Robert B. Silvers, the Mineola-born editor of The New York Review of Books who helped create a literary magazine of lasting influence, died Monday at age 87. Silvers, who had served as sole editor of the Review after fellow founder Barbara Epstein died in 2006, died at his home in Manhattan after a brief illness.
The Review was conceived in late 1962, in the midst of a newspaper strike in New York, when poet Robert Lowell and his wife, the author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, met at the Upper West Side apartment of Barbara and Jason Epstein, a publishing executive. They shared an old lament — the dreadfulness of book reviews — and saw a chance to change it.
Lowell secured a loan of $4,000 and Silvers, with Harper’s at the time, was brought in as co-editor. The first issue of the Review came out in 1963, with the declaration that no time would be wasted on books “trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or call attention to a fraud.” Norman Mailer, William Styron and others quickly agreed to write for the new publication though they initially weren’t paid.
The Review has published classic essays by Mailer, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal among others, and even managed to turn a profit. “The Fifty Year Argument,” a documentary co-directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, came out in 2014.
The NYRB has also been criticized as elitist, insular and prone to running far more work by men than by women. Saul Bellow labeled it the New York Review of each other’s books. The Review itself was quite capable of attack, whether Noam Chomsky and I.F. Stone taking on the Vietnam War, Mailer sticking it to Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” or McCarthy giving the ax to David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest.” The magazine also was an early opponent of the Iraq War and a frequent critic of Donald Trump.
A businessman’s son, Silvers was born in Mineola, New York, and grew up on a farm in Huntington. He was an early reader who absorbed books of all sorts. By 15, he had left high school in Rockville Centre and been admitted to the University of Chicago. He needed just two and a half years to graduate.
In a 2012 speech accepting an honorary award from the National Book Critics Circle, Silvers said that he saw himself as “someone who dreams of bringing together the writers he admires and a group of readers he hopes will appreciate them. And then stays out of the way.”