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Diamonds in the Rough: Barbara Epstein at the New York Review of Books

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By Robyn Hjermstad and Kit Fluker, Archives Unit

When the New York Review of Books records arrived at NYPL's Library Services Center in early 2016, we were a little apprehensive. We had to wear Tyvek suits, respirators, and goggles to unload over 1,500 boxes into our disaster recovery room to rehouse one of the dirtiest collections many of us had seen to date. One week and dozens of vinyl gloves and dust-cloths later, we had successfully transferred the collection into clean, color-coded boxes. The files of Review editor Barbara Epstein were coded mango. Perhaps we should've just called it orange, because when unpeeled, we were delighted to find neat, juicy segments, ripe for processing.

Barbara Epstein in her office.
Barbara Epstein in her office. The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

 

Epstein was one of the founders of the New York Review of Books and its co-editor until her death in 2006. Her files, forming one series of the New York Review of Books records, contain correspondence and annotated manuscripts dating from 1963 to 2003, documenting 40 years spent at the office and a lifetime shaping and improving the Review

Epstein was a dedicated and meticulous editor. The manuscripts in her files often went through three or four or more iterations, with drafts marked “ms A,” “ms B,” “ms C,” and so on as the work progressed. Like her co-editor Robert Silvers, Epstein had a reputation for being politely persistent in demanding the best from the writers she worked with. 

Best didn’t mean perfect; Epstein was willing to let a manuscript rest when she thought there was no more that could be done with it, as long as it reached a certain standard. In the margin of one manuscript, Epstein gave her consent to have it published with a brief note to Silvers: “Zzzzz but OK by me.” Her annotations show what sort of prose she thought belonged in the Review. Contributors received their pieces back from Epstein with requests to cite examples and to make implied connections explicit. She didn't like mushy prose or gratuitous complexity.

Note to Robert Silvers from Epstein.
In this note to Robert Silvers, Epstein suggests taking a chance on a young writer whom she considers flawed but promising. 1970s. The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

As an editor of the Review, Epstein was a significant figure in the formation of what many would consider to be the literary elite. Epstein and Silvers each had “their” writers -- contributors whom they worked with consistently, over a long period of time, and who were often friends as well as colleagues. Epstein edited pieces by established figures like Alison Lurie, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gore Vidal, but she also worked to bring less experienced writers into the paper’s fold. When one novice writer suggested that Epstein would do better to seek out a published expert on the topic, Epstein wrote back, "I'd really rather have you.”

As archivists working on the papers of individuals like Epstein, we hope that the creator of the papers was as organized as they were accomplished. Epstein’s papers came to us in filing-cabinet order, arranged by year and then alphabetically within the year. But the files also illuminate the living, bustling office environment with accents that seem almost calculated: a perfectly imperfect coffee cup ring fixed on a heavily annotated draft; a document covered in mystery fingerprint smears, perhaps from take-out during a late night at the office.

Epstein’s files make up a relatively small portion of the Review’s extensive records, but they illustrate the paper’s growth and development from its beginnings through the turn of the millennium. You can find a guide to Barbara Epstein’s files in NYPL’s Archives & Manuscripts portal. More information will be added to the guide as further materials from the New York Review of Books records become available.

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What a fascinating insight

What a fascinating insight into the archivist's world, and an intriguing teaser of Epstein's files in the New York Review of Books papers!

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