A Journey Through 125 Years of the New York Times Book Review

From a New York Times story headlined “Take a Journey Through 125 Years of Book Review History”:

This year, the Book Review turns 125.

It’s an institution that was born under the watchful eye of Adolph S. Ochs, who established the standalone supplement shortly after he became publisher of the paper in 1896. It has been known variously as “the Saturday Review of Books and Art,” “the Sunday Book Review,”“the NYTBR” or, mostly internally, simply “TBR” (not to be confused with “to be read,” though you can understand the confusion).

Yet as the Book Review has evolved, our country and world have evolved with it. Our pages reflect and reinterpret the happenings of the day, offering insight — and often, levity — through reviews, essays and news items. On occasion, we’ll miss something — T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” went unreviewed — but very often, history was made in our pages. We highlight here just a few of these moments, from landmark reviews to author scandals to moments of protest and recognition.

1897 The Book Review anointed J.M. Barrie’s “Sentimental Tommy” the No. 1 novel of 1896.

1899 The Book Review recommended Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening” in its summer reading issue, calling it “clever” and “particularly poignant.”

1903 In “The Souls of Black Folk” — now widely accepted as a foundational text of American intellectual history — W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” In it, Du Bois also detailed his now-storied critique of Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on economic advancement. Our review, which pitted Du Bois against Washington (whom it clearly favored), opened with this line: “It is generally conceded that Booker T. Washington represents the best hope of the negro in America.”

1911 When Jack London attended the “elaborately decorated” birthday party of “a diminutive dog named Fluffy Ruffles” in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it was Page 2 news. “The table was covered with a white cloth of real damask, and London, the dog and other guests consumed lady fingers and lemonade with apparent relish,” the paper reported.

1912 In April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, killing around 1,500 people. A little over a month later, Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain — Lines on the Loss of the Titanic” appeared on the front page of The Times.

1917 When asked by the Book Review to write an essay about literature in the trenches of World War I, Lt. Coningsby Dawson — a novelist in his civilian life — opened with the following observation: “There isn’t any. There isn’t any in the sense that people living in America would understand. The life that men lead in the trenches is greater literature than was ever penned.”

1925 When the American classic “The Great Gatsby” was published, our reviewer called F. Scott Fitzgerald “the philosopher of the flapper” and said the book was “a mystical, glamorous story of today.”

1926 Shortly after A. A. Milne introduced Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin to the world, one young reader was not so happy: his son, the original Christopher Robin, who threatened “to take revenge upon his dad by writing poems about him.”

1937 “Idaho: A Guide” was one of many such guides produced during the Great Depression under the direction of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration and reviewed by the Book Review. Writers like Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston found employment in this New Deal initiative at a time when there was little work elsewhere. The American Guides remain the only project of its kind in the country’s history, a comprehensive look at the nation’s then 48 states, as well as major cities and regions.

1939 Steinbeck’s Depression-era tale, “The Grapes of Wrath,” captured the desperate plight of migrant farm workers and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. “Californians are not going to like this angry novel,” our reviewer wrote. “The beauty and fertility of California conceal human fear, hatred and violence.”

1951 The first book by William F. Buckley Jr., “God and Man at Yale,” was published to mixed notices, with McGeorge Bundy writing in The Atlantic, “I find the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory and a discredit to its author.” Our reviewer offered a more generous assessment: “Some day, being intelligent and earnest, Buckley may give us the hard-won wisdom of synthesis.”

1952 Wright Morris, reviewing “Invisible Man,” called Ralph Ellison a descendant of Virgil and Dante. “The geography of hell is still in the process of being mapped. The borders shift, the shore lines erode, coral islands appear complete with new sirens, but all the men who have been there speak with a similar voice.”

1953 For much of the early 20th century, coverage of female writers was fixated upon their ascendence — and the doom it seemed to forecast for the future of literature. In 1933, the Book Review’s editor, J. Donald Adams, wrote: “If the anti-feminists are right, the success of the woman’s movement … may be justly regarded as one of the major tragedies in the history of mankind. ”Twenty years later, the Book Review was singing a different tune with the English publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” a major intellectual contribution that has gone on to inspire and influence much of the modern women’s movement. Our reviewer — a man — found it to be “a truly magnificent book, even if sometimes irritating to a mere male.”

1956/1959 Authors are no longer allowed mutual reviews, but in the 1950s two great writers were tasked with evaluating each other. They were mutually harsh but also sensitive to each other’s creative genius. In his review of “Notes of a Native Son,” Langston Hughes wrote: “James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself.” Baldwin opened his assessment of a selection of Hughes’ poems on an equally critical note: “Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts — and depressed that he has done so little with them.”

1962 “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s investigation into the use of pesticides, awakened readers to their insidious and destructive effects and helped spur the modern environmental movement. Our reviewers grasped the urgency of Carson’s contribution: “It is high time for people to know about these rapid changes in their environment, and to take an effective part in the battle that may shape the future of all life on earth.”

1968 “Because the summer of 1968 promises — or threatens — to be a critical one in American life,” wrote the Book Review on June 2 of that year, “prominent novelists and critics were asked to address themselves once more to the old but lively question of ‘engagement.’ Given the current divisions and dilemmas in our country, did they, as individuals or as craftsmen, expect to be spending the summer in any unusual (engaged) way?” Many writers responded, including Malcolm Cowley, Gore Vidal and Joyce Carol Oates. James Baldwin opened his note with this resounding message: “The black man’s continuing situation here is not an act of God. It has been willed into existence, and is perpetuated, by men.”

1977 “Welcome to the sexually liberated ’70s,” Rosalyn Drexler wrote in the Book Review. “Leave your clothes at the door and be prepared to have the time of your life; no role playing here, no jealousy, no boredom, no disease; if it feels good it is good!” Alongside groundbreaking feminist texts such as Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics,” Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” and Shere Hite’s report on women’s sexual habits, “sexual liberation became big business.” Drexler added, “The ‘how to’ book, the ‘stroke’ book, the survey, and the vibrator are a direct result of the sexual revolution.”

1985 Isabel Allende published “The House of the Spirits,” which the Book Review called “spectacular.”

1987 “And the Band Played On,” Randy Shilts’s account of the origins and aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, was one of the first books to investigate the indifference and neglect of the American government and medical establishment. In an interview with Gina Kolata, Shilts said that “any good reporter could have done this story … But I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved.”

1988 After “Beloved” did not win the National Book Award, the Book Review published a statement in Toni Morrison’s defense drafted by June Jordan and Houston A. Baker and signed by 48 Black writers, including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton and Angela Davis. “Your gifts to us have changed and made more gentle our real time together,” they wrote. “And so we write, here, hoping not to delay, not to arrive, in any way, late with this, our simple tribute to the seismic character and beauty of your writing.”

1989 When Salman Rushdie published “The Satanic Verses,” the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused him of slandering Islam in his novel and called for his death, and Muslim residents of two towns in the United Kingdom burned copies of the book. After Rushdie went into hiding, writers from around the world, including Chinua Achebe, Octavio Paz, Umberto Eco and Nadine Gordimer, sent their thoughts to the Book Review. As Ralph Ellison wrote: “Keep to your convictions. Try to protect yourself. A death sentence is a rather harsh review.”

1990 Wilfrid Sheed reviewed Peggy Noonan’s now-classic political memoir, writing that the speechwriter “does her level best for Ronald Reagan in this book. After a meeting at which he has manifestly woolgathered, but not without point, she triumphantly reports that ‘he had opinions, he had something he wanted to do’ — to which a voter can only respond weakly, ‘I should certainly hope so.’”

1996 Jay McInerney found David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest” — which is more than 1,000 pages long — to be “alternately tedious and effulgent.”

2000 In an interview with Sarah Lyall shortly after the publication of “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith played down the significance of her highly lauded debut novel. “I have great ambitions of writing a very great book,” she said. “I just don’t think this is it.”

2006 At the publication of “Fun Home” — a graphic memoir that would later become the basis of a Tony Award-winning musical — our reviewer wrote, “If the theoretical value of a picture is still holding steady at a thousand words, then Alison Bechdel’s slim yet Proustian graphic memoir, ‘Fun Home,’ must be the most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced.”

2010 Lillian Ross wrote to the Book Review to contest an anecdote alluded to in a review of Nora Ephron’s book “I Remember Nothing”: “ The chapter describes a party at Ephron’s parents’ house in Los Angeles 60 years ago. According to Nora Ephron, I was brought to this party by the writer St. Clair McKelway and, after saying something that upset Phoebe Ephron, I was asked to leave. This story is a complete invention. I never went to a party at the Ephrons’ house, and I never went anywhere with St. Clair McKelway.” Ephron’s response? “My book is about, among other things, the vagaries of memory. Lillian Ross’s memory of this event is different from my mother’s and mine.”

2010 Mark Twain’s autobiography was released 100 years after his death, just as he requested.

2012 Robert Caro, who has made the study of political power his life’s work, began his huge, multi-volume biography of the 36th president, Lyndon Johnson, in 1982 — and three decades later, Bill Clinton, the 42nd president reviewed the fourth installment for us, writing: “ Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.”

2016 Back in 1971, the Book Review declared that “Dylan is not a literary figure. Literature comes in books, and Dylan does not intend his most important work to be read.”

2020 At a moment of profound national protest — shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — the poets Claudia Rankine and Jericho Brown wrote poems for the Book Review.

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