Selections from the first two issues of The New York Review of Books
Eckermann: I’m delighted that The New York Review of Books is still going strong after—what is it now? Fifty years?
Visitor: Twenty-five, actually.
Eckermann: It seems a lot longer.
Visitor: You appeared in one of the first issues, didn’t you, Mr. Eckermann?
Eckermann: Ja, as Goethe would say. Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust. But I am my own man now. I am free of Goethe; Wilson, too. E pluribus meum.
Visitor: Only there is no piece in The New York Review of Books of twenty-five years ago by anyone called Eckermann. There is a curiosity called “Every Man His Own Eckermann,” now reprinted in their Selections from the first two issues, a self-interview by Edmund Wilson, discussing music and painting, two subjects that he confessed he knew very little about.
Eckermann: That was me, if memory serves. As I recall, he—we—knew what we didn’t like. On Picasso we anticipated Stassinopoulos Huffington. Always avantgarde we were in the arts we knew nothing of. Back in Weimar, Wilson is our touchstone.
Visitor: But surely you…I mean Mr. Wilson can no longer contribute.
Eckermann: True. That is why, today, whenever I write art criticism, I often sign myself Susan Sontag.
Visitor: You, Mr. Eckermann, or your own man, wrote “Malthus to Balthus, or the Geometric Art of Silkscreen Reproduction?”
Eckermann: In a thousand years no one will know who wrote what or why or if at all. So let’s keep those questions moving right along. You would like to know my impression of a small volume called Selections, containing a number of pieces from the first two issues of The New York Review, which first appeared in 1963. At the time I said, or Wilson said—you see? it hardly matters—“The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printer’s strike only made us realize it had never existed.” Naturally, it sounds even better in the original German!
Visitor (quickly): In Selections there are eighteen critical pieces culled from the first two issues. They are written by F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick 1, W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, John Berryman, Irving Howe, Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick 2, William Styron, Jason Epstein, Allen Tate, Alfred Chester, Richard Wilbur, and Edmund Wilson, and there is a poem by Robert Lowell. What is your immediate impression…
Eckermann: Of seventeen contributors, eight have fled. Fallen from the perch. Crossed the shining river. Ridden on ahead. Granted, Auden and Berryman and Lowell took early trains but American poets are obliged to. It’s in the by-laws of their union, unlike European poets. Goethe was eighty-three when he cooled it, chatty to the last. But let us look on the bright side: the nine who are still with us are still robust and able to supply bookchat by the yard. Yet autres temps autres moeurs. I sometimes think that the long essai—attempt (I lapse now into English) may be too much for today’s reader, eager for large side-bars and small boxes and lots of colored ink and numerous Opinions. Oh, how Americans—Brits too, alas—dote on Opinion. But Opinion without Demonstration is worthless. It is the discursive form which the demonstration takes that distinguished The New York Review from…
Visitor: The Times Literary Supplement?
Eckermann: Don’t interrupt. The NYR made it possible for those writers who don’t necessarily have to knock out instant Opinion pieces for money to develop themes that interested them or—the task of criticism—allowed them the space in which to illuminate the work of a forgotten or misunderstood writer. In Selections, Allen Tate is splendid on the work of Ford Madox Ford. Since I regard Ford as the finest novelist in English since World War I, I am prejudiced, as well as opinionated. Here’s Tate on how the critical biographer should approach Ford:
Ford’s best biographer will understand at the outset that Ford himself must be approached as a character in a novel, and that novel a novel by Ford. The complaint, often heard today, that James, Conrad, and Ford were each in his own degree obsessed by “form” or “method” is of course nonsense; but if it were true, would it be less damaging to the vitality of the novel in our day than the obsession with the expressionistic egotism and disorder of American novelists since the War? Ford was not, in the pejorative sense, a formalist. Ford’s technique is Ford, and he could have had no other.
This echo of Flaubert’s “One might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject. Style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.” This says a lot about Ford the novelist, Tate the critic, and, perhaps, the NYR at the start.
Visitor: Is there a sort of house style at the NYR as there is—or was—at The New Yorker?
Eckermann: Thank God, no. In Selections I was struck by how different the writers are from each other, unlike, say, those at the old New Yorker, doomed to conform to a wondrously dull style, chockablock with lots of well-checked little facts, as Gore Vidal pointed out in his review of John Hersey’s collection of pieces. In retrospect, Vidal was perhaps too hard on the hapless Hersey and not sufficiently hard on The New Yorker, where his work had been, presumably, processed to the consistency of a Kraft cheese. Of course, if Hersey actually writes like that, well…
Visitor: The NYR reviewers have been accused of reviewing one another and behaving like any other literary clique.
Eckermann: How can there be a clique when hardly anyone knows anyone else? Also, at the beginning, there were far fewer schoolteacher contributors than now. Of course, from time to time, poets often holed up in universities in order not to die but, even so, of the sixteen critics in Selections, only three were full-time academics, and academics, then and now, tend to sectarianism—hence, cliquishness. Today the wars of the Literary Theoreticians are bound to leak into the NYR and make one, suddenly, nostalgic for a time when Literature not Theory mattered, and Johns Hopkins was known only for its healing arts.
Visitor: How would you classify the NYR politically?
Eckermann: Personally, I prefer the Radical History Review or Mother Jones to NYR. But I do think a quarter-century ago we were all a bit more to the true political point than now. Here’s Dwight Macdonald on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Kennedy White House apologist:
When he is not confronted with a polemical subject that makes his style taut and forces him to think (which he can do when he has to), Schlesinger likes to slip into something more comfortable. His judgments tend to become official and reverential and to be expressed in the orotundities of the hardened public speaker.
I like that adjective, “hardened.” Now if Macdonald were a mere hack of the sort that today fills New York’s current papers and magazines, this would have been an ad hominem attack on Schlesinger. But Macdonald likes and respects Schlesinger even when, in absolute good faith, he wants to wring his political neck. How to explain personal disinterestedness to a generation that dotes on money, publicity, and personal feuds? How to explain that there are powerful forces—even ideas—abroad that must be analyzed?—and reversed?
Macdonald, in the first issue of the NYR, had figured out that we had all been had by the Kennedys (the President was killed a few months later—a non sequitur, let me quickly add) and he also detected in Schlesinger’s The Politics of Hope a shift from the Jefferson-Madison Bill of Rights attitude toward the citizen to the autocratic Jackson and his terrible successors, the Caesars of the National Security State, only now unraveling. Macdonald blows the whistle on Schlesinger’s contention, “While the Executive should wield all his powers under the constitution with energy, he should not be able to abrogate the constitution except in face of war, revolution or economic chaos.” Macdonald finds this a nice prescription for fascism (what is economic chaos? Black Monday of last October?)…. I see your eyes are beginning to glaze. I give up. Let me put this in terms New York magazine can grasp. Dwight was jealous of Arthur’s success at Camelot and longed, in his heart of hearts, to be flung fully clothed into the pool at Hickory Hill by the dread Ethel Kennedy. Envy is the only credible emotion, isn’t it? Never say Eckermann isn’t “with it.”
Visitor: But is the NYR with it? How have they dealt with black power, gay rights, women…
Eckermann: F.W. Dupee is superb on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Dupee is also a corrective to Flannery O’Connor’s contemporary view that if Baldwin hadn’t been black, no one would have put up with him.* This is wondrously stupid. If Baldwin had not been black, and gay, he would not have had to behave as he did. Dupee is wondrously subtle on this. As he describes Baldwin’s mind and pain, he usefully demonstrates how Baldwin is so much more poignant and effective in his memoir than in those booming sermons of last things.
Visitor: So much then for politics, Mr. Eckermann. Essentially, the NYR is a literary paper…
Eckermann: Which came along just as literature ceased to be of any general interest. Does anyone—voluntarily—read a book nowadays? Movies are the preferred diversion.
Visitor: The Review has been criticized for not…well, doing enough about fiction, about new writers, experimental fiction…
Eckermann: Except for the genre books, packaged like boxes of cheap Depression candy, there is no longer a novel-reading public. Of course there are the books written to be taught on campus, but they are mere Demonstrations of Theory. For the “educated” public it is filmmaker Woody Allen, not bookmaker Philip Roth, that excites interest.
Visitor: But if the NYR gave more space to “experimental” writing…
Eckermann: The record’s not too bad In the second issue Poirier was down at the wharf, greeting Pynchon’s V, while I was startled to reread, in Selections, Mary McCarthy’s inspired praise of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, a book not much praised at that time, at least not by so celebrated a critic. I say “inspired” because I read the book then and didn’t much like it, but now I begin to see things that I had missed first time around. Well, that is what criticism is meant to do—show us what we missed or just plain didn’t get.
She is particularly good on Burroughs’s humor, “peculiarly American, at once broad and sly. It is the humor of a comedian, a vaudeville performer playing in One….” Surprisingly for those days, she makes no heavy weather of the fag side of Burroughs, something that the other critics then—and now, a quarter-century later, still go on howling about, like the Hilton Kramer on Robert Mapplethorpe in a recent New York paper—truly crazed bigotry of the sort that, outside certain yob papers in England, no paper in the civilized Western world would print.
On that subject, Alfred Chester. He was a glorious writer, tough as nails, with an exquisite ear for the false note; his review of Rechy’s City of Night is murderously funny, absolutely unfair, and totally true, a trick that only a high critic knows how to pull off. No, I won’t show you how it’s done. You look tired.
Visitor: No. No. I’m awake. What did you think of Auden’s review of Anathemata by David Jones?
Eckermann: Echt lousy, as Goethe would say. For reasons that Berryman gives in his review of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. Auden did
one of two things with books entrusted to him for comment: either he wrote about what interested him at the moment, making some spidery connection with the book in hand, or, with books he felt keen about…he quoted from them at agreeable length. Surely the pro sits on and breaks his brains.
It is the ability to break (one’s own) brains that makes all the difference. We thought that our job then. Now…
Visitor: Between then and now…
Eckermann: Then, Baldwin and the black condition, the imperial search for enemies, invasion of Cuba, the turning of “creative” writers from the novel to actual events taken from newspapers (Hardwick’s “Grub Street: New York”). Now—or, rather, since—political murders, Vietnam, drugs and the mafia-ization of the society, the federal deficits, the decline of education, of quality of Life, of life of Quality…. Twenty-five years ago the United States was the world’s central economic, military, and intellectual fact. Today we are, literally, eccentric. I think the NYR can take some pride in the way it has handled with a degree of comprehensive dignity a quarter-century of national decline and, law-abiding as we all are (the so-called Molotov cocktail on the cover was actually a Leonardo sketch for a space shuttle—a little leg-pull), we are now simply obeying the second law of thermodynamics as we run down.
Visitor: Will you be here in 2015?
Eckermann: No—Eckermann as his own man will be a thing of the past—rather like books. After all, our Japanese masters currently prefer comic books to book books. As they are now our role models, The New York Review of Comic Books will doubtless replace the old NYR. But there will be lots more pictures, which will be nice. In any case, the two epochs will be linked here, I hope, by comprehensiveness.
Visitor: If I comprehend you…
Eckermann: “Comprehension is only a knowledge adequate to our intention.”
Eckermann: Kant. Ich wunsche Ihren noch einen schönen Tag. Have a nice day now.
Eckermann: Eckermann. On your way out, open the second shutter so that more light can come in.
Alfred Chester's Revival December 22, 1988
See page 1,208 in The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor (Library of America, 1988). ↩