In the Review Archives: 2005–2009

Vincent van Gogh: Enclosed Wheat Field with Rising Sun, 1889

To celebrate the Review’s fifty-fifth anniversary in 2018, we have been going back into our archives year by year. In this week’s newsletter: John Leonard on Joan Didion, John Updike on van Gogh’s letters, Zadie Smith on speaking in tongues, and a broad range of perspectives on the 2008 election. We also remember founding editor Barbara Epstein. “She possessed one of the greatest minds I’ve ever encountered,” Luc Sante writes, “and she gave all of it to other people’s work.”

The Black Album

John Leonard

On Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

Her conjunctions and abutments—scraps of poetry, cramps of memory, medical terms, body parts, bad dreams, readouts, breakdowns—amount to a kind of liturgical singsong, a whistling in the dark against a “vortex” that would otherwise swallow her whole with a hum. This is how she passes the evil hours of an evil year, with spells and amulets. Her seventy-year-old husband, John Gregory Dunne, has dropped dead of a massive heart attack in their living room in New York City, one month short of their fortieth wedding anniversary.

Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

John Ashbery, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diane Johnson, Alison Lurie, Larry Mcmurtry, Pankaj Mishra, Edmund S. Morgan, Darryl Pinckney, Luc Sante, Patricia Storace, Gore Vidal

Epstein, a cofounder of the Review and its editor with Robert Silvers for forty-three years, died on June 16, 2006. Some of the writers who knew her best paid tribute to her brilliance, wit, and generosity.

Collection of Helen Epstein

Barbara Epstein, 1980s

The Purest of Styles

Émile Bernard: Breton Women in the Meadow, 1888

John Updike

Updike regularly wrote on art for the Review for more than two decades. Here he visits the exhibition Vincent van Gogh—Painted with Words: The Letters to Émile Bernard at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The letters have, with their interjected sketches, a holy fragility. The cheap stationery, varying in size and quality, has yellowed, and the once-black ink, where based on iron salts rather than carbon, has faded to brown, at places a faint tan. The handwriting varies in size and consistency, often as small and neat as mechanical print, at others enlarged by haste or for emphasis, but nowhere indicating an unbalanced temperament.

A Fateful Election

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A debate between 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, September 26, 2008

Russell Baker, David Bromwich, Mark Danner, Andrew Delbanco, Joan Didion, Ronald Dworkin, Frances FitzGerald, Timothy Garton Ash, Paul Krugman, Joseph Lelyveld, Darryl Pinckney, Thomas Powers, Michael Tomasky, Garry Wills

In October 2008, fifteen contributors outlined what was at stake in the election—and the daunting task ahead, as Thomas Powers put it, of “cleaning up the mess left by the last president.”

Speaking in Tongues

Zadie Smith

In this essay, adapted from a lecture at the New York Public Library, Smith considers “personal multiplicity” from Eliza Doolittle and Cary Grant to Barack Obama.

Hello. This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port.

Peter Foley/New York Public Library

Zadie Smith

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