News | November 17, 2015

The NYPL Has Acquired the Archive of <i>The New York Review of Books</i>

NOVEMBER 16, 2015—The New York Public Library has acquired the archive of The New York Review of Books, the nation’s premier intellectual forum offering authoritative debates and reports on culture, economics, and politics. Founded in 1963 by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, The Review is a magazine where the most interesting and qualified minds discuss current books and issues in depth for a general audience. 

The Library’s Board of Trustees approved the acquisition at its meeting today, bringing about 3,000 linear feet of manuscript material from the publication to the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. The papers - acquired with a generous donation from husband and wife Roger Alcaly and Helen Bodian - are a significant addition to the Library’s collections, already rich with materials documenting the political, cultural and intellectual history of New York City.

The Review has helped to define intellectual discourse over the past four decades. In the early days, editors Silvers (a New York Public Library Trustee) and Epstein sought well-known writers who would bring fresh approaches to the critical discussion of books and ideas. The Review’s early reputation was built on writers such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Joan Didion, Clifford Geertz, Paul Goodman, Nadine Gordimer, Lillian Hellman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Murray Kempton, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren, Isaiah Berlin, H.R. Trevor-Roper, and Edmund Wilson.

The archive includes a wealth of correspondence between editors Silvers and Epstein and The Review’s wide range of authors over the magazine’s 50-year existence. This outstanding correspondence provides unique evidence of intellectual life in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. In addition, letters to The Review detail the lively literary disputes that have long given the magazine its character of intensity and passion for factual correctness. The archive shows the evolution of the magazine as it took a vocal role in opposition to both the Vietnam War and later wars in Iraq.  The Review editorial commitment to human rights also made the magazine a vital leader in debates following the September 11th attacks in New York City. 

Editorial correspondence is in the form of letters, telegrams, telexes, faxes, as well as emails. The archive is also full of drafts and carbons (with handwritten notes from the editors and writers), manuscript and typescript submissions, revisions, article copy, and galleys - all showing the collaborative process of editing a piece that could take several months or sometimes even years.  

“This archive represents an unparalleled resource for research, particularly for the study of the intellectual history of the last 50 years,” said NYPL President Tony Marx. “The records reveal how the New York Review of Books continually evolved in reaction to the world around it, and how it formed its often hard-fought positions on difficult subjects. We are so pleased to preserve it and make it accessible to researchers for generations to come. We thank Helen Bodian and Roger Alcaly for their generosity, which allowed us to acquire this important archive—one we anticipate will be among the most important and heavily-used collections at the Library.” 

Specific examples of items in the collection include:

  • A wealth of correspondence between Silvers and Sontag, include typescripts (some heavily marked by Sontag) of her various essays on photography. In one letter, Sontag writes to Silvers, “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into: writing about photography is like writing about the world.”
  • A significant amount of unpublished correspondence between Noam Chomsky and Silvers (as well as Jean Lacouture and Francois Ponchaud) disagreeing over the accuracy of sources relating to early reports of the rise of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. 
  • Material related to the founding of The London Review of Books, from preliminary calculations to photos of the opening party.
  • Personal letters from Oliver Sacks to Silvers emphasizing how important Silvers’ encouragement and editing was to his development as a writer.
  • A telegram from poet Robert Lowell to the Review with his prose poem “Judgment Deffered on Lieutenant Calley.” It states, “I can’t tag this to a review comma but it seems meant for the New York Review of Books period.”
  • Correspondence between Mary McCarthy - who reported on the Vietnam War for the Review - including her aerogrammes from Vietnam, letters to Silvers, and writings on Watergate and other topics.
  • A nine-page letter from 1979 headed “not for publication” from Henry Kissinger to Silvers, in which Kissinger disputes views in a Review article by Stanley Hoffman on Kissinger’s The White House Years. Kissinger later sends a shorter note stating that silence means agreement. Silvers replies in a 20-page note.
  • A letter from Sarah Plimpton to Silvers introducing the editor to “a young poet and translator” named Paul Auster.
  • Unpublished material that was rejected by the Review, including pieces by Joseph Brodsky, Nadine Gordimer, Norman Mailer, Bernard Lewis, John Hollander, and others. 
  • Unsuccessful attempts by Review editors to solicit pieces from writers. For example, Saul Bellow wrote in response to a request for a piece about the death of Primo Levi, “While I’m not exactly King Lear, I’ve had more than the normal share of family trouble in the past months . . . I can’t find it in me just now to write on so distressing a subject . . . Things have been singularly nasty lately.” 

“We strongly believe that the archive of The New York Review of Books belongs at The New York Public Library and are delighted to help make that happen,” said donors Roger Alcaly and Helen Bodian. “Since its founding in 1963, the Review has kept its home in New York City and over the years has unfailingly reflected the city’s cosmopolitan spirit. We are pleased that the archive will be housed in a great public library, open to everyone, and yet remain in the city of its origins where the Review continues to publish.”

The New York Public Library holds notably strong collections documenting 20th century journalism and literature including the papers of Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, William Shawn, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jack Kerouac. Along with the institutional archives of The New Yorker and The New York Times, the addition of The New York Review of Books gives The Library three of the most important periodical publications of the 20th century.

The new archival material will take up to three years to process and make fully accessible to researchers. The collection will help NYPL remain a crucial destination for researching the intellectual, cultural, and political history of New York City, as well as the City’s place within national and international contexts.