A life in literary criticism: how Review writers read and responded to the novels of Philip Roth (1933–2018).
From 1985, Al Alvarez: What excites Roth’s verbal life—and provokes his readers—is, he seems to suggest, the opportunity fiction provides to be everything he himself is not: raging, whining, destructive, permanently inflamed, unstoppable. Irony, detachment, and wisdom are given unfailingly to other people. Even Diana, Zuckerman’s punchy twenty-year-old mistress who will try anything for a dare, sounds sane and bored and grown-up when Zuckerman is in the grip of his obsession. The truly convincing yet outlandish caricature in Roth’s repertoire is of himself.
Gore Vidal, 1974: “For thirty or forty years I have seen the name Robert Moses on the front pages of newspapers or attached to articles in that graveyard of American prose the Sunday New York Times Magazine section. But I never had a clear idea just who he was because I never got past that forbiddingly dull title Park Commissioner. I associated him with New York City and I lived upstate. I now realize what a lot I have missed.”
“In 1969, the Year of the Pig, participants in what is known as (descriptively) youth culture or (smugly) hip culture or (incompletely) pop culture or (longingly) the cultural revolution are going through big changes,” Ellen Willis begins, writing at the end of that year on Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant. Willis identifies “a pervasive feeling that everything is disintegrating, including the counter-culture itself.” Her essay is at once a contemporary report on the state of American culture and a retrospective look at the Sixties, grappling with what she calls “the overpowering sense of loss, the anguish of What went wrong? We blew it—how?”
Fifty-five years ago, The New York Review published its first issue. To celebrate the magazine’s emerald anniversary, in 2018 we will be going through the archives year by year, featuring some of the notable, important, and sometimes forgotten pieces that appeared in its pages. That first issue included a short note, addressed To the Reader: “The hope of the editors,” they wrote, “is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discover whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one.”