Thursday, 27 March 2014

Mary McCarthy nailing, just completely nailing, her famous review of “The Naked Lunch” (“This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction – the others are entertainments.” )

Out of a newspaper strike dawned a new age in American letters

The New York Review of Books published its first issue 50 years ago, forever changing the literary conversation

Out of a newspaper strike dawned a new age in American lettersBarbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, in 1963, in their first office in the Fisk building, on West 57th Street, New York City. (Credit: New York Review of Books/Gert Berliner)
Last week, my colleague at Doubleday came by my office with an austere-looking 11-by-15-inch broadsheet. Good God! It was a facsimile edition of the first issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 1, 1963. The advertising director and I sat there kvelling over this wondrously manifested printed object from another universe, with its Murderers Row of reviewers weighing in on many books that all these years later still matter, its old-school book ads with their quaint frontal appeals to the reader’s higher cultural aspirations (“Pantheon: Outstanding Books From Abroad”; “The power of Thought is the magic of the Mind.” — the Lord Byron headline for Columbia University Press’s ad), its wittily punning heads (“Albee Damned” for Nicola Chiarmonte’s review of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”; To the Whitehouse” for Dwight Macdonald’s review of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Politics of Hope”). Byron had it right: There was a whole lost world of magical allure contained in those 48 pages of newsprint. So I closed my door, and let’s just say not a whole lot of work got done the rest of the afternoon.
The roll call of contributors corralled for what was at the time an ad hoc and very possibly short-lived book review represented a shock and awe demonstration of the intellectual firepower available for deployment in mid-century America, and, almost equally impressive, of the art of editorial networking and jawboning. This was the party everyone who was anyone wanted to attend, the Black and White Ball of the critical elite. If you are anything like me, you gaze upon that table of contents with a feeling akin to considering the lineups of the Stengel-era Yankees, the Auerbach-era Celtics, the Lombardi-era Packers: Hall of Famers at every key position and an astonishing depth of talent. Here is Mary McCarthy nailing, just completely nailing, her famous review of “The Naked Lunch” (“This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction – the others are entertainments.” ). Right above this review, on the same page, McCarthy’s one-time lover Philip Rahv, chief macher of the Partisan Review crowd, delivers his ringing verdict on “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (“This is an important book, perhaps the most important book that has come out of Russia in many years”). On the front page, F.W. Dupee (think Lionel Trilling with a clearer prose style and a far less effective P.R. agent) takes calm and respectful measure of James Baldwin’s incendiary “The Fire Next Time,” which had electrified readers on its first appearance in the New Yorker (“When Baldwin replaces criticism with prophecy, he manifestly weakens his grasp of his role, his style and his great theme itself. And to what end?”). One year before her coronation as the new It Girl of American letters after the appearance of her essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag summons the nerve to cut that secular saint Simone Weil down to size (“As a historical writer [she] is tendentious, exhaustive and infuriatingly certain”) while acknowledging her stature as “the most uncompromising and troubling witness to the modern travail of the spirit.” Gore Vidal cuffs around John Hersey, and by extension his place of business the New Yorker, for substituting an overweaning devotion to journalistic fact for moral fervor and insight. Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Robert Penn Warren contribute their top-shelf poetry, and Lowell provides a superb reminiscence of the recently deceased Robert Frost. All this and more, as the television pitchmen say – Auden, Mailer, Kazin, Howe, Styron, the list goes on. In sum, the first issue of the NYRB is an artifact that compels profound admiration and rapt contemplation alike.
It is, of course, a singularity, the unique product of a very particular moment in American literary culture and of a small group of skilled, visionary and very wired editors. The tale has often been told of how the publisher Jason Epstein, his wife, the editor Barbara Epstein, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick and her husband, Robert Lowell, convened in an apartment on West 67thStreet in the midst of an extended newspaper strike in New York, then in its second vexing week. The absence of the New York Times and its book review constituted a grievous problem for publishers, who felt they had nowhere to advertise their books or get them effectively reviewed; the very existence of the book review constituted a grievous problem for those four people, who viewed it with disdain. In his memoir “Book Business,” Epstein says, “Its reviews were ill-informed, bland, occasionally spiteful, usually slapdash.” Hardwick had recently written a brutal takedown in Harper’s, decrying “the lack of literary tone itself” and dismissing it as “a provincial journal.” So they seized the day: Lowell borrowed $4,000 to float the enterprise, and the brilliant young Harper’s editor Robert Silvers was hired on for what very well could have been a one-off job, if the new review could not have been made financially self-sustaining. The whole thing had the air of an Andy Hardy let’s-put-on-a-show exercise, except the cast of this movie all went to Columbia, Kenyon and the University of Chicago and came equipped with killer rolodexes and deadly serious intent. As the “To the Reader” note on page two puts it, “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.”
Mission accomplished. As Lowell put it in a letter, “All the most distinguished and lively book reviewers and essayists in the country have been written or phoned for pieces. Now after two weeks they have all come through.” The phone bill would have been a modest one with few long distance charges: By my estimation all but a couple of the 44 contributors lived in Manhattan, and most of them on the Upper West Side or the Village. Of almost equal importance for the long term, every trade publisher and university press of any size and note ponied up to buy ad space. The impact was immediate: According to Epstein, they received 2,000 letters urging the NYRB to continue publication, and “Since we only printed 100,000 copies [only!] … this was a phenomenal response.” Most heartening must have been this famous squib from Edmund Wilson: “God only knows such a thing is needed. The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike made us aware that it had never existed.” (Oddly Wilson is, along with Trilling, the only critical big gun missing from the first issue, although he would soon become one of the NYRB’s mainstays.)
The NYRB was launched at a kind of inflection point in our intellectual history. Most of the figures who had made the 1950s the so-called Age of Criticism were still around and writing with full vigor. It was an article of faith that the Kennedy administration had swept the cobwebs and the inertia of the Eisenhower years away, and the shrewd court that JFK and Jackie Kennedy paid to writers, artists and thinkers lent a new glamour to intellectual life. (Hum a few bars of “Camelot” here.) The cultural energies of the 1960s were gathering force, but the things that would culminate in the liberal crackup — the assassinations, the Vietnam War, the revolt of alienated youth, the rightward counter-reaction – still lay ahead. The very real tensions and difficulties of February 1963 – the growing militancy and impatience of African-Americans, the mortal dangers of the Cold War and the arms race, the gnawing sense of something not quite right or even very wrong about American culture – inform many of the reviews and the books they consider. It is one of the functions of intellectuals to express and amplify worry and discontent. But overall NYRB Issue No. 1 projects a confidence in the unquestioned rightness of the liberal consensus, in the centrality of literature and its power to convey meaning, in the solubility of our problems through the application of intelligence and good will, and in the coherence and clear hierarchy of the intellectual world that is both tonic and sobering to the present-day reader. The temptations of those complementary impulses, nostalgia and declinism, are very strong.
With few exceptions the NYRB has delivered on the promise of its inaugural edition brilliantly over the past five decades. Our intellectual life would have been sorely impoverished if it had folded. It hit an extended bad patch in the late ’60s and early ’70s when it put on bell bottoms and succumbed to the trendy and sometimes crackpot countercultural and political received ideas of the period; this allowed its adversary Tom Wolfe to paste it with the label “the chief theoretical organ of radical chic” and make it stick. One might wish that the current essays and reviews had the concision of the ones in the first edition, done no doubt on the fly and the better for it, and I can’t be the only loyal subscriber (40 years and counting) who has entertained the thought that its grasp of American life as it is lived west of the Hudson and south of the Battery is rendered more than a little uncertain by its New York-centric and Anglophilic biases. Nobody’s perfect. But the NYRB’s unwavering faith in its liberal creed – in the teeth of the Reagan reaction, the neoconservative assault and the fear-mongering of the Bush/Cheney years, where similar magazines like the New Republic have at times adopted a neoliberalism hard to distinguish from straight conservatism and toyed with noxious Charles Murray-esque social ideas — is nothing short of inspiring. As is its refusal to pander or lower its standards and the steady stream of brilliant writers it has discovered and nurtured. You pick the thing up and that alone boosts your IQ 10 or 15 points.
Happy 50th birthday, NYRB. You are awesome.
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Hellman v. McCarthy Review (Theatre Is Easy)

Hellman v. McCarthy

By Brian Richard Mori; Directed by Jan Buttram
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 4.13.14
Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 West 36th Street

by Eleanor J. Bader on 3.24.14
Hellman v. McCarthyRoberta Maxwell and Dick Cavett in Hellman v. McCarthy. Photo by Kim T. Sharp.

BOTTOM LINE: A brilliantly-written, fast-paced, and somewhat fictionalized account of the literary feud between playwright/memoirist Lillian Hellman and critic/novelist Mary McCarthy.
When Brian Richard Mori’s Hellman v. McCarthy begins, the auditorium lights are still on and most of the people in the room are chatting with their friends, dates, or neighbors. Two stagehands are visible, presumably putting the final touches on the set and shouting directions to one another. A minute or two passes before the audience gets it -- they are being readied to watch legendary talk show host Dick Cavett conduct a live, on-camera, interview. And lest they forget, as soon as Cavett walks on, they’re reminded that his nearly 50-year career has included stints on ABC, CBS, PBS, USA and CNBC.
Now 78, Cavett plays himself in Mori’s compelling drama. Indeed, when he steps onstage his command is obvious. There’s witty banter and corny schtick alongside clever jokes and self-deprecating commentary. He then introduces that evening’s guest, writer Mary McCarthy (played with arrogance and smug self-satisfaction by the terrific Marcia Rodd) best known for penning Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and The Group (1963). Cavett has invited McCarthy onto the program to discuss her latest effort, a book called Cannibals and Missionaries that is scheduled to be released shortly after the show’s October 1979 taping. The Q&A is fairly predictable, at least until Cavett asks McCarthy which contemporary writers she thinks are overrated. Without missing a beat she names three: Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, and Lillian Hellman. Not only does she dub the latter a “windbag,” she announces -- with imperious hostility -- that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Hellman (played by the excellent Roberta Maxwell) does not take kindly to McCarthy’s characterization and since money is no object, she hires attorney Lester Marshall (Peter Brouwer) to sue McCarthy, PBS, and Cavett for libel. The rest of Mori’s play is a retelling of what happened as the litigation -- dubbed “the greatest literary feud in modern American history” by the press -- unfolds. It’s often tense, albeit with a sprinkling of humor, and raises important concerns about freedom of expression and the First Amendment.
As the play proceeds we are also made privy to the back story and learn that McCarthy and Hellman had disliked one another for decades, since serendipitously meeting at a 1948 social gathering on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College. McCarthy saw Hellman as an apologist for Stalin, while Hellman saw McCarthy as a mealy-mouthed liberal who stood for nothing. That Hellman’s books and plays sold millions while McCarthy’s did not certainly added to McCarthy’s hatred of her more successful peer.
That said, Hellman was widely known to be an irascible, mean-spirited, and contrary sort who alienated just about everyone. This made McCarthy -- no shrinking violet herself -- the public favorite during the four-plus years it took for the case to wind its way through the courts. Sadly, the lawsuit ended only because Hellman died before it went to trial. McCarthy was disappointed. “I did not want her to die,” she told reporters. “I wanted her to lose in court.”
Hellman v. McCarthy includes one imagined scene in which the two grand dames meet. It’s both tragic and absurd to see the rivals go at one another:
“You never did disavow the Moscow trials,” McCarthy blasts.
“I am a Marxist,” Hellman replies.
“You are a liar,” McCarthy retorts.
Needless to say, rapprochement was not in the cards for this quick-tempered duo.
As for Cavett, near the end of the production he confides that he came to see the case as little more than “two literary lionesses fighting over a zebra carcass.” And so it was. But Mori’s crisp writing and the cast’s pitch-perfect delivery, makes for an exceptionally entertaining and provocative night of theater.
The question at its core remains relevant: should there be limits on free speech or should we protect the right to voice the outrageous and the offensive? In fact, a week after the passing of Fred Phelps who, as head of the Westboro Baptist Church gained national notoriety after picketing the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard with a sign proclaiming that “God hates fags,” the debate continues to elicit passionate sentiments and arouse deep seated fears.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Martin Scorsese's film about The New York Review of Books to feature MM (with a little bit of help from bloggerlees)

The New York Review of Books

In anticipation of the Review’s 50th anniversary, editor Robert Silvers and publisher Rea Hederman came to Martin Scorsese with the idea of making a film about the magazine. An avid reader since his college days at NYU where he “wouldn’t miss an issue,” Scorsese eagerly agreed.
Directed byMartin Scorsese & David Tedeschi
It’s no accident that the sole source of consistent, fact based analysis in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001 was found within the pages of The New York Review of Books. In the early days of the “War on Terror” and the build up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Review published many pieces that even now, 12 years later, still appear truthful and incisive. “Torture and Truth,” Mark Danner’s article on enhanced interrogation, based on a confidential Red Cross report, was a watershed moment when many people began to see the events of the Bush Administration in a new light. This is one of many crowning moments for The New York Review of Books.
No one could stop us. We could do what we wanted in any wayRobert Silvers, Editor - The New York Review of Books
In its inaugural issue 50 years ago, the Review distinguished itself immediately with an enviable roster of some of the most illustrious writers and thinkers of their time: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, William Styron, W.H. Auden, Mary McCarthy and many others who would go on to do some of their best work within the pages of the Review. The film will tell the story of the shared spirit of inspiration that brought that first issue to press: Elizabeth Hardwick writing “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harpers magazine, which argued that a new kind of literary journal – assionate, engaged, truly literary – was needed. The impromptu dinner party that brought Hardwick and her husband Robert Lowell to the table of their neighbours, book editors Jason and Barbara Epstein. Jason Epstein’s flash of clarity that a New York City newspaper strike had given them a golden opportunity to launch the publication of their dreams. The next day Jason Epstein called Robert Silvers to recruit him as editor and he in turn recruited Barbara. The founders launched the Review from Hardwick’s premise, but it grew large part from the hard work, imagination and sensibility of its editors, Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers.
The New York Review of Books

Thursday, 20 March 2014

HELLMAN v. McCARTHY A world-premiere play by Brian Richard Mori Directed by Jan Buttram

Abingdon Theatre Company continues its 21st Season with literary legends at war in

A world-premiere play by Brian Richard Mori
Directed by Jan Buttram

Limited Engagement! Off-Broadway performances March 14-April 13, 2014
at Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre (312 West 36th Street).

Emmy Award-winner Dick Cavett
Drama Desk and Obie Award-winner Roberta Maxwell
Tony Award-nominee Marcia Rodd

with Peter Brouwer, Rowan Michael Meyer and Jeff Woodman.

Abingdon Theatre Company—which has produced 82 new American plays since 1993—continues its 21st Season with HELLMAN v. McCARTHY by Brian Richard Mori (author of Adult Fiction and Bedtime Stories), with previews set to begin March 14, prior to an official press opening March 26 in Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex's June Havoc Theatre (312 West 36th Street). Off-Broadway performances run through April 13. Jan Buttram, Artistic Director of Abingdon Theatre Company, is set to direct this world-premiere production.

The greatest literary feud in modern American history began on January 25, 1980 when literary critic Mary McCarthy appeared as a guest on "The Dick Cavett Show" and declared that "every word [playwright Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman went ballistic and sued McCarthy for libel, sparking a law suit that spanned more than four years. HELLMAN v. McCARTHY is a roller coaster ride filled with comedy and pathos.

As previously announced, Emmy Award-winner Dick Cavett ("The Dick Cavett Show," Into the Woods, The Rocky Horror Show) is set to portray himself, recreating his role in the historical events depicted in HELLMAN v. McCARTHY.

Joining Mr. Cavett are Drama Desk and Obie Award-winner Roberta Maxwell (Equus, Ivanov, Brokeback Mountain) as Lillian Hellman and Tony Award-nominee Marcia Rodd (Shelter, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, "Trapper John, M.D.") as Mary McCarthy.

Completing the cast are Peter Brouwer (Lost on the Natchez Trace, Bodega Bay), Rowan Michael Meyer (Flea's Benito Cereno, APAC's Blood Brothers), and Jeff Woodman (Cymbeline, A Pirate's Lullaby).

The design team includes set design by Andrew Lu, lighting design by Travis McHale, costume design by Tony Award-nominee Jane Greenwood, and sound design by Ian Wehrle. Production Stage Manager is Mark Hoffner.

Abingdon Theatre Company launched its 21st Season of producing new American plays with the world premiere of Fix Me, Jesus by Helen Sneed, directed by Sam Pinkleton, this past November. Jan Buttram is Artistic Director and Heather Henderson is Managing Director of Abingdon Theatre Company.

Off-Broadway performances of HELLMAN v. McCARTHY run March 14-April 13: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm at Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre (312 West 36th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues). All tickets are $40. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit


“Yet in reality nothing is as bad as it seems (or as in logic, it ought to be).”


Mary McCarthy and her son, Ruel, at their home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, from McCarthy’s feature on her marriage to Edmund Wilson in our Summer 1991 issue. Writes McCarthy, “Yet in reality nothing is as bad as it seems (or as in logic, it ought to be).”

Mary McCarthy and her son, Ruel, at their home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, from McCarthy’s feature on her marriage to Edmund Wilson in The Paris Review. Writes McCarthy, “Yet in reality nothing is as bad as it seems (or as in logic, it ought to be).”