We had 100,000 printed copies sent out—to college bookstores and newsstands in New York, where they sold out very quickly. Our first issue opened with the only editorial we ever published. The New York Review of Books, we wrote, did not
seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers’ strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel is needed in America. This issue of The New York Review of Books does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud. The contributors have supplied their reviews to this issue on short notice and without the expectation of payment: the editors have volunteered their time and, since the project was undertaken entirely without capital, the publishers, through the purchase of advertising, have made it possible to pay the printer. The hope of the editors is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discover whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one. Readers are invited to submit their comments to The New York Review of Books, 33 West 67th Street, New York City.
That was Barbara and Jason’s address. And we got nearly a thousand letters. We had them in big boxes. That was crucial because, when we tried to raise money from a very small group of friends a few months later, we could show them evidence that people wanted us to go on.
If there had been no strike, there would have been no Review. The advertising agencies and publishers would have told us: “Sorry, we’ve already spent our budgets on the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.”
After the strike we put out a second issue to show the Review was not a one-shot affair and it featured an interview with Edmund Wilson with himself. “Every Man His Own Eckermann” he called it, referring to the interviewer of the aging Goethe. In it he wrote for the first time I know of about the many different artists he admired—Dürer, Goya, Degas, George Grosz, Edward Gorey, and above all the neglected French caricaturist Sem. He was “astringent,” Wilson said, but in his work you found “a tumult of movement.” We set about raising money to publish a regular paper that autumn. Whitney Ellsworth of The Atlantic had joined us as publisher, and we went to see Brooke Astor, whom we found reading the paper. “I like it,” she said, “and I’ll invest in it with my own money.”
What were we looking for? Of course we wanted to publish the work of the writers we admired for an audience that would appreciate them. But it seems too simple, too glib to say that we hoped for clear and poised and brilliant writing that would challenge their thinking. Of course we did. But what matters is a particular insight and how it is put. In our first issue Mary McCarthy wrote about William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and in a way we had not seen before. Between Burroughs and Jonathan Swift, she wrote,
there are many points of comparison; not only the obsession with excrement and the horror of female genitalia but a disgust with politics and the whole body politic. Like Swift, Burroughs has irritable nerves and something of the crafty temperament of the inventor. There is a great deal of Laputa in the countries Burroughs calls Interzone and Freeland, and Swift’s solution for the Irish problem would appeal to the American’s dry logic....
Yet what saves The Naked Lunch is not a literary ancestor but humor. Burroughs’ humor is peculiarly American, at once broad and sly. It is the humor of a comedian, a vaudeville performer playing in One, in front of the asbestos curtain to some Keith Circuit or Pantages house long since converted to movies. The same jokes reappear, slightly refurbished, to suit the circumstances, the way a vaudeville artist used to change Yonkers to Trenton when he was playing Seattle.
We hoped for writers who could put across ideas that are not widely expressed, including skeptical criticism of the language of convention. It seemed obvious that one function of an independent paper is to challenge authority. There is an enormous imposing and dominant presence in all our lives of the official way of doing things, the approved way, the successful way, and they deserve scrutiny. Barbara and I soon saw that there were books on practically every subject, and that there was no subject we couldn’t deal with. And if there was no book, we would deal with it anyway. We tried hard to avoid books that were simply competent rehearsals of familiar subjects, and we hoped to find books that would establish something fresh, something original. And we had a kind of pact that in reviewing books we would try to avoid dead language, particularly the tired metaphors we saw around us as a kind of curse. So in our fifty years, you won’t have seen in our pages the figurative uses of “context,” or “massive,” or the phrase “in terms of,” unless there are clear terms, or “framework,” unless there is an actual frame, or anything “on the table” or “off the table,” unless there is a table.