Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Paul Berman: Remembering Eliot Fremont-Smith


Eliot Fremont-Smith, book critic and co-founder of the National Book Critics Circle (pictured here in 1972, two years before the NBCC was founded), book critic for the New York Times and the Village Voice, died Sept. 5 of heart failure in Mount Pleasant, N.C. Paul Berman offers this:

Eliot Fremont-Smith was not just a book critic for the New York Times and the Village Voice but also, for a while, the editor of the book-review section of the Voice, and this job put him in charge of discovering new talent of various sorts–discovering new book reviewers, and not just books to review. In 1978 I wanted to write for the Voice, and I learned of a book that was just then coming out, and I wrote a review and mailed it, “over the transom,” as we used to say, to Eliot at the Voice. Eliot had no reason to know my name. Even so, he opened my letter, and he telephoned me to say that he liked the review and wished to meet me in person. What a thrilling, what a momentous, event that was, for me! I began writing reviews for him on a somewhat regular basis and continued later on writing still more regularly for his successor as editor, M. Mark, and, in one fashion or another, that is what I've done ever after. 

Eliot was wonderfully encouraging. He exuded enthusiasm. He went about his editing with a sense of mission, which had to do with literature but also (at least in my case) with something more specific–with the traditions of Greenwich Village and the free-spirited Village bohemian left that descended from the 1910s. The free-spirited leftism and liveliness of Greenwich Village in the 1910s was the topic of my first, over-the-transom review for Eliot–a review of a biography by William O'Neill of Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses in the 1910s. How fateful all of that seems to me now! 

Of course I read his own reviews with passionate interest, marveling at the splendid high-velocity fluency of his prose, which was the Voice style in those days. But his editing meant the most to me. Everyone knows that, in the history of literature and journalism, editors typically get overlooked in favor of writers. Eliot was a writer and editor both, and I am celebrating, I will always celebrate, the work that he did as editor at the Village Voice some thirty years ago and more. 
— Paul Berman