November 18, 2015
NYRB archive, including complaining letters from Henry Kissinger and some surprising rejections, sold to NYPL
by Kait Howard
Yesterday the New York Public Library’s Board of Trustees announced that the library had acquired approximately 3,000 linear feet of editorial materials from the New York Review of Books archive.
The papers date back to the publication’s founding in 1963, and include extensive correspondence between its two founding editors, Robert Silvers and the late Barbara Epstein, as well as correspondence with many high-profile contributors, including Susan Sontag, Oliver Sacks, Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy and Noam Chomsky. As the The Guardian’s Mahita Gajanan explained, the archive was purchased from the NYRB for an undisclosed sum, paid for by a donation from Roger Alcaly, a hedge fund manager who has written for the magazine and his wife, the photographer Helen Bodian.
According to the NYPL, the archive’s contents come in the form of letters, telegrams, telexes, faxes, and emails, as well as drafts and carbon copies with handwritten notes from the editors and writers, all of which showcase “the collaborative process of editing a piece that could take several months or sometimes even years.” The rigorous editorial work wasn’t always successful: the archive also includes drafts of pieces rejected by the magazine that were written by Joseph Brodsky, Nadine Gordimer, Norman Mailer, Bernard Lewis, and John Hollander (making it perfect for “connoisseurs of schadenfreude,” noted Jennifer Schuessler in a piece for The New York Times).
The NYPL’s announcement underscores that the newly acquired materials provide insight into a magazine that “helped to define intellectual discourse over the past four decades.” Among the archive’s highlights are letters between Silvers and Sontag about several of her essays on photography—in one of which, Sontag writes, “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into: writing about photography is like writing about the world.”
Another item of interest is a 1979 letter from Henry Kissinger to Silvers headed “not for publication,” which disputes Stanley Hoffman’s review of Kissinger’s The White House Years (Hoffman had written, “There is something airless and oppressive about the book.”). This letter was followed by a note from Kissinger stating that “silence means agreement,” as well as a 20-page reply from Silvers.
A note from Saul Bellow pleads personal stress when the editors asked him to write 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.”
The NYRB archive will be in the company of The New Yorker’s documents and will reside in the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. The Library estimates that it will take three years for them to sort through the papers before making them available to scholars.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.