THE EXAMINED LIFE
ON JAN. 23, 1963, Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop with news of a periodical “about to be set floating during the lull of the newspaper strike here that has temporarily put the New York Times book section out of existence.” That publication, conceived of by a group of writers and critics that included Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Silvers, and Barbara Epstein, was The New York Review of Books. Silvers and Epstein, who remain its editors, are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the journal with the publication of the Nov. 6, 2003 issue.
The first issue included essays by Norman Mailer, W.H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, William Styron, and Gore Vidal. Before long, the Review vibrated with the excitement and energy of New York intellectual life, causing Lowell to half-boast, half-complain, in another letter to Bishop, that working on it was like living “in the fire and burnt-outness of some political or religious movement.” Lowell’s two letters appear in the Nov. 6 issue, along with essays by Margaret Atwood on Studs Terkel, Elizabeth Hardwick on Nathanael West, John Updike on El Greco, Joan Didion on apocalyptic Christian novels, Garry Wills on Thomas Jefferson, and Ronald Dworkin on our endangered civil liberties.
Although the Review often runs with its stable of distinguished veterans, the anniversary issue does contain some offbeat surprises. In one essay, Luc Sante, author of “Low Life” and one-time mailroom employee at the Review, fondly recalls life on the Lower East Side before the gentrification of “the entropic slum that was my home.” In another, the 35-year-old Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan favorably compares the artist known as Eminem with the poet John Berryman.
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