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The Reviewer

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

hmocence Abroad. By Emily Clark. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

Ifirst made the acquaintance of The Reviewer in 1925, about a year after it left the hands of its founders for its valedictory year at Chapel Hill. I had no thought that I was being introduced to an “experimental” magazine; I was engaged in the fairly prosaic task of collecting, for academic burial, a few scraps from the pen of James Branch Cabell, who was then suffering on the heights of his popular acclaim. I did, however, after finding my Cabell items, linger a while over the unbound Reviewer file, which was already beginning to gather dust in the University, library; and I enjoyed for a few days the peculiar pleasures of literary pioneering. I guessed that Frances Newman would be the author of a sensational novel; that Julia Peterkin might become famous for her Negro sketches; that Gerald Johnson might some day wield a critical axe in magazines of more financial security than The Reviewer. And then I forgot the whole business, except for an occasional memory of a few enjoyable hours spent in a periodical room, until the appearance of Miss Clark’s chronicle of the history of the magazine and its relations with a number of distinguished writers who contributed to it.

I have written this introductory paragraph neither in shame nor vainglory, but because I believe that my attitude has some kinship with the spirit in which The Reviewer was conceived and by means of which it became the unique magazine it was. For The Reviewer was not an “experimental” magazine in the ordinary sense of the term: it issued few alarming manifestoes; it demanded no unyielding allegiance to a new aesthetic; it shared to no extent the messianic delusions of most of its contemporaries. On the contrary, it conceived of itself as a social event, to be participated in by, a group of reasonably congenial friends. Miss Clark states that its editorial meetings were always known as “parties”; in the same sense every issue was a party. In contrast with most other “little” magazines, The Reviewer was uniformly debonair; even when it attacked the most cherished idols of the South it preserved a light-hearted composure. Whatever serious thoughts the editors had—and being young, they must have had many—they edited the magazine in a manner which could only be characterized as social. Some misguided Northerners may have mistaken The Reviewer for an “experimental” magazine, and it was undoubtedly their praise, and contributions, which gave it its prestige. The few Southerners who read it, I believe, saw it for what it was, a social gathering; and no one in the South thinks of buying a tea at a hotel.

The character of The Reviewer is most clearly suggested in those chapters which Miss Clark devotes to the authors prominently identified with the venture. It was her duty as editor to collect manuscript for a magazine whose payments to authors were “in fame not specie,” and to get enough well-known names in the table of contents to serve as a bait for aspiring new talent. The twelve personal sketches included in “Innocence Abroad” make it abundantly evident that the author-editor relationship was conducted for the most part on the happy plane of social intimacy. It is natural therefore that Miss Clark should be better at portraying Southerners than Northerners. Her pictures of James Branch Cabell, Ellen Glasgow, and Du-bose Heyward, in particular, have the authentic charm which springs from deft portraiture against a skilfully presented background. Her sketches of such figures as Carl Van Vechten and Ernest Boyd suffer a little from that bedaz-zlement which Southerners are apt to feel on their first visits to New York. But it is noteworthy that Miss Clark, like many Southerners—lawyers, doctors, candlestick-makers— succeeded by gay informality in what might not have been accomplished by sterner methods. Boyd and Van Vechten might laughingly deprecate the methods of the editor of The Reviewer, but they, not only supplied “bait” themselves, but also persuaded others to do the same.

And the salient fact about The Reviewer is that it was a successful party. It printed distinguished work of many well-known authors, and it introduced to a small but influential group a number of writers who have since become famous. To what extent it was the cause, concomitant, or result of what has since become known as the Southern Literary Renaissance is a question for speculation. I would like to believe that The Reviewer, by reason of its preeminently Southern manner, was able to develop talent in the South that might not have been susceptible to an alien tutelage. Certainly the letters of Francis Newman and Julia Peterkin to Miss Clark show a profound appreciation not only for what the magazine was doing but also for the way in which it was being done. Whether or not there is ever a final judgment in the matter, the fact remains that The Reviewer aided and abetted in the establishment of several Southern literary reputations, and coincided in its life with an increase of respect for Southern writers that has since verged on adulation.

The Reviewer could not ask for a better historian than Miss Clark. “Innocence Abroad” preserves the tone of the venture it commemorates—a venture that was brave without being grim, and successful without benefit of aesthetic acrobatics. Miss Clark substitutes a gayer and more compelling picture for the prevailing conception of authorship as a grim battle with typewriter keys. American literature would become a more graceful, and perhaps a more influential, feature of American life by a gentle infusion of the spirit of The Reviewer and “Innocence Abroad.”


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