the model hip! hip! ben sonnenberg


Edward Said and Ben Sonnenberg mid-80s [Photo Alexander Cockburn]

I liked and admired Ben Sonnenberg [though can’t claim to be one of his many close friends, nor did I ever meet him]; a man whose mind encompassed [and published] Anne Carson, James Salter and Edward Said, who understood what money was for, someone who left his beautiful and brilliant Grand Street magazine as the model of a good mind at work.

This piece by Alexander Cockburn [here link updated Apr 2020. PDF added below] is  a very warm remembrance of his friend Sonnenberg [1938-2010] following his memorial service in September, which I recommend to you:

“My favorite autobiographers in this century are Vladimir Nabokov, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.” A paragraph later he cited “my friend Edward Said,” whose savage essay “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution’ – a Canaanite Reading” Ben had published in Grand Street in 1986.”


You might also dig up Salter’s account of Sonnenberg in Burning the Days; his much-admired aplomb in general and in the face of MS. Cockburn quotes Sonnenberg taking an elegant lance to The New Republic mag in 1989; oh for “puckish” courage of that kind today.

LostPropertyBenSonnenbergNYRBsreissueBS’s memoir Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy appeared so long ago [1991] that when I re-read it recently, I realised that I’d grown up and it seemed a completely different book -remembered most for what Sonnenberg made of that line of Adorno’s; “the retention of  strangeness is the only antidote to estrangement.” A cliché amongst an older generation I suspect, not something I’ve heard in this century, there is a simple and defiant truth in it still. I only have a few copies of the original Grand Street itself; one dedicated to George Perec for example, or ones with James Salter stories in, but the glory of Grand Street was that each issue had so many other wonderful things in them too, no? Singular then, singular now.

I’ll just quote one bit of Alexander Cockburn’s lovely piece;

There was no other cultural periodical at that time [1981-90] that would have given the finger so vigorously to polite New York intellectual opinion. The finger could be puckish.

If only there was anything that combined those qualities anywhere in any form now, but especially in nervously smug London -all manicured predictability and virtually no trace of puck let alone vigour. As for strangeness… ! Oh and don’t go by appearances and please don’t tell yourself that he was from-another-time when-these-things-were-possible blah. You always need courage to seek out or embrace any strangeness you can find or may be lucky enough to possess.

> UPDATE! NYRB are republishing Lost Property, with an intro by Maria Margaronis, in paperback June 16, 2020. Their page here (

> Maria Margaronis wrote about Sonnenberg in another excellent and intimate  piece called ‘A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg. Remembering Ben Sonnenberg (1936–2010)—writer, publisher, boulevardier—and his quarterly, Grand Street.’ for The Nation in 2010 here ( which will inform if not be the introduction to NYRB’s new edition:

“At a time when celebrity culture was being dressed up as respectable in magazines like Interview and the revived Vanity Fair, when advertising revenues were on every editor’s mind, when uncritical support for Israel had deformed the morals of a significant part of the intellectual left, Grand Street was incorruptible.” 

Pdf here: A Man of Enthusiasms: On Ben Sonnenberg | The Nation

> Lost Property was republished by the great Counterpoint Press in 1999 and remains in print, or is at least available from all-good-websites…

> Andrew Cockburn’s remembrance pdf added here; Remembering Ben Sonnenberg –

> Sonnenberg’s papers are held at Colombia University’s brilliant archive which has a page here listing and dating his correspondence online. The folders of correspondence with Anne Carson [whom he was first to publish; imagine a London editor publishing the next -not the established- Carson… ha!] go up to 2001 but start in 1987! Salter and Said are there, as is James Laughlin but also let’s see; Carson McCullers, Alice Munro, Brigid Brophy…

> Clio record for Ben Sonnenberg archive here.

> Clio record for related Grand Street Magazine holdings here.

> Lastly, yes there is a Grand Street Reader out there, but each issue performed that function I always felt. Pick one up, start anywhere…

> Grand Street (1981-2004) is archived at jstor here:


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