It’s been a season for death, we’ve written about the Nobel poet and playwright Derek Walcott and the emerging writer Okla Elliott – so the passing of the legendary editor and founder of the New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers caught us somewhat off-guard. My contact with him was about two emails in total, but we have mutual friends, including Robert Pogue Harrison, Ann Kjellberg, and Mark Danner. And some of them had something to say.
“Robert Silvers is one of the truly great heroes of our time. For five decades running he gave us 24 issues of The New York Review a year, each one of them a treasure in itself. Nothing compares with the sum total of that cultural capital. It is unadulterated gold, and we owe it all to him.” That was from Robert Harrison, a regular contributor to the NYRB (we’ve written about him here and here and here).
“We miss him already. We missed him instantly,” wrote Lorrie Moore in the New Yorker. “Bob was an editor so hiply catholic in his tastes and interests, and so limber and youthful in his receptivity, that he was game for practically any cultural commentary one could imagine: meditations on regional politics, reports on television programs, every manner of book, film, or event. Gameness is a beautiful quality in a person. Before I moved to Nashville, in 2014, he gave me a plastic packet of press passes and said, “See what you find down there. I’m sure it will be interesting. There might be a gun show you will want to write about.”
From the Washington Post’s Christian Caryl:
He loved ideas but looked askance at ideologies. His guides were Czeslaw Milosz’s book The Captive Mind, which explored coming of age under Stalinism, and George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” These works shared a realization that language, for all of its power to forge connections and create communities, could also be turned to nefarious ends when harnessed by dehumanizing philosophies. For Bob, getting at the truth wasn’t just a laudable exercise — it was also a vital ethical and political act, one that he pursued with unwavering single-mindedness, every day.
This respect for the truth, which he managed to uphold without a trace of sanctimony or pompousness, was closely linked to his second prominent trait, a deep sense of empathy with other human beings. In the 1960s the Review commissioned a whole stable of writers — most notably, perhaps, the dogged investigative journalist I.F. Stone — to report on the catastrophe of Vietnam, predictably outraging conservatives. But the magazine also went on to embrace Soviet Bloc dissidents, defending Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to the horror of many of Bob’s friends on the left. (The New York Review was one of the first American publications to examine the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric clinics against dissidents.) The magazine defended physicist Fang Lizhi, one of the greatest critics of the Chinese Communist Party, and Desmond Tutu, a leader of the fight against apartheid.
In the 1990s Bob commissioned journalist Mark Danner to chronicle the war in the former Yugoslavia, exhaustively detailing Serb aggression. But in 1999 he also published a memorable essay by U.S. poet Charles Simic (who also happened to be an especially eloquent critic of Slobodan Milosevic) mourning the NATO bombing of Belgrade during the intervention in Kosovo.
Ann Kjellberg, a deputy editor at the Review who went to work for Bob in 1988, recalls how the Review resoundingly condemned the onset of the war in Iraq in 2003, citing the devastation that was likely to result. The liberal magazine The Nation then published an article praising Bob for returning to his left-wing origins, but he didn’t see it that way at all.
“It was a continuum,” Kjellberg says. “He was always sensitive to state overreach. He was always asking the questions, ‘How many civilians are being killed? Who’s dying? Who’s in prison?’ It wasn’t ideological. He always brought it back to the human.” And he was doing it right up to the end, allowing his writers to examine the darkness of the Syrian civil war, the crackdown in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring, the slow-motion collapse of Europe as an idea.