By Ted Genoways
May 9th, 2009
In February 1935, James Monroe Smith, president of Louisiana State University, decided his institution needed two things—a literary journal and a press. He drove his black Cadillac to Robert Penn Warren’s house and invited the newly-minted LSU professor and his graduate student boarder, Albert Erskine, to go for a drive. He wanted to know what they thought it would cost to produce a top-flight journal. Warren told him $10,000 per year—that’s more than $150,000 in today’s dollars. Surprisingly, Smith quickly agreed on two conditions: 1) he wanted Warren and Erskine to team up with Cleanth Brooks, then a professor in the English department, and Charles W. Pipkin, dean of the graduate school; and 2) he wanted a full proposal from them by the next morning. Warren and Erskine worked deep into the night, and the next day Southern Review was born. Shortly thereafter, Smith appointed Marcus Wilkerson to the directorship of the newly formed LSU Press and set aside money for several ambitious projects, including a history of the university, a two-volume survey of Western civilization, and a doorstop anthology of American literature co-edited by Brooks and Warren (based on Warren’s literature course at LSU)—the now-classic An Approach to Literature. “Although James Monroe Smith was not himself an intellectual,” writes literary historian Mark Royden Winchell, “he valued intellect in others and knew how to put it to work for the good of the university.”
Nearly seventy-five years later, Southern Review remains one of the most important quarterlies in the country, and LSU Press has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most revered university presses. In the last three decades alone, LSU Press’s literary titles have garnered four Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award, and its exceptional history list has won three Bancroft Prizes and the Lincoln Prize. Yet, LSU’s new chancellor, Michael Martin, has targeted both Southern Review and LSU Press as entities within the university that, due to the economic downturn, will now need to contribute additional revenue to the university—or else. According to the preliminary budget report issued by the university, “it is very possible they cannot generate the revenue needed and will close.” In a prepared statement released after the budget was made public earlier this week, Martin praised LSU’s nationally recognized publications as “a very valuable asset to this university” but insisted that “we must protect the academic core of LSU first and foremost.”
That sounds reasonable enough, but what does it really mean? What—or where—exactly is a university’s academic core? Surely publishing such essential Southern historians as Stephen E. Ambrose, John Hope Franklin, and C. Vann Woodward lies at the heart of encouraging academic inquiry. Surely the press issuing John Kennedy Toole’s classic New Orleans novel Confederacy of Dunces or Southern Review publishing Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” does not run counter to the university’s mission. And yet, time and again, university presidents and provosts have displayed little regard for presses and journals, whatever their history of achievement, when it comes crunch time. In the last decade, Duke University cut loose its magazine DoubleTake, despite six recent National Magazine Award nominations and a win in General Excellence; Iowa State University sold its press (right down to the name) to commercial publisher Blackwell; Boston University shuttered Partisan Review (disregarding its history of publishing such first-name-unnecessaries as Eliot, Orwell, Bellow, Roth, and Sontag). What message does it send when the senior administration posits that such publications are not at their universities’ “academic core”?
More practically, universities now prefer at least one book publication and a list of journal publications when hiring an assistant professor—and all but require these for tenure. In 2002, Stephen Greenblatt, the esteemed Renaissance scholar and then president of the Modern Language Society, wrote: “The immediate problem . . . is that university presses, which in the past brought out the vast majority of scholarly books, are cutting back.” That trend has deepened in recent years, to the point that there are now more worthy manuscripts than worthy university presses. Sadder still, by virtually ceding entire genres—poetry, memoir, narrative history, to name a few—university presses have given rise to a crop of independent presses that have siphoned too many books by artists and public intellectuals away from our universities and colleges. Thus, academic administrators have unwittingly encouraged their faculty to become ever more theoretical and solipsistic—in order to “earn” the imprimatur of a university press—and, in the process, have further decreased the readership for university press books. Ironically, by seeking to narrow and protect their academic core, many presidents have made their institutions vulnerable to the whims of governors and legislators. After all, who will rally to the defense of universities in tough economic times if their good work never escapes their ivy-bedecked halls?
University presidents need to see what articulate ambassadors they have in their journals and presses, what tangible, enduring records they present of the variety and vigor of their sponsoring institutions. University presses, for example, first published Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (Yale), Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (Harvard), and James M. MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford). I identify these books so strongly with their presses and, by extension, their universities, that it is impossible for me to think of, say, A River Runs Through It without remembering Norman Maclean’s history with the University of Chicago or to re-read Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah without remembering how Gerald Costanzo, then a professor at Carnegie-Mellon, had hand-picked her for CMU Press to publish. This holds even truer for journals. If not for Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and The Oxford American, I would never think of Kenyon College or Washington & Lee University or the University of Central Arkansas. The excellence of these publications gives their universities a national profile.
And yet in recent years, all of these publications have come perilously close to extinction. “The Kenyon college trustees felt they were spending too much money on the review and not getting enough back,” Kenyon Review editor David H. Lynn told Higher Education. “They were within a whisper of shutting us down.” In 2003, Washington and Lee’s then-provost, H. Thomas Williams Jr., told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he was aware of Shenandoah’s history—its founding by Tom Wolfe, its publication of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner—but he kept asking himself, “Are we merely a publisher, or is it part of our educational mission?” If Shenandoah could not adequately explain its educational value, he said he might as well “take that money and open a hardware store.” As recently as this year, Central Arkansas had planned to shutter the financially troubled Oxford American until an anonymous alum ponied up $100,000 in February.
In such times, we, at VQR, feel lucky to have a president who described our journal to the Chronicle of Higher Education as “a necessary and affirmative expression of that element of the University’s mission that involves enlightened dialogue across or among disciplines, between the academy and the reading public, with discourse going both ways, and more generally discourse among intellectuals who seek a forum that is broad and eclectic.” It is this enlightened view that allows us to thrive at the University of Virginia. But for how long? If excellence is no insurance, history no buffer, then our security lasts only as long as our current president.
Last week, Michelle Haimoff, writing for the Huffington Post, argued, “The only economically viable option for the future of journalism lies in the direct corporate sponsorship of content.” Of course, the direct corporate sponsorship of the Huffington Post has not generated enough income to pay writers like Michelle Haimoff, but that doesn’t keep her from suggesting that literary journals (“currently begging for donations”) could be corporate-sponsored—she suggests Starbucks. I would counter this argument this if it weren’t patently absurd; commercial magazines have been trying to turn a profit on ad revenue for two centuries in this country—without success—and, industry-wide, ad pages have been on an ever steeper slide, falling nearly 12% in 2008 alone. The last two decades have seen one bottomline-minded publication after another shed its literary content, cultural reporting, and book reviewing as a way of increasing revenue. Many of the top commercial venues for fiction in the 1980s, for example—Esquire, GQ, Mademoiselle, Mother Jones, Playboy, Redbook, Vanity Fair—no longer publish short stories at all. You want an explanation for the demise of American short fiction—there’s a place to start. More to the point, Arianna Huffington herself has acknowledged the obvious: that investigative journalism can never be funded with corporate dollars. So she has established the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, an endowment of $1.75 million, and partnered with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.
This market reality and time-tested solution can be extrapolated to include any serious (i.e. non-commercial) content. The only sure way for universities to truly ensure the future of their presses and journals is through endowments—big endowments. That’s what saved Kenyon Review—$2 million in fundraising. “I believe this is the only realistic approach for a literary magazine,” David Lynn told Higher Education. “As long as a magazine depends on a university, it will be vulnerable to the next president or provost who comes along. They will always have the power to kill you at will.” If more universities reached the same conclusion, if we could find a few deep-pocketed visionaries with high-minded concern for the future of American journalism, belle lettres, and scholarly endeavor, then at this moment—more than at any time since the heyday of university publishing in the 1930s—our academic institutions could become havens and permanent homes for all the innovative and necessary writing (and writers) “currently begging for donations.”
And who knows how these publications might come to feed the “academic core” of our universities? Remember Albert Erskine, the graduate student living at Robert Penn Warren’s home in Baton Rouge? His training at Southern Review and later work at LSU Press eventually landed him work in New York publishing, where he went on to acquire Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and to edit William Faulkner, James Joyce, John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, and his old mentor Robert Penn Warren. And he’s not alone. It is impossible to imagine twentieth century American literature without the contributions of the editors at Southern Review and LSU Press. I wonder if any literal classroom could have served future generations so well.
Today, James Monroe Smith looks like a genius for recognizing that great universities extend well beyond the edges of their campuses. They reach out to the larger world, they challenge and engage the public, and the most effective and enduring way of doing so remains the written word. How will history judge today’s university presidents if they fail to protect these legacies of publishing excellence their forebears have entrusted to their care?
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