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Staige Blackford (1931-2003)


ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

When Staige Blackford took charge as editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) in 1975, he followed directly behind the distinguished Charlotte Kohler, who had edited the magazine, first as its managing editor, then as editor, since 1942. Hers was a long and influential tenure. She has recently been praised by George Core, longtime editor of The Sewanee Review, as “probably the best quarterly editor of the twentieth century.” She, herself, had been preceded and was shadowed by the inimitable likes of James Southall Wilson, Stringfellow Barr, Lambert Davis (who later became Robert Penn Warren’s editor at Harcourt Brace for All the King’s Men), poet Lawrence Lee, and English professor Archibald B. Shepperson. A brief glance at the selective table of contents of the recent anthology We Write for Our Time: Selected Essays from 75 Years of the Virginia Quarterly Review (University Press of Virginia, 2000), edited by Alexander Burnham, gives a general idea of the quality and importance of the contributors, early and late. There are names to conjure with: André Gide, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marchette Chute, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Wood Krutch, Virginius Dabney, George F. Kennan, Henry Steele Commasger, Robert Graves, and on and on. If the VQR were a baseball team, you could justly call the lineup, year after year, “murderers’ row.” And, as Burnham points out in his introduction, this was the tip of the iceberg. There was much more work of the highest quality by contributors of genuine distinction that simply could not be included in a single volume: “My original manuscript was so large that it filled five large boxes and caused much consternation at the University Press of Virginia. . . . As a result of my purging, denizens of the publishing business will be shocked to learn in this age of ballyhoo that I set aside numerous distinguished bylines such as George Santayana and H.L. Mencken, personages who have appeared in past anthologies.” Burnham adds that he did not use some “outstanding essays by prominent authorities, including a former secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and a former candidate for the American presidency, Adlai Stevenson.”

In addition to quality and substance, Burnham was struck by the prescience of many of the pieces in the VQR: “In reading over seventy-five years of the VQR, I have been astonished by how prescient its editors and writers have been as they alerted readers to events and foretokens that were to shape the violence of the twentieth century.”

It remains to be said that this summary anthology appeared during Staige Blackford’s watch and at his instigation. He was proud of it.

The basic point of all of the above is that when Staige became the editor, he ably preserved and maintained the quality and character of the magazine, even as, over almost 30 years, he carefully, subtly and steadily changed things, large and small, to fit with the changing times. As Staige put it, in an interview for The Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1989, “I inherited from Charlotte one of our foremost intellectual beacons and my job is to keep that beacon shining.” He was ideally suited for the job, the time and the place, because of the diversity of his experience and his background. A native of Charlottesville, he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1952, where, among other honors, he served as editor of The Cavalier Daily, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied history at Queen’s College, Oxford. He served in the Air Force and the CIA, worked for Time magazine and then as an editor for the Louisiana State University Press. From there he moved to Atlanta in 1962 to be research director for the celebrated civil rights organization—the Southern Regional Council. His concern for civil rights began long before then (and lasted to his last day), when he wrote a well-remembered editorial for The Cavalier Daily, “Scholastic Segregation,” a moment now recognized to have been the opening gun of the battle to desegregate the University of Virginia. In 1964 he was hired by Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot as chief political writer. Five years later, Staige, a dedicated Democrat, joined the campaign staff of the Republican candidate for governor, Linwood Holton. Holton, the most liberal candidate by far of either political party, was elected and became governor in 1970. Staige Blackford served as Holton’s press secretary and principal speech writer and is credited with being a major influence on Holton’s progressive policies and strong stand on civil rights. Of his time with Holton, Staige Blackford has said: “Those were the four happiest years of my professional life.”

In 1974 he returned to the University as a special assistant to the president and the following year became editor of the VQR.

All those things are merely the bare-bones facts, the simple outline of a busy and active life that ended suddenly, shortly before noon on Monday, the 23rd of June, 2003, when Staige was killed in an automobile accident. He was a week away from his official retirement. He is (and will be) well remembered by fellow Rhodes Scholars; by his colleagues in the Air Force and the CIA; by friends at the LSU Press (where he is still well remembered for bringing his dog to work with him, as he did here); in Atlanta by the veterans of the Southern Regional Council; by newspaper men and women; and in the echoing halls of government in Richmond.

But for most of us he is to be remembered and honored for his editorship at the VQR. Of course, as already indicated, he was charged to preserve the essential character of the magazine, and so he did. The outward and visible changes were gradual and evidently few. He made a little joke of it in an interview I had with him in 1989: “Well, I got rid of the Roman numerals,” he told me, “and I’ve changed the covers a little bit.” The cover’s familiar shade of orange was modified because the exact color of paper was no longer available. He also boldly introduced the use of photographs on the cover. When I suggested that perhaps he should go all out and compete with Sports Illustrated (where his wife Bettina once worked as a writer) and overwhelm the quarterly competition with a winter swimsuit issue, he laughed politely, but allowed that the community and his constituency were not quite ready yet for such a radical development. On the other hand, in that same interview, he did in fact speak up for the real changes he was implementing. “I want to jazz it up a bit,” he said. “I want to appeal to a younger audience. That’s one of my worries. People die off. One of my big concerns is what kind of audience we are going to have ten years or so down the road.” This purpose led him to seek out and encourage young writers and new developing talents for the magazine. On the one hand he encouraged local young writers to work for and with the magazine. Many of the unsigned “Notes on Current Books,” a feature that made the VQR the leading book reviewer among all of the quarterlies, were written by graduate students. Other young writers, backed up by solid citizens like Philip Gould, Sheila McMillen, Ann Beattie (and others), were preliminary readers of the thousands of manuscripts of short stories that came in the mail. Among many others in recent years these included Jeb Livingood, Mark Saunders, Michael Knight, Ashley Havird, David McNair, Mariflo Stephens, James Conrad McKinley, all of whom have gone on to publish outstanding work of their own, some of it in the VQR. Meanwhile, Staige realized that he would be more apt to receive first-rate fiction from the younger writers than major nonfiction articles, requiring considerable experience and knowledge, under the rubric of the magazine’s proud old subtitle—”A National Journal of Literature and Discussion.” He published more fiction in an average issue than most of the other quarterlies; and, indeed, though only appearing four times a year, the magazine published more fiction than some famous monthly magazines, like The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. When Sheila McMillen and I put together the anthology “Eric Clapton’s Lover” and Other Stones from the Virginia Quarterly Review (University Press of Virginia, 1990), we were frankly astonished at the diversity, the broad eclecticism of the stories. If, as was in truth the case, Staige was never a rigid ideologue on matters social and political, he was likewise editorially open-minded, eager to publish all kinds of short fiction by all kinds of writers. If in terms of form alone, his choices may have seemed to the cheerleaders of the avant garde to be somewhat conservative, there was never any question about the substance, the content of the fiction. From first to last he favored bold and audacious subjects. Which is roughly the opposite routine tack in the conventional literary scene. Staige wasn’t afraid of any subject for fiction, but he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about stories that were (in his words) “off the wall and all over the page.”

(A word is needed, a kind of footnote to the previous paragraph, where Staige was briskly described as “never a rigid ideologue in matters social and political.” The statement is accurate, but not quite the whole truth. In our 1989 conversation, he was emphatic in stating his editorial intention and commitment to publish well-written and interesting essays from all sides of any important issue, let the chips fall where they may. “I like controversy,” he said. A little later, though, he confessed that he had some limits. “I am not interested in literary theory,” he said. “Those guys are a bunch of intellectual fascists.” Most of us are deeply grateful for that judgment call. In one other sense Staige embraced limitation. He was not, for the most part, actively attuned to the ways and means, the fashions and habits of contemporary poetry. He knew what he liked when he saw it, but he didn’t want to limit the magazine to his own tastes and preferences. He therefore appointed the prominent poet Gregory Orr as his poetry consultant and let Orr do the necessary picking and choosing. Staige loyally stood by those picks and choices when, as is always sooner or later the case, the poets who didn’t make the cut poignantly complained.)

Returning to fiction for a moment, one notes that most of the obituaries inevitably cited the fact that the VQR found and published a previously unpublished short story by William Faulkner. And they pointed to the names of prominent and prize-winning authors whose fiction appeared in the VQR, people like Ann Beattie, Nancy Hale, William Hoffman, Ward Just, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, T.R. Pearson, R.H.W. Dillard, Peter Taylor and others. The obituaries tended not to notice or to call attention to many other outstanding writers, perhaps not as well known, whom Staige found early and published regularly: among them, Ellen Wilbur, Starling Lawrence, Christopher Tilghman, Kent Nelson, Kelly Cherry, Peter La Salle, Hilary Masters, Alyson Carol Hagy, Mariflo Stephens, James McKinley, and Michael Knight. Telephoning from the University of Tennessee, where, with three books under his belt, Michael Knight teaches in the creative writing program, Knight said this: “You don’t think about how much he did for young, beginning writers, but he did. He really did a lot for all of us.”

Courtly and polite (most of the time and not counting a few memorable typewriter tantrums where rejection letters turned into death warrants), Staige may have seemed, in the outward and visible world, a little old-fashioned; and he certainly had a full appreciation and understanding of the past. Nevertheless, aware of the past and deeply engaged in the present, Staige Blackford thought a lot about the future. He had plans and hopes for the future of the VQR. Back in 1989 he was already pointing in new directions. “I would like to do more pieces in the fields of science and medicine,” he said, anticipating one direction the newly appointed editor of the VQR, Ted Genoways, has announced as a goal.

With his retirement from the VQR soon approaching, Staige was reputed to have three projects he was ready to work on (see Inside UVA, 27 June 2003). He threatened friends that he was going to write his memoirs, already titled “Downhill All the Way”; and, having suffered for years from glaucoma and other vision problems, he wanted to write a book for others in the same boat; and, finally, he had in mind a book about the life and times of Virginius Dabney. These things are lost to us now. The magazine he gave so much of himself to is not. With his retirement approaching, Blackford made no effort to pick his own successor, but he did make a strong case for a young editor, someone savvy and up-to-date with all the latest developments and technology. Like many of us geezers, Staige may have been baffled by the singing and dancing of computers, the mysteries of modem and mainframe; but, unlike a lot of us, he was not afraid of them or troubled that the future belonged to them . . . and to the young who possess or are possessed by them. Offhand I can think of only one way that Staige firmly resisted the progressive march of technology in our time. He was bound and determined to save the honored office space of the VQR, One West Range, from decades, even generations of envious deans and predatory provosts. He managed this simply by keeping the place just as Mr. Jefferson had originally built it and left it—without any plumbing. He sincerely believed that senior administrators don’t even like the idea of having to walk 50 or 100 yards to a bathroom. So far, time has proved him right.

There is much more to say and no end to it. But it all comes down to a few clear words. Staige was a good and dear friend to many of us for many years. He was an admirable editor, and he maintained and advanced the VQR as a major national American magazine. We share the sorrow of his wife, Bettina, and his daughters, Linda and Sheila, and the bright promise of a brand new grandson named Staige, who made himself appropriately heard at his grandfather’s memorial service.

Staige, we will miss you. Rest in peace.

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