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Robert Benjamin Silvers (December 31, 1929 – March 20, 2017) was an American editor who served as editor of The New York Review of Books from 1963 to 2017.
Raised in Long Island, New York, Silvers graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947 and attended Yale Law School, but he left before graduating and worked as press secretary to Chester Bowles in 1950. He was sent by the Army to Paris in 1952 as a speechwriter and press aide, while finishing his education at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po. He soon joined the The Paris Review as an editor under the guidance of George Plimpton. From 1959 to 1963, he was an associate editor of Harper's Magazine in New York.
Silvers was co-editor of the Review with Barbara Epstein for over 40 years until her death in 2006 and was the sole editor of the magazine after that until his own death. "Like a chemist pairing ingredients to induce a specific reaction, Silvers has built his career matching the right author and subject, in hopes of generating an exciting and illuminating result." Silvers edited or co-edited several essay anthologies and supervised the Review's book publishing arm, New York Review Books. He appeared prominently in the 2014 documentary film about the Review, The 50 Year Argument.
Among other awards and honorary degrees, he received the National Book Foundation's Literarian Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award for "Distinguished Service to the Arts", the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement in Publishing and a National Humanities Medal. Among other honors, he was a Chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur and a member of the French Ordre National du Mérite.Contents
Silvers was born in Mineola, New York, and grew up in Farmingdale and then Rockville Centre, New York, the son of James J. Silvers (1892–1986), a salesman, sometime farmer and entrepreneur, and Rose Roden Silvers (1895–1979), a music critic for the New York Globe and one of the first female radio hosts for RCA. He had one brother, Edwin D. Silvers (1927–2000), a civil engineer. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947 (at age 17) and briefly attended Yale Law School.
Silvers worked as press secretary to Connecticut Governor Chester Bowles in 1950, who was campaigning for reelection. During the Korean War he served in the U.S. Army, which sent him to the SHAPE Headquarters in Paris in 1952 as a speechwriter and press aide. At the same time, he attended the Sorbonne and Paris Institute of Political Studies (best known as Sciences Po), eventually receiving its certificate. In 1954, he met and befriended George Plimpton, and upon his discharge from the Army a few months later, he joined editorial board of Plimpton's The Paris Review, as managing editor, while continuing his studies. He was promoted to Paris editor of The Paris Review in 1956. From 1959 to 1963, Silvers was associate editor of Harper's Magazine, in New York, where he edited an issue on the state of writing in America, engaging Elizabeth Hardwick to contribute her essay "The Decline of Book Reviewing"; this would become an inspiration for the founding of The New York Review of Books. He also edited the book Writing in America and translated La Gangrene, which describes the brutal torture of seven Algerian men by the Paris Security Police in 1958, shortly after Charles de Gaulle came to power.
For 43 years, beginning in 1963, Silvers and Barbara Epstein edited the New York Review of Books together, until 2006, when Epstein died of cancer. After that, Silvers was the sole editor until his death in March 2017. In later years, he described his motivation for continuing to edit the Review as follows: "I feel it's a fantastic opportunity – because of the freedom of it, because of the sense that there are marvelous, intensely interesting, important questions that you have a chance to try to deal with in an interesting way. That's an extraordinary opportunity in life. And you'd be crazy not to try and make the most of it." He said on another occasion: "We do what we want and don't try to figure out what the public wants." Asked in December 2007 about who might succeed him as editor, the 78-year-old Silvers demurred, saying: "It's not a question that's posing itself". When The New York Times renewed the question in 2012, Silvers said, "I can think of several people who would be marvelous editors."
Silvers also edited or co-edited several essay anthologies, including Writing in America (1960); A Middle East Reader: Selected Essays on the Middle East (1991); The First Anthology: Thirty Years of the New York Review (1993); Hidden Histories of Science (1995); India: A Mosaic (2000); Doing It: Five Performing Arts (2001); The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (2001); Striking Terror (2002); The Company They Kept (vol. 1, 2006; vol. 2, 2011); The Consequences to Come: American Power After Bush (2008); and The New York Review Abroad: Fifty Years of International Reportage (2013). In 2009, he wrote the essay "Dilemmas eines Herausgebers" ("Dilemmas of an editor") appearing in the Austrian journal Transit – Europäische Revue. He also served on the editorial committee of La Rivista dei Libri, the Italian language edition of the Review until it closed in 2010.
Silvers was linked romantically in the 1960s with Lady Caroline Blackwood. From 1975 until her death in 2016, he lived with Grace, Countess of Dudley (1923–2016; widow of the 3rd Earl of Dudley), with whom he shared a passion for opera. Silvers commented that Dudley's "fineness of mind and spirit has been the center of my life." A long-time pescetarian, Silvers "was struck by the essays of ... moral philosopher Peter Singer, who has written extensively about animal rights." The 50 Year Argument, a 2014 documentary film about the Review co-directed by Martin Scorsese, is "'nchored by the old-world charm' of its editor, Robert Silvers".
Silvers died on March 20, 2017, at the age of 87, at his Manhattan home "after a brief illness".Reputation Silvers in New York in 2012
According to John Richardson in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, "Jason Epstein's assessment of Silvers as 'The most brilliant editor of a magazine ever to have worked in this country' has been 'shared by virtually all of us who have been published by Robert Silvers'". The New York Times described Silvers as "the voracious polymath, the obsessive perfectionist, the slightly unknowable bachelor-workaholic with the colossal Rolodexes and faintly British diction." Author Louis Begley wrote, "the ideal editor of my – and I would guess every writer’s – dreams is ... Robert B. Silvers, the editor, brain, and heart of the NYRB. When I write a piece for his magazine, of course I have the immeasurable good luck to be edited by him. There is no experience quite like it. Bob knows everything that's worth knowing, a consequence of his unflagging curiosity." "Bob's edits are scrupulous, comprehensive, and precise. They are frequently aimed at saving the reviewer's face."
In a 2012 profile of Silvers, The New York Times noted: "His greatest pleasure ... is simply good writing, which he talks about as others talk about fine wine or good food. Speaking about writers he likes, he sometimes flushes with enthusiasm. 'I admire great writers, people with marvelous and beautiful minds, and always hope they will do something special and revealing for us.'" The University of Chicago Magazine commented: "Like a chemist pairing ingredients to induce a specific reaction, Silvers has built his career matching the right author and subject, in hopes of generating an exciting and illuminating result. ... 'he puts a writer together with material that even the writer might not have thought was appropriate,' says Daniel Mendelsohn".
According to a 2004 feature in The Nation, Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann observed that, in publishing some of the earliest criticisms of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Silvers realized what other commentators missed: "In both instances, Bob Silvers was, in effect, whether deliberately or not, compensating for the weaknesses of the more established media. ... It was important that a journal which has the authority of the Review in a sense took up the slack and presented viewpoints which were extremely hard to get into the established media." The Nation added, during the Iraq war:
One suspects yearn for the day when they can return to their normal publishing routine – that gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art, classical music, photography, German and Russian history, East European politics, literary fiction – unencumbered by political duties of a confrontational or oppositional nature. That day has not yet arrived. If and when it does, let it be said that the editors met the challenges of the post-9/11 era in a way that most other leading American publications did not, and that The New York Review of Books ... was there when we needed it most.
Silvers has said: "The great political issues of power and its abuses have always been natural questions for us". In his 1974 book The American Intellectual Elite, Columbia University sociologist Charles Kadushin interviewed "the seventy most prestigious" American intellectuals of the late 1960s, including Silvers. The Time magazine review of the book expressed surprise at Silvers' position near the top of the list: "Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, the magazine that indicates is favored by intellectuals who want to reach other intellectuals ... is an able editor but an infrequent writer; it must be assumed that his ranking at the top ... is due to a power not unlike that of the maitre d' of an exclusive restaurant."
Silvers had a reputation for hiring and developing assistants who later became prominent in journalism, academia and literature. In 2010, New York magazine featured several of these, including Jean Strouse, Deborah Eisenberg, Mark Danner and A. O. Scott. In the same magazine, in February 2011, Oliver Sacks identified Silvers as his "favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional", saying that the Review is "one of the great institutions of intellectual life here or anywhere."Work habits and editorial approach
Jonathan Miller said of Silvers' work habits: "He isn't just conscientious beyond the call of duty. He defines what duty is. You will often find him working until two in the morning in the office, with his little assistants from Harvard around him. He never stops. He's always meeting people, and talking". Claire Messud wrote in 2012 that she was impressed, when submitting reviews for novels to the Review, that Silvers had "read the novel at hand, and sometimes with more sensitivity than I had ... he pointed out, delicately, that I'd attributed a quotation to the wrong character, and upon another occasion, that I'd summarized an event in a misleading way ... Bob is unfailingly generous and kind, someone who carefully suggests rather than commands alteration. He is an extraordinary editor in part because he is always respectful, of even the least of his contributors, or the least contribution." Charles Rosen elaborated:
Bob sunk his personality into his profession; rather... he has found a means of transforming his profession into a fundamental way of being human. Extracting reviews from writers is not, in his case, a métier, or even a way of life, but a genuine form of self-expression, and he exercises it with dignity, tact and what sometimes feels like excessive sympathy. He has made writers feel that producing articles for him is not a business transaction or even process of communication, but simply a reciprocal act of friendship.
A Financial Times interviewer, Emily Stokes, wrote in 2013 that Silvers viewed editing as "an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by 'reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted', and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles" while seeking greater clarity, comprehensiveness and freshness in the writing. Stokes commented that Silvers "radiates a genial warmth it is part of the editor's role ... not to be swayed by friendships with authors but to let reviewers express their genuine views." Silvers described some of the diplomatic aspects of the job: "The act of reviewing can have a deep emotional effect. People get hurt and upset. You have to be aware of that, but you can't flinch. sometimes. You say, 'No, I'm terribly sorry, I can't visualise that in the paper. I don't think it's adequate to the subject.'"Honors and awards
The annual Robert B. Silvers lectures at the New York Public Library were established by Max Palevsky in 2002 and are given by experts in the fields of "literature, the arts, politics, economics, history, and the sciences." The lectures have been given by Joan Didion, J. M. Coetzee, Ian Buruma, Michael Kimmelman, Daniel Mendelsohn, Nicholas Kristof, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Derek Walcott, Mary Beard, Darryl Pinckney, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Vendler and Paul Krugman.
On November 15, 2006, Silvers, together with Epstein, received the National Book Foundation Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. With Epstein, he also received in 2006 the Award for "Distinguished Service to the Arts" from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The National Book Critics Circle honored Silvers with the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement in Publishing for 2011, and in 2012, he was honored with the Hadada Prize by The Paris Review and a "N.Y.C. Literary Honor" "for contributions to literary life" in New York City. At the N.Y.C. Literary Honors, readings were given, and, "in what may have been the most moving reading, excerpted architecture critic Martin Filler's rhapsodic review of the 9/11 Memorial designed by the young architect Michael Arad, which appeared in the NYRB last year." In 2013, the French-American Foundation honored him with its Vergennes Award. Also in 2013, he received a 2012 National Humanities Medal "for offering critical perspectives on writing. ... e has invigorated our literature with cultural and political commentary and elevated the book review to a literary art form."
Among other honors, Silvers was a member of the executive board of the PEN American Center, the American Ditchley Foundation and the American Academy in Rome, as well as a trustee of the New York Public Library from 1997 until 2017. He was also a Chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur and a member of the French Ordre National du Mérite. In 1996, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2007 Harvard University awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. In 2013 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy. In 2014, he received honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from both the University of Oxford and Columbia University.
Silvers was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Century Association.Notes