Bob Silvers, that hour of time spent simply talking with a preeminently cultured and brilliant man, was the essence of the Review, a moment in the life of the culture unfolding on its own terms, the unobtrusive strength of the Review making it happen. It is bracing and daunting to know that so much can be accomplished in one lifetime, that discipline, taste, and generosity, persisted in over years, can put a precious monument on the national landscape.
March 29, 2017
“I’ve heard that you like Szymborska’s poems.” A typical suggestion for a review and Bob was right: I would never have thought of doing it, and it was a pleasure to do “for us.” There was nothing wrong, either, with tagging it to a paperback reprint; the point was to see that justice was done to a writer he had always admired. A neutral tone was deployed elsewhere: “This book has been getting a lot of attention—whether deserved or not, you’ll have to decide.” A word-length would be suggested and a related book mentioned without prejudice; this initial note sometimes followed up in emails by an article or two, sent as a link or attachment. Soon enough (if you didn’t say no outright), Bob would become a tributary feeder of interest in the article; and you entered a process whose stages would be marked by his characteristic refrain, “On we go!” In more casual conversation, his opinions were seldom orthodox, and could be startling in their depth of recollection and emphasis. I was reading Turgenev’s Virgin Soil? “How wonderful for you! His tenderness toward those young people—there’s nobody like him.” Bob’s authority, fortress-like and final as it seemed, never really closed off a challenge supported by reasons. His loyalty to an article under attack, no matter from what quarter, sprang from an integrity that was the other side of his endless resourcefulness. He was born to do the work he did.
Great as was the delight, these last few years, that I had in writing for Bob, the brilliant, patient, loving Editor, my experience was tinged with absurdity—because I had been an office slave at the Review circa 1980, and so had first encountered Bob in his very different Boss guise. He was a roaring, impatient beast Boss, wanting always to be fed with new drafts, phone numbers, telexes, copies of books—“Where—?” were those books, those galleys, those missing notes, those reviewer bios, those words and pages that were somehow, just barely, holding civilization together?
Straight out of college, and as incompetent as such a person could possibly be, I worked directly for Barbara Epstein—but was often enough roped in to assist Bob’s own three, sometimes four, assistants, that my nerves responded like an old fire horse to the alarm raised by the sound of his voice, usually shouting “Where—?” or “Can someone—?” or, when he had been abandoned by his staff, all scurrying about after missing telexes or just taking a breather in another part of the office—“Hello—?” shouted out over the intercom. “Hello? I’m all alone in here!”
Years later, I had one of the most vivid dreams of my life: a tsunami was rolling up at the windows of Bob’s office, everyone screaming and fleeing, but Bob, in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, was rushing at the windows and the torrent, arms spread wide, “We can hold it back!” he bellowed.
Of course the Bob I once feared and the Bob I later adored were the same person; but he conceived of the job of editor—and by extension, all who aided him—as nothing less than the job of holding back chaos. The editor was sane; but the writer was, perhaps, mad and needed, by coaxing and petting, to be brought to sanity through clarity of thought and prose. All of Bob’s gentle empathy was deployed to bring out our best; all of Bob’s ferocious impatience was deployed to chivvy the machinery of the Review forward to make the best possible.
Bob Silvers was the last public figure whose intellectual authority was recognized everywhere. Now he’s gone, the world is more lost and confused than ever. But let me explain what I mean by “authority” in Bob’s case.
Some time ago, in a Japanese brasserie downstairs from the Review’s offices in New York, Bob was telling me about an occasion when he’d been asked to define himself in seven words. This is what he came up with: “An editor obsessed with the next issue.” Exactly seven words. That was Bob. That was enough for him. Very likely, he thought there was nothing better in the world than to be this. He never wrote anything under his own name. Only comments in the margin, in his tiny handwriting. When he commissioned articles, he had such a subtle way of dealing the cards that the result was never predictable. And there was never a trace of effort. Even in his physical appearance, he seemed never to change. Always a dark suit, always a white shirt, or at least a white collar.
Bob’s only aim was to give every issue and every article he published what it most needed, and above all a quality that’s hard to explain if you don’t already have it: the scruple of truth. Bob had a talent for finding people who did have that scruple. And it was in obedience to that talent, that instinct, that for more than fifty years he built and ran The New York Review of Books.
On many occasions, one was bound to acknowledge that the way a certain subject or writer had been handled in the magazine was a little superficial or even unfair. But nevertheless one was also forced to acknowledge that the resulting disagreement, the silent duel in the reader’s mind, was useful, and sometimes precious. And you could feel sure that Bob would respond to any objection calmly, in a spirit of curiosity even. What mattered most to him, beyond any agreement or disagreement, was to avoid sloppy thinking, convoluted sentences, anything hackneyed or trite. This was the real basis of Bob’s authority. More than a unique way of thinking, it was a unique way of being, as unique as a writer’s style is unique. Here is another seven-word definition of the man: “He was the best part of America.”
I recall, with pleasure, my first conversation with Bob, when we talked about the first issue of the Review, in which the first—lead—piece was a review of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time by my former professor and mentor, F. W. Dupee. What a seemingly curious choice—a biographer of Henry James writing about a black man’s view of race in America. And then—but how brilliant a choice, for Dupee noted what no one else had to that point: the Jamesian sensibility within a passionate and (allegedly) wild-eyed, radical, politically polarizing Negro from Harlem. Bob and I talked about our friendships with Dupee, and about how canny it was of Dupee to call our attention to Baldwin’s love of syntax—to his long, graceful, nuanced, serpentine sentences. “Nobody else in democratic America,” Dupee wrote, “writes sentences like this anymore.”
I admired Bob’s shrewd instincts, his scrupulous editing, his magical ability to join reviewers to books and to issues while remaining, across more than a half century, ever as fastidious about detail and language as he was passionate about writers. It was a great and rare pleasure—and an honor—to work with him. We, and democratic America, will miss him.
My relationship to the Review was polygamous. I started life working for Bob, though I became one of Barbara’s writers—there was a ritual for the first published piece by a staff member; a mock masthead was set, with a zany contributor’s note. After Barbara’s death in 2006, I wrote for Bob, who gave me the gift of extraordinary freedom to write about whatever I wanted to think about, from the Arabian Nights, to the literature of gastronomy, to dollhouses. We also corresponded every year on Bloomsday, the anniversary of Barbara’s death, when he would write of her with gravity and great tenderness.
But it was Bob who hired me, and it was to his office in the Fisk building I would walk every morning, passing the mail room, a combination of theater and art installation, its walls scrawled with penciled witty aphorisms and graffiti, and hung with an ever shifting picture exhibition. I wish it could have been transferred intact to the Smithsonian.
Whoever arrived first in Bob’s office would meet a scene like a campsite ravaged by a grizzly bear, strewn with papers, letters, chocolate bar wrappers, and the remnants of whatever fruit and sandwiches anyone had naively left in the refrigerator. One would rebuild pathways and tunnels through the overturned labyrinth of books and manuscripts, piled so high that we created makeshift cubicles and partitions of them, turning our three desks into semi-private spaces.
Bob and Barbara had their own editorial languages. Barbara and I would communicate about a piece in fluent Krazy Kat, while anyone who worked in Bob’s office possesses a glossary of Silversisms, “Old boy, Kiddo, please see what can be done, soonest, slogging,” among them. “I can’t talk now, we’re breaking a story!” he would shout rapturously into the telephone during press week, in the tones of Cary Grant in The Front Page. After one of his lengthy contemplative sighs, Bob would utter a rueful, “Sorry, gang!” Calls to Grace Dudley would end with an echoing, “Youngie, I adore you…’dore you…’dore you.”
Bob was an acute observer of his writers’ quirks and needs. New parents would be greeted with, “How is that remarkable infant?” Writers who loved gossip would be served up a gleaming, carefully arranged platter of it. He had observed how telephone shy I am, never comfortable with words that vanish, and devised ingenious circumventions. Our basement has a corner dedicated to carcasses of answering machines that I will never throw away, because they contain marvelous monologues of Bob’s, which he would leave on the machines, knowing I would respond in writing.
I particularly loved the night shift, from 2:30 to roughly 10:30, often beyond, when the offices were shadowy, and the work took on a concentrated, pregnant intensity. I noticed Bob looking at his watch repeatedly one night; this was strikingly unusual on a working night uninterrupted by a dinner or an opera. It was 1984, the year of the famous Olympics in Sarajevo. “Kiddo, would you mind if we turned on the television? I don’t want to miss Torvill and Dean’s Bolero, I’ve heard it’s marvelous.”
I turned on the television, and we pulled up chairs, settling down side by side to watch their breathtaking number in the ice dancing competition, our faces frescoed with television colors and shadows in the dimly lit office. The dance, with its intricate spins, leaps, traceries, and embraces, became an inscription on the ice, an embodied calligraphy; we seemed to be watching not only a lovers’ dance, but also an enactment of writing. When it ended, Bob sighed. “Well, we can’t all be Olympic skaters,” he said. He turned off the television, and went back to his desk. He scrabbled for a pencil, the instrument that transported him back to his own realm. “We must slog on as we are, Kiddo.”
March 27, 2017
Talking about literary reviewing, over lunch, a few years before his far too early death, Bob said something to the effect that the only thing worth writing about was genius. Around the same time, I noticed that the titles in the Review seemed to include the word “genius” more often than they did before.
Genius, as Bob perceived it, was morally and intellectually passionate, committed to its own views about art and justice, but with no wish to impose those views on anyone. More than once, when I was working on a piece about a writer he admired, he sent an annoyed e-mail about a review published somewhere else that objected to the writer’s idiosyncratic views—“his insights, his anger”—and that recommended instead some vapid, moderate relativism designed to let readers “feel reassured by a nonexistent state of compromise.” For a reviewer confronted by an unsettling or extreme vision in some writer “X,” it was a “deep fallacy,” he said, to “trundle in Y to offset it.” The fantasy that author X—or thinker X or politician X—can be balanced by Y is a futile attempt to evade anxiety in a world where passionate intensities are inescapably real in politics, art, and everyone’s inner life. “The neglected question is, what is the genuine power and originality of X?”
He said he never wanted to write anything, only to encourage others to write. But he often seemed as much a co-author as an editor, even though he never actually co-wrote. A parcel of books would arrive from the office with a few sentences in them underlined by his obviously rapid pen. Weeks later, when an essay about the books finally got written, those sentences would turn out to have been the focus for a dozen paragraphs of argument. A quick word or two in an e-mail message or phone call would develop into a unifying theme. Later, he would casually refer to “our piece on so-and-so.”
In his messages and phone calls Bob tended to be formally expansive or cheerfully abrupt. His editorial attention felt nothing like love, but it had the same effect. It made his writers braver and more generous, more sure-footed, more confident in looking forward to a goal rather than downward to their feet. The one genius he never wanted to read about was himself.
My last memory of Bob is entirely happy. We met for lunch on election day. We didn’t talk much about that; it had all been said. He was positive, brisk, shining with enthusiasm. And the enthusiasm knew no bounds when he heard my afternoon was committed to the Martin Luther exhibition—I might write about it, he said, why not?—and while I was in that vicinity, there was another exhibition I should take in, and I might write about that too… No time to lose! Keen to find a cab as fast as a magic carpet, he strode out into the road and turned full-on to the traffic, head back, arms stretched wide, a massive dark shape against the river light. It made me laugh with the joy of the moment. If he always stopped cabs like that, I wonder that he survived to his great age, but what struck me at the time was, “Just look at Bob—look at him, his vigor, his strength…he looks thirty.”
I was picked up and brought on to The New York Review by Barbara Epstein, with whom I had some of the most enchanting and gossipy dinners of my life, and after she died—hard to realize it is eleven years ago now—I thought my time with the Review would be up. Then I began, very occasionally, to be sent books by Bob, whom I hardly knew, in such a way that made it hard to turn them down. They were almost always exactly the books I wanted to read and review—he had the great editor’s sixth sense of what would fit. (In my case, for instance, Alice Munro’s stories, Cather’s letters, Updike’s biography and collected stories, Colm Tóibín’s essays, Jenny Diski on Doris Lessing and dying, Stevie Smith’s collected poems.) There would follow courtly, mildly firm notes about deadlines (“if something were possible by July 20, that would have advantages”). In due course, there would be a single sentence about the review, which I waited for with the same kind of eagerness and trepidation with which I used, in the 1970s, to anticipate the comments on my Observer fiction reviews from Terence Kilmartin, my first editor-mentor. It was very satisfying when Bob called your piece “strong”; it was exciting when he said it was subtle or perceptive. Sometimes there would be a gloss, always interesting and precise, as here, on an ill-chosen word:
On galley 1, we’ve been trying hard to avoid the word “compelling.” It’s become very widely used but there is a vagueness about it. Who or what is compelling who or what to do what? The increasingly popular usage seems to imply that the reader feels compelled to read on. But that does seem vague. The word is sometimes used to mean that a work is captivating, sometimes that it is intensely interesting; but it gives, we think, the impression that a more definite meaning is missing. The word “gripping” in your original seemed to say more. Perhaps you could consider this. We’ll soon send another galley.
My admiration for Bob—his acuteness, his professionalism, his remarkable attentiveness, his intellectual range—grew up through these semi-formal exchanges. But I had another link to him, through his relationship with Isaiah Berlin, the founder of the Oxford College, Wolfson, where I am president. I had encountered him also in that Anglo-intellectual Oxford setting, where he was debonairly at home. Isaiah’s own words about him pay the best tribute of all. I would almost call it “compelling”:
Bob combines a warm heart, an all-absorptive and sympathetic intellect, and an undeceivable moral insight with a degree (unequalled in my experience) of interest in and understanding of a vast variety of ideas and movements, social, political, moral, artistic. He responds without fail to every manifestation, small and great, of culture, of original creative power—and, indeed, to an infinity of human issues—and shows an extraordinary understanding of the characters and aims of those involved in them. His contribution to contemporary culture is outstanding.
Reading the flood of tributes and homages to Bob, I’m surprised at how little has been said about the part that The New York Review played after September 11. At a time when the country was traumatized, its intellectual class paralyzed, and independent thinking suppressed, Bob turned the Review into an essential place for debate and analysis, reporting and exposing. On the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq; the war on terror and US policy in the Mideast; the infringement of civil liberties and the cowering of the press, Bob pushed his writers to question the ruling axioms of the day in a way few other publications dared. This resulted in a flood of denunciations, angry letters, and cancelled subscriptions, but Bob never buckled. In his brilliant tenure as editor of the Review, it was, I think, his finest hour, which in fact continued to his very end.
Bob always knew exactly the right gift to give everyone, whether it was for a happy occasion, a milestone, or an illness. When Bob’s niece (my sister, Miriam Silvers McAteer) was gravely ill in 1991, Bob visited her at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in northern Manhattan. She was on a respirator, and Bob learned that she would not be able to speak for several weeks. Her hospital room was filled with cards and flowers, but Bob knew just what she needed. He soon returned with pads of paper and a huge collection of colored pencils. Now Miriam could communicate, keep journal notes, and doodle. Of all the gifts that she received during that final illness, Bob’s was the one that cheered her the most.
I don’t know how Bob found me, but I do remember the first letter he wrote to me, out of the blue, asking (or actually more or less insisting) that I review a book by Wendy Doniger. It was a short letter, with no preliminaries: we want you to review this book; you have 3,500 words; we’ll pay such and such; we need it in two weeks; great thanks. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Over the years, I became addicted to his short, incisive comments, handwritten on the proofs, always exactly on the mark.
He was wise and occasionally impish. Sometimes he would send me books to remote, outlandish places deep in the Indian countryside. One of them was sent by express mail—probably the first time such a notice was addressed to someone in the village—but FedEx refused to deliver the packet. In classical Indian fashion, they kept sending more and more terrible forms to be filled out, each longer than the previous one; they were supposed to be printed on some specified stationery and then notarized, and they came with a threatening letter telling me that unless I complied with these demands at once I would have to pay thousands of rupees in storage charges per day. After some fruitless weeks of trying to follow the escalating instructions, I gave up and called the main Fedex office in Bangalore to tell them to return the book to the sender. They said, “No Sir, we can’t do that.” I lost my temper and told them to throw it into the Godavari River, or to feed it to the water buffalos, but under no circumstances did I want to see it. Two hours later it arrived at my door. When I told Bob what happened, he seemed particularly delighted. He said that though the Review had sent out tens of thousands of books to reviewers, this was the first time a water buffalo had ever been invoked.
As a writer on the affairs of science, technology, and society, I found the range of Bob’s interested receptiveness astonishing, running from nuclear and chemical weapons, to cancer and biomedicine, and on to architectural acoustics, particle accelerators, and even the patenting of human genes. Patents might have made another editor’s eyes glaze over, but not Bob’s. He had already published a piece of mine on the breast-cancer-gene patent case when it was making its way through the federal courts. One evening some weeks after it appeared, I recounted to Bob and Oliver Sacks the oral arguments I had recently heard in the case at the Supreme Court. Bob asked if I would write a follow-up piece once the case was decided. He understood that the outcome would be enormously important, which it was, for both patent law and biomedicine.
In my long experience with the Review, which began more than a quarter century ago, with an assessment of Bill McKibben’s powerful The End of Nature, I found Bob eerily prescient and exceptionally wise. I’m saddened that I won’t ever again see any of his welcome encouragements—“A wonderful, important review, but we wonder if you might consider the following….We hope to have your revisions soon.”—scrawled on a page of proofs.
—Daniel J. Kevles
When I first started writing for the Review in 2002, I sprinkled some high-end vocabulary in my piece, thinking, well, this is The New York Review of Books, after all. But when I got my galleys back, such words were invariably struck, first by Barbara Epstein, who was my editor until she passed away in 2006, and then by Bob, although I’d mostly stopped by then. When he called, unfailingly, not more than forty-eight hours after I turned in a piece, the words he used to thank me were not big. But always unexpected:
Oh, Michael, listen, I want to thank you for this extremely—clarifying piece that does so much to shed light on these matters that simply aren’t being discussed. It’s quite a, shall we say, overwhelming set of developments. Now of course, we do have our little…thoughts. You’ll see them. There’s a bit toward the end where we thought you might add something, but of course we leave it entirely to you. You’ll have a galley tonight and we’ll look for changes soonest.
Click. He never said “goodbye.” Ever. I was after all one of fifteen or twenty contributors he was dealing with that fortnight, and he surely had someone else to call, someone else to reassure and encourage and remind of the ticking of the clock.
When Barbara died, I was quite nervous about my future with “the paper.” I’d spoken to Bob only a few times, and never beyond pleasantries and perhaps a sentence or two about George W. Bush. What would he need with me?
So there was a celebration of Barbara’s life held at her apartment. God was it hot. Her cavernous living room was filled with her and Bob’s friends. I thought I might try to steal a moment to go up to Bob, remind him of my existence; but every time I looked over, he was surrounded by people who were, first, literary giants, and, second, friends of his for decades.
I was ready to retreat. I was standing alone near the fireplace when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was Bob. He did not say anything like, “Well, I do hope you’ll continue writing for the paper.” That would’ve been gauche. But he was all smiles, and as he lingered I kept wondering why he didn’t excuse himself to go talk to someone more important. And so, with the grace and generosity that I later came to know well, he communicated to me what needed to be communicated. Clarifying indeed.
I once heard it said of Bob Silvers that his mission was to make journalists write like academics and academics write like journalists. There’s something in that. For a newspaperman like me, the commission from Bob was a summons to raise your game: to reach for a standard of rigor and precision higher than the rhythms of daily journalism might usually allow. Of course, this standard never needed to be codified. Pleasing Bob was the goal, and you could tell, just from reading the Review, that even the world’s most acclaimed writers stretched themselves to attain it.
And yet, for all the talk of exacting demands, Bob was never a forbidding figure. Quite the reverse. In a phone call he would be playful, even conspiratorial, laughing easily when I dialed in from, say, the Republican convention to give him an update on the unfolding circus. He seemed to marvel at each fresh absurdity the world could serve up.
He was protective of his writers, urging them to use the letters column to hit back at any criticism that had come their way—turning what would otherwise have been a rebuke into an “exchange.” And it was clear that for some of his writers he felt a respect that was close to love. I suspect Tony Judt was in that category. When I reviewed a posthumous, and superb, collection of Judt’s essays, the headline Bob chose for the piece was: The Best Man Among Us.
After receiving a galley from Bob, I would squint to read the handwritten notes in the margin, preserved even in PDF form. They would often question a detail so arcane, only an expert would have spotted it. Yet as you made the correction to, say, a year in the career of Ariel Sharon, you would know that Bob could do the same on a piece about Matisse or container ships. His knowledge, and his curiosity, seemed as vast and endless as the ocean.
To be like that, even into his late eighties, was a sign of more than just a voracious intellect. It was an attitude to life. In that respect, and in so many others, Bob was a model—the best among us.
March 25, 2017
The eyes we wrote for are gone. But a great deal remains: the intelligence, the analytical rigor, the concern for what matters—the editorial ideal that Bob embodied. Bob expressed an entire world view through his editing, a panorama that encompassed art, politics, fiction, economics, music, science, philosophy, current news—often in a single issue. We wrote for him to add to that world view, to participate in it, and—Bob’s particular genius—to serve it in our way.
His sympathies ranged wide. He would often ask me about my manic-depressive daughter. He had experienced the illness up close with Robert Lowell, and he understood the wreckage left in the wake of a manic surge. These sympathies were essential to the editor, because the editor was the man: I’ve never known anyone whose life and work were so completely entwined.
I felt his support most deeply—the emails, the phone calls, the memos, the shared effort to get it right—when I wrote about unglamorous subjects: the travails of New York’s Muslims after September 11, 2001, for example, or the hard road walked by the urban displaced. He was personally, and very discreetly, involved in the struggle to keep neighborhood libraries open in the poorest precincts of New York. And what pleased him most about the Occupy Wall Street movement was that they had set up a lending library in Zuccotti Park.
I sent a piece to Bob about New York’s housing crisis only a few hours before he died. I knew he was too sick to read it, but I could still feel his eyes.
Unlike some of the others who are writing in this space, I only knew Bob as an editor—but I like to think that this was the best and purest way to know him, because Bob was an editor with a special kind of genius. He had a talent for matching people with books, and books with one another. He minded about language and grammar; he knew it was important that the article flowed. He talked me into writing about people and subjects I didn’t think I cared about—Sheryl Sandberg, for example—but also let me write about things it had been hard to imagine anyone else caring about, like revolutionary Mongolia or Stalinist Ukraine. And of course it wasn’t just me: he seemed to get the best out of all of his writers, understanding that it wasn’t the subject that mattered or even the author, but the effort of the latter to engage the former that made for good writing. Because he expected that effort, everybody made it. I never got over the thrill of receiving a little parcel of books with a New York Review return address, and I’m sure no one else did either. Just knowing he was waiting for an article was inspiration to finish it, polish it, rewrite it, and edit it, because in American literary journalism there was no higher standard than Bob, and we all wanted to meet it.
By his relentless insistence on clarity and the quality of writing, Bob extended the boundaries of what would command the attention of the general inquisitive reader. The Review did many different things, but one of them was to present complex and often abstract ideas to nonspecialists without sacrificing accuracy. I hope this will continue even though he is gone.
Bob had a profound curiosity and knowledge about the world beyond the US borders, and, to my eternal gratitude, he embraced nearly every idea that I threw at him. He dispatched me with relish to places that few Americans think much about; pushed me to think hard and deep about ethnic strife, the abuses of dictatorships, human rights, and the challenge of radical Islam, and gave me ample space to explore those themes. Some of my fondest memories are of dropping by the Hudson Street office to see him after a trip, sharing a wry laugh about Robert Mugabe’s awfulness or the sheer weirdness of Timbuktu. He was an engaged, passionate, lovable man, and I will deeply miss him.
There was always a special frisson when the FedEx man arrived, unannounced, at my door in London with a pack of books and a typewritten note on unheaded paper inviting me to “consider” some “challenging” book on a topic relating to the Middle East or the Islamic World. Bob’s earlier perusal would usually zoom in on a critical aspect of the book’s approach, but he was unfailingly courteous in accepting my suggestions after I had finished reading, whether this involved a shift of emphasis, or perhaps dropping one of the books, or even adding one that had escaped his notice. He was also remarkably accommodating when it came to accepting my suggestions of books to review. Unlike other editors I have known who respond to submissions with silence, until a galley arrives several months later, the email responses were always reassuringly polite, even complimentary, with “strong” being one of his favorite adjectives. This is not to say that there weren’t occasional tussles. He was ruthless in the pursuit of clarity, exorcising traces of the specialist jargon that litters scholarly writing on Islam, and that sometimes crept into my submissions. His insistence on making me unwrap some of the more obscure convolutions of academic discourse was an education in good plain writing and intellectual common sense.
Back in 1985, Bob heard at a dinner party about my recent trip to the Afghan border. He called me (we did not know each other at the time) to see if I would write about it for The New York Review. That was the first of a series of articles I wrote for the Review, essays on my missions for Human Rights Watch to places like the Soviet Union, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria, Cuba, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, and quite a few others.
At times it seemed like Bob was gently directing my work. After a 1990 article on my trip to Kazakhstan, he remarked: “It would be nice if you were to go to some of the other ‘stans’ and write about them.” And so I did.
Bob was a perfectionist, concerned with the big picture, but also with the tiniest detail. On the rare occasion when I discovered a mistake in a galley he had already signed off on—a misplaced punctuation mark or a missing comma—I could feel his chagrin at the other end of the phone; it was painful.
He seemed to live in his office, hidden behind the great piles of books on his desk. But he also managed to break away for a cocktail party, immaculately dressed and completely relaxed, in order to meet a visiting dissident writer and, perhaps, to commission a piece. Chances are he then returned to his desk, donned his blue cardigan sweater, and went back to work.
I still cannot entirely take in that Bob Silvers is dead. I know, he was well-struck in years. I know, none of us lives forever. But he was so youthfully, passionately, energetically engaged with his work that the flame seemed inextinguishable. He was utterly selfless in his dedication and unfailingly generous in his critical intelligence. My memory now lingers lovingly over our phone calls—his voice so distinct in its dry wit—and I treasure as relics of his magnificent vocation every canny scribble he wrote in the margins of the pieces I sent him. We shall not see his like again.
One of Bob’s much-remarked gifts was for spotting the kind of unexpected topics that might break one open in some way, and so he guided one’s development with wide-angle inspirations as much as with zoom-lens close-ups. I sent him a piece on Frederic Prokosch and, out of nowhere, he asked me two years later if I’d like to write on Maugham. He didn’t know—no one knew—that Maugham was a lifelong fascination of mine, and five years later I ended up producing a whole anthology of essays by Maugham, the only such project I’ve ever done, stirred no doubt by Bob’s gentle and intuitive prompting.
Who else could ask me—and get me—to spend many weeks one summer producing a long piece on William F. Buckley, in whom I knew, before that summer, I had no interest whatsoever? Or to put everything aside to write 3,000 words on Sherpas, on Sudanese fiction, on Isabel Colegate’s book about hermits (it was Bob who tweaked the reference to St. Jerome)?
I think it was at one of The New York Review’s public symposia, organized with the University of London in Bloomsbury, when Bob was about eighty. He had been crisply introducing a roster of distinguished international speakers and writers all morning, and then we broke for lunch. As we streamed out onto Gower Street, a squall of English rain burst fiercely upon our heads. There was a great inelegant flurry of mackintoshes, cagoules, and umbrellas as we crossed over into University College, hunched against the downpour and plodding stoically for the dining room. It was then that I caught a glimpse of Bob up ahead, disdainful of all extraneous rain gear, clad in his usual immaculate dark suit with the thick silken tie, his bared silver head neatly en brosse, his shoulders sharp and square as ever, jogging unhurriedly across the rain-blasted university courtyard, perfectly upright and elegant, and laughing steadily with delight like a young quarterback who had just delivered a touchdown and was looking forward eagerly to the next game.