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I first met Neil Gordon in 1992. I had recently started editing Boston Review. Neil was then working at the New York Review of Books. He called to discuss some ideas. I was thrilled by the call. Someone out in the world noticed what we were trying to do—not only noticed, but wanted to be part of it. Neil had an idea for an article, which eventually appeared in late 1992 as “Purity and Survival.” Focused on John Martin and Black Sparrow Press, the essay was ultimately about the tensions between keeping faith with convictions and achieving practical success. How do you achieve worldly success with a mission animated by moral, political, or aesthetic values—does success demand a corrupting compromise of the mission? John Martin had succeeded commercially with Black Sparrow while remaining faithful to his aesthetic mission. Neil wanted to tell that hopeful story.
Neil wrote a few other things for Boston Review, including a wonderful essay on John Fante and a moving autobiographical reflection, “The Last Time I Saw Yaakov.” And then, as he was starting to publish novels, he served as Boston Review’s literary editor (beginning in 1994). He brought in some great pieces, including Stewart O’Nan’s remarkable essay on Richard Yates, which helped to get Yates back into print, and lots of other important literary essays.
Neil wrote four very fine novels (Sacrifice of Isaac remains my favorite), all thrillers mixing strong narratives, deeply-researched history, and serious political ambition. Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldy engagement. Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter (as it had distanced his young German friend Yaakov). So you will not be surprised to hear that Neil’s voice always sounded a little anxious.
Until our final phone conversation in February of this year. Neil was dying of cancer: his medical options had run out and while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he knew that he did not have much more time. What I heard this time was not anxiety but calm gratitude, all focused on the people—largely the people in his family—who had helped to enable him to have such a good life. He was free from worries about purity and survival and filled instead with an affirming sense of acceptance and an unambivalent love. Neil told me that he was, finally and deeply, happy.
Neil passed away last week. I will miss him. In gratitude for all that he did, we are republishing his contributions to Boston Review. I hope you will follow the links.
Joshua Cohen is co-editor of Boston Review, member of the faculty of Apple University, and Distinguished Senior Fellow in law, philosophy, and political science at University of California, Berkeley.
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But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
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