A Letter From the Editors of the New York Times Book Review As It Celebrates Its 125th Century

From today’s New York Times Book Review:

“The New York Times Book Review first appeared on October 10, 1896, but its roots can be traced back to its very first issue of The Times on September 18, 1851”

By Tina Jordan

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of The New York Times Book Review, take a trip with us back to the earliest years of the newspaper as we look at how its literary coverage began — and how it evolved and grew before being spun off into the Book Review as we know it today.

It all started in the very first issue of The New York Daily Times on Sept. 18, 1851. Peer carefully at the old, yellowing pages, densely speckled with six columns of tiny, often smudged type, and there — in an article on Page 2 headlined “Snap-Shots at Books, Talk and Town,” the paper laid out its ambitious plans for covering books and the publishing industry.

“The book-men are just now bidding upon the summer’s surfeit of literature, and sometime, it may be worth our while to take our readers into the rooms of this traffic,” the newspaper announced. “We shall sometimes, too, take note of the books of the day — unravel their narrative into a newspaper column and give the public, whom we have taken in hand to serve, a running synopsis of their story. And if we give, now and then, a critical shot at their manner, method or morals, we shall do it with all the modesty, and perhaps the occasional misses, which belong to our swift shooting.”

No time was wasted. The very next day the paper introduced a column about authors and artists called “Limnings of Literary People,” and on Sept. 22 the first book reviews appeared. They included such gems as “The United States Post-Office Guide” and an apparently execrable novel called “Kenneth: A Romance of the Highlands,” the review of which began, “Mr. Reynolds is a bad specimen of a very bad school of writers.”

Book reviews, which were published at least once a week, were crisp and to the point. D.J. Browne’s “American Muck Book,” for example, got a one-line rave as “doubtless a most valuable aid to the farmer who admits science to the help of agriculture.” Two 1851 novels that we now regard as important were not reviewed: Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” which came out a few weeks after The Times began publishing, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables.”

The second half of the 19th century was filled with riches: “There were literary giants, and pygmies, too, upon the earth,” wrote Francis Brown, who edited the Book Review from 1949 until 1971. “It was the period of Trollope and Dickens and Thackeray, of Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson and Baudelaire, of Darwin and Huxley, of the Russians Turgenev, Dostoevky and Tolstoy.” With a few notable exceptions, the paper covered every important book published during those decades.

“Villette,” by Charlotte Brontë, was hailed as “a first class work.” An unnamed critic struggled with “Leaves of Grass,” first calling Walt Whitman “a literary fraud” and then confessing, “Still, this man has brave stuff in him. … Since the greater portion of this review was written we confess to having been attracted again and again to ‘Leaves of Grass.’” Of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species,” the paper’s unnamed critic wrote, “Shall we frankly declare that after the most deliberate consideration of Mr. Darwin’s arguments, we remain unconvinced?”

The blockbuster novels of the day were often first published in serial form, usually in magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s, and The Times covered new chapters with fanfare. “The first sheets of ‘Bleak House’ — Dickens’s new novel — have been received in advance of their publication in London, for Harper’s Magazine,” the paper reported in a front-page piece on March 16, 1852. “They have the clear ring of the true metal.” Although an editor once railed that “we have a horror of anything published in parts,” The Times nonetheless published some serials of its own, including Thomas Hardy’s “The Hand of Ethelberta.”

The Times’s early book coverage extended well beyond reviews and serials. Holiday gift guides, publishing news, literary scandals, poems, summer reading and recommendations for children could all be found in the pages of the paper. In 1871, an editorial remonstrated against the moral depravity of “flash literature”; in 1875, a male author wrote about the difficulties of dressing his female characters (the opening line: “What shall I put on her head?”). Dime novels — the pulpy westerns that were blamed for social ills, just as comic books were in the mid-20th century and violent video games more recently — figured in countless news stories.

Literary stories great and small were considered newsworthy. A letter of support from Louisa May Alcott to the American Woman Suffrage Association was reprinted in full, as was Mark Twain’s remedy for a cold: “Plain gin was recommended, then gin and molasses, then gin and onions. I took all three.” When Oscar Wilde fell victim to card cheats in New York, readers learned about it in a piece headlined “Oscar Fleeced at Bunco.”

Authors’ marriages, illnesses, arrests, writing habits, children, money problems and vacations were fodder for stories. So were their deaths. When beloved authors were dying, The Times issued deathbed updates — in the case of Walt Whitman, for months — that we would now find intrusive.

Given the breadth and depth of literary coverage throughout the paper in those early decades, it was perhaps no surprise that someone decided to corral all those stories and reviews into a dedicated book section. That someone was Adolph S. Ochs, who established the Book Review as a stand-alone supplement shortly after he became publisher of the paper in 1896. It was announced with fanfare on Oct. 10, 1896: “We begin today the publication of a supplement which contains reviews of the new books.”

Thus was born The New York Times Book Review, a publication that over the course of its 125-year history has been known variously as “the Saturday Review of Books and Art,” “the Sunday Book Review,” “the NYTBR” or, mostly internally, simply “TBR.”

“In this publication was carried out an idea of the publisher of The Times that a newspaper book review should be a literary newspaper, treating newly published books as news and containing besides other news of literary happenings,” Elmer Davis wrote in “History of The New York Times, 1851-1921.”

“‘Books as news” remained the Book Review’s watchword for years. “Literary criticism, an excellent thing in its way, but properly speaking, a means rather than an end, has never been the chief object of its existence,” the Book Review reiterated in 1913. “An open forum for the discussion of books from all sane and honest points of view is always accessible in The New York Times Book Review.”

As time passed, the Book Review evolved, shedding its “books as news” dictum and embracing literary criticism, essays, theories and ideas. It became a lens through which to view not only literature but also the world at large, with scholars and thinkers weighing in on all the people and issues and subjects covered in books: philosophy, art, science, economics, history, art and more.

J. Donald Adams, who was appointed editor of the Book Review in 1925, later recalled: “When I took over, The Times thought that all you had to do was tell people what was in the books. I wanted to make the Book Review something more than that.” Under him, reviews became more opinionated and the coverage broader and deeper. “Dissent in itself can be exciting, can bring light into gray corners,” Francis Brown wrote in a short history of the Book Review in 1968. “As our culture becomes more and more unified, diversity is a quality to be cherished and cultivated, and how dull it would be, how stultifying, to find ourselves in agreement on politics, aesthetics or what you will — and most of all on books, which by their very being testify to the diversity of man.”

James Baldwin wrote for the Book Review, as did Langston Hughes. Toni Morrison was a regular contributor. Eudora Welty was briefly on staff and reviewed the likes of E.B. White, Virginia Woolf and S.J. Perelman. Presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Herbert Hoover — wrote reviews, and so did musicians, poets, playwrights, scholars, Nobel winners, tycoons and Hollywood stars.

In many ways, the Book Review’s history is that of American letters. Through its coverage over the years, you can see how American reading tastes and book-buying patterns shifted, how literary criticism evolved and the ways in which history — particularly both world wars — shaped what was written and published. Yet even though the literary landscape has changed dramatically over the past 125 years — driven at times by the influence of the Book Review— some things remain the same: As an editor’s note from 1897 points out, “Life is worth living because there are books.”


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