It wasn't pretty. The decision was made by people who probably didn't read or look at it. It had been around for decades, surviving literary, cultural, cold, and military wars. It was killed by university administrators. The deciders aren't even there anymore. And I never hear its name mentioned nowadays.
Yet for almost seventy years, Partisan Review was one of the nation's most important literary magazines, and the fresh-faced fellow pictured above had, somewhat improbably, become its poetry editor, following in the footsteps of such folks as Delmore Schwartz and Rosanna Warren. That fellow was me.
When the magazine was killed off, the New York Times headline read: "Journal's Closing Spells End Of an Era," and the article remarked that
... the magazine is unlikely to be forgotten. From its inaugural issue as an independent journal, in 1937, which included Delmore Schwartz's short story ''In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,'' a poem by Wallace Stevens and contributions by Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook and Edmund Wilson, to its heyday in the 1940's and 50's, the journal published an astonishing range of landmark work. For many Americans, Partisan Review was their introduction to Abstract Expressionism, existentialism, New Criticism and the voices of talented young writers like Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag.
The list of contributors is so impressive - PR ran everything from "Avant Garde and Kitsch" to "Notes on Culture" to "Skunk Hour" - that I could fill this blogpost with nothing but names, so I'll just add that, lest we forget, Anglo-American literary culture was truly shaped by the mag. To give just one example, between 1941 and 1946 Orwell wrote fifteen "London Letters" for PR, after which, iIn 1949, the journal awarded him £357 for the year's most significant contribution to literature, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
At its peak, PR had about 15,000 subscribers. When I met Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, he told me he was a reader. So was my podiatrist. Nobody talked much about "audience" in those days, probably because litmags did have an audience back then. And though chronologically, PR was shut down less than ten years ago, it's ancient history, in literary terms. Back then turns out to be way, way back.
I was at PR for eighteen years, starting as a go-fer. Naively, I went to the office one day and asked if I could work there for free. After an initial scolding, an editorial assistant took pity on me, and gave me a few things to do, providing that I made myself invisible to the editors, didn't use the bathroom in the office, and pledged not to steal, or even touch, review copies of books. Everything felt sacred. The offices were extremely quiet, except when the Editor was in town, during which visits a fair amount of yelling could be heard. (Once, the Editor chased somebody out onto the street, calling whoever it was "stoopid - with two o's!") I was reasonably intimidated. But I wanted to learn how literary magazines were made and produced. And gradually, I was given more honorable tasks until at some point, I was allowed to read incoming manuscripts, and even answer the phone. Philip Roth called one time, and hearing my voice asked, "Are you somebody?" (I had to say: no.) James Dickey used to call, and I ended up spending many lovely hours chatting with him: he was quite happy to talk to a nobody. (I should add that when I attended PR's cranky sixtieth anniversary party in New York, I happily laid eyes on such fascinating folks as Diana Trilling and... BAP's own David Lehman, for the first time!)
There was a tiered system of manuscript readers. First, second, third... I was at the very bottom of the ladder for a long time, needless to say. The idea was to pass along work that looked promising, along with a typed, well-composed note explaining why a manuscript was being imposed upon the reader above me, who could send it farther up the ladder. In some rare cases, the real editors would get things, and make big decisions; you did not want to send along too much, because that would incur the wrath of everyone up the line - but if you sent nothing along, it would be suspected that you weren't doing anything. It was a bit trickky to negotiate all this, but there could be no prouder moment than when a ms. a reader sent forward appeared in the magazine - and better yet, won some kind of award later. But mostly, I was writing up appraisals of submissions that were going to be rejected, and trying to do so with dignity and intelligence.
After a few years of this, I started saying what I really thought about manuscripts. At this point, I was reading almost all poetry. Partly, I wrote up my mini-essays to please myself: in a way, to avoid boredom or going stale. And then, too, I had the idea that nobody was really reading my comments. About the latter I was wrong, for one day the Editor called me into his office. We had never spoken before, and I was positive I'd be hurtling down the stairs before long: stoopid with two o's. But no!
"We've been reading your reports for years, you know." Uh oh. "You seem to know something about poetry..."
They kept me on, and so I stayed for the better part of two decades, learning every aspect of editorial and production work. I had one particularly wonderful mentor, who later became my teacher, and then a friend: Rosanna Warren, who was Poetry Editor there for many good years. I typed RW's letters, day after day, week after week, and in the process, learned a great deal about tactfulness, kindness, generosity, empathy, and other qualities the very best editors cultivate. It was a large and crystal-clear window on the everyday world of working writers.
I've had lots of jobs, as I've written elsewhere: busboy, van driver for a junior college, librarian... Though I earned no money at PR, my apprenticeship at a literary magazine was the best job someone like me could possibly imagine. And working my ass off on behalf of other writers, setting my own work aside along the way, I became Contributing Editor and the magazine's last-ever Poetry Editor. I know it sounds pious and pompous, but I've felt that work as a calling.
Though it was hard to believe that such an important magazine could be shut down, the truth is that it had lost its way for a very long time. And it's natural enough, really: literary magazines die for all sorts of reasons: lack of money, lack of vision, lack of readership... When they go, they are not much lamented, though some have left their mark. (Take a look, for instance, at this amazing list on Wikipedia of "Defunct American Literary Magazines." Wow.)
I blogged yesterday about my own unflagging enthusiasm for reading submissions. I've been reading them now for almost half my life. It has been a privilege to do so, and I've tried to give writers the kind of encouragement I suppose I wanted to receive myself. More importantly, what I've learned from being at one of those dead magazines and then at one that has lasted over a century is amazingly simple: there is work that lasts and lasts, and survives the fraught and lonely manner of its birth.
-- Don Share