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The Sine Qua Non of Civilisation

Fifty years ago, in the winter-spring of 1962/63 when New York’s newspaper journalists and printers went on strike for 114 days, four friends met for dinner at an apartment in the city’s West Sixty-Seventh Street. The evening, hosted by Jason and Barbara Epstein for the poet Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, had no particular purpose other than enjoyment but it did nevertheless produce a publishing idea which was to have a very significant influence over half a century – to date ‑ on American intellectual life (at least as it is lived on the left of the nation’s political spectrum).

Jason Epstein, the sole survivor of the four, recalls that “with the Times and Tribune gone, the world and its woes were out of sight and mind. We were living in a kind of nirvana, especially blessed, I added, to be without the dismal Sunday book reviews that Lizzie [Hardwick] had savaged in Harper’s magazine for their ‘flat praise and faint dissention, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity ‑ the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself’. Owing to the decline of serious reviewing, Hardwick had written, “a book is born into a puddle of treacle”.

It was with this criticism in mind that the four friends saw the opportunity presented by the strike: there would never be a better time to create the kind of review they felt America deserved but strangely lacked.

We wanted a book review worthy of its subject, in which writers we admired ‑ and who agreed with us that books were the ongoing critique, the sine qua non of civilization ‑ would have a place to write at adequate length for readers like themselves and us.

Bob Silvers of Harper’s, who was to edit the review with Barbara Epstein, drew up a list of possible contributors, which included “Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Isaiah Berlin, F.W. Dupee, Paul Goodman, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, Lizzie herself, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Victor Pritchett, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Robert Penn Warren”. Forty-five reviewers agreed to write for what was to be The New York Review of Books and met a three-week deadline. They were not paid.

New York’s newspaper workers went back in March 1963 (with an increase of €12.63 a week) and the apparently flaccid Sunday reviews no doubt recommenced. But the New York Review had been given the chance it needed to establish itself.

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