September 10, 2014

Where’s Barbara Epstein in the Scorsese NYRB documentary?


This week saw the release of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the New York Review of Books, “The 50 Year Argument,” which had its TV premiere in the UK earlier in the summer and will debut on HBO here on September 29th.

This makes it clear that the movie will contain, among other things, shots of the names of famous contributors on the covers of old issues slowly ballooning out toward the viewer (michael CHABON…), Colm Tóibín snapping off some syllables (“The NYRB actually mattered as a crucial part of our lives”), plenty of bookshelves and desks, and rare footage of editor Robert Silvers getting out of a cab.

However, there’s an odd absence in both the trailer and in the poster for the movie, which looks like this: 50 Year Argument

Namely, Barbara Epstein, who ran the New York Review of Books with Silvers from its first issue in 1963 until her death in 2006. A series of tributes to her, which give a sense of how brilliant an editor she was and how well-loved a person, appeared in the August 10, 2006 issue, with contributions from Elizabeth Hardwick, John Ashbery, Luc Sante, Darryl Pinckney, Alison Lurie, and others.

Epstein’s apparent absence may simply be a result of timing: Scorsese began filming the documentary around the magazine’s 50th anniversary in 2013. Or its format: it’s both a history and a portrait of the current magazine, which Silvers now edits alone. In other words, there’s probably nothing nefarious or deliberately neglectful going on here. In any case, come September 29, Scorsese’s treatment of the narrative, from the Review‘s legendary beginnings during the printers’ strike of ’63 to its many years of publishing extraordinary criticism and reporting from a stable of greats, will be able to be weighed by American audiences for themselves.

Reviews in film publications so far have been mostly positive: Scott Foundas praised it in Variety, writing that though it’s not the most groundbreaking or critical of documentaries, it “incisively celebrate[s]” an “American cultural Goliath.” (On the other hand, Scott Feinberg‘s review for the Hollywood Reporter, in which he argues that more of the movie should have been about Silvers’s “life and motivations” seems to have grossly missed the point.)

But it is strange to see the early publicity for this tribute to what I’d always thought of as a co-creation conspicuously missing one of its members.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.