Posted Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, at 4:31 PM
Fifty years ago today, the New York Review of Books published its first issue. There was a printing strike in New York at the time, and The New York Times temporarily ceased publication. Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers founded the review with the idea that publishers would be eager to advertise their new books somewhere else, thus making the periodical financially feasible. They drew on their many friends and acquaintances in the literary world, and turned out a first issue that included poems by Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Adrienne Rich, as well as essays and reviews by Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Gore Vidal, among others.
A few years ago, in an obituary for Barbara Epstein published in the New Yorker, David Remnick said that it was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” Was he right?
Quite possibly. It’s a nearly impossible question to answer, of course. Besides the vast numbers of magazines one would have to go through to answer the question definitively, there is enormous room for debate about what makes a great magazine. Still, combing through initial entries from the most notable English-language periodicals, it becomes abundantly clear that magazines almost always take time to find their footing. If there’s one that got out of the gate as well as the New York Review of Books, we have not found it. (We surely missed a few contenders, though, particularly among magazines not founded in the United States. Let us know other periodicals we should have considered in the comments!)
Magazines as we know them today arguably began with The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731), which tried “to give monthly a view” of the best material from newspapers, “which of late are so multiplied as to make it impossible, unless a man make it his business, to consult them all.” (Aggregation, 18th-century style.) But among the earliest contenders we prefer the first issue of a slightly earlier periodical, The Spectator (1711), which has a voice-y, first-person freshness from the get-go. The famous Tatler (1709) feels overly preachy in comparison, offering a service “whereby such worthy and well-affected members of the commonwealth may be instructed, after their reading, what to think.”
The 19th century saw the birth of many magazines that are still highly regarded today: Harper’s (1850), The Atlantic Monthly (1857), and The Nation (1865) among them. But these do not generally appear in full flower right away. Chapters 1-4 of Lettice Arnold by Anne Marsh-Caldwell take up rather a lot of the first Harper’s, for instance. And while The Atlantic was founded by such enduring, three-named luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, one scans the first issue in vain for major work by those men.
Of course, one might wonder if the names of Hardwick and Kazin and Styron will, 100 years now, resonate as little as those of Marsh-Caldwell and, say, Douglas William Jerrold, whose surprisingly length obituary kicks off the very first Atlantic. And for that reason, 20th-century comparisons feel more apples-to-apples. Here, too, though, the NYRB probably comes out on top. The first issue of The New Yorker (1925) seems a bit twee today compared to the journalistic institution the magazine has since become. Esquire (1933), on the other hand, though sometimes thought of as a bit déclassé in its early days, opened with Hemingway on fishing, Dos Passos on post-WWI America, fiction by Dashiell Hammett, and a piece about boxing by one-time World Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney. Some might prefer those writers to Baldwin, Mailer, Sontag, et al.
And then there are the great literary magazines, most notably, perhaps, The Paris Review (1953), which in issue no. 1 had fiction by Terry Southern and Peter Matthiessen, poetry by Robert Bly and Donald Hall, a long interview with the 73-year-old E.M. Forster, and a delightful non-preface by William Styron. The first Evergreen Review (1957) had both Sartre and Beckett, but not quite the depth of offerings in the first Paris Review. Granta (1979), though technically a relaunch of an old magazine, has, if you count it as such, a fantastic first issue, with Joyce Carol Oates, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. Grand Street (1981), too, got off to a great start, with “stories and poems by Ted Hughes, Alice Munro, James Salter, John Hollander, Northrop Frye and W. S. Merwin.”
If your primary criterion for greatness in a magazine is the introduction of a new sensibility, then there are a handful of more recent challengers. The first Ms. (1971) has an essay on sisterhood by co-founder Gloria Steinem, a caustic take on typical male desires by Judy Syfer, and a reflective essay by Vivian Gornick called “Why Women Fear Success.” Similarly, the voice of Sassy (1988) is in place from the first issue, as is, in a different key, that of the satirical, New York-centric Spy (1986).
Still, the New York Review arguably announced the arrival of a particular sensibility, too: that of the engaged, literary, post-war progressive intellectual, who was concerned with civil rights and feminism as well as fiction and poetry and theater. Its verse is the equal of what George Plimpton brought to the world in his editorial debut, and the prose still feels urgent and important even 50 years later. Remnick was probably right.