Rest in PeacePrint
By Robert Wilson
September 1, 2006
Several decades ago, when I was young and looking for a job in New York, a friend suggested that I call up Barbara Epstein, one of the editors of The New York Review of Books. Somehow I summoned the courage to dial her number, and she urged me to come right over for a little chat. Nothing could have stirred my grad-studentish heart more than a visit to the offices of that admirable publication. When I got there, Epstein was friendly and solicitous as she sat calmly at the center of a storm of activity. We had our little chat, and then I was on my way. Years later, when I was seated across from her at a lunch, I told her how heartening I’d found her willingness to see me, and how generous, and she modestly waved away my gratitude, saying, “I never had a job to offer, so there was no danger in meeting anyone who wanted to stop by.” The tributes in a recent issue of The New York Review to Epstein, who died in June, proved what you would expect, that if she was this kind to a stranger, how much more of herself would she give to the estimable writers she worked with, many of whom she had discovered and nurtured. Their memories of working with her amount to a primer for any editor, and yet she had so many qualities you must be born with—taste, brains, and the largeness of spirit that allows you always to put the writer and the reader first.
Another formidable woman I admired from afar also died this year: Jane Jacobs. In this issue, Paul Goldberger gives a thoughtful assessment of Jacobs’s influential public career and conveys a good sense of the person herself—how she, like Epstein, twined modesty with uncompromising intelligence. I had a couple of very distant brushes with Jacobs, too (this line of thought reminds me of the mean alternate title a friend gave to a writer’s memoir about celebrated poets he claimed to know: “Poets I Have Driven to the Airport”). I never drove Jacobs anywhere, or even met her in person, but for years I sent her copies of magazines I was editing. Once or twice a note came back from her saying that she was seeing the issues I sent her and approved, and so she became one of those handful of readers for whom, because you can’t keep a large group of readers in mind in any meaningful way, I edited.
Since I’m in an elegiac mood, I’ll mention a writer I did know well, Noel Perrin, who died two years ago. If the tributes to Barbara Epstein suggest that the editor’s life is all give and no take, then my experience with Perrin proved otherwise. I worked with him from my first days as an editor, and although he was several decades my senior, he treated me as an equal and a friend, always encouraging me in my own work and in my life. A final collection of his essays appears this fall; to mark the occasion, I’ve allowed myself, near the back of this issue, a word of tribute to him.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.
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