The back covers of our early issues were generally given to advertisements. Scribner’s Magazine, Oxford University Press, Princeton University Press, and Southern Railway System (now Norfolk Southern) were all advertisers, though frequently it was used to promote VQR’s own books-by-mail service, by which we sold the reviewed tomes to subscribers who lived far from any bookstores. And so it remained for decades, with a single exception. The back cover of our July 1926 issue is filled with two columns of narrow type that read as follows:
“Why not write an editorial for the back-cover?” the managing editor suggested. “It would be better than an ad and—”
“I know,” the editor sympathized, “but what am I to say? The place is so public!”
“You might drool a bit about your troubles and your aims.”
“But what’s the use?” the editor disconsolately muttered, half to himself. “If the Quarterly doesn’t stand for the ‘aims,’ somebody’s dumb, and the troubles will not bear discussing.”
“Well, you see,” the busy man began, “I’ve been telling ‘em in my ads that a hundred million people in America would be bored by The Virginia Quarterly Review. Of course I expected them all to decide that they weren’t in that gang. But it may be working the other way. Here you’re getting all these letters to swell your head, but I’m not getting enough subscriptions to swell my list. Maybe if you said how much James Branch Cabell liked that last number, or quoted what Archibald Henderson wrote, or what Dr. Edwin Mims said in his ‘Advancing South’ about it; or all that Dr. Joseph Collins or Charles Wharton Stork—”
“Wait a bit: don’t go so fast!” pleaded the weary proof-reader. “I thought we decided not to say fine things about ourselves in our own pages. You remember the brick-bats came your way when you said how ‘we are advertised by our loving friends.’”
“We weren’t talking about my brickbats but yours, Mr. Editor.” The man of business looked glum.
“Mine! A single issue, Green-Room and all, wouldn’t hold them. First there are the poets: in the last week two correspondents have hinted that if I had to print the verse I did print, then in self-defense I should turn to them for salvation.”
“Pretty bad digs, I admit,” chuckled the relieved manager. “But had you no come-back?”
“Plenty, if it was worth it. One anthologist chose six out of eight poems from one number of the Quarterly. Then there was that letter protesting against printing so much verse: you remember who wrote it. He admitted ours was as good as that in any magazine he read.”
“That doesn’t help the box-office,” the man of one idea objected. “Where you accept one poem you turn down a hundred—every author a potential subscriber, if—”
“I know,” went on the editor, “but I’m telling my troubles now. There are the ‘high-brow’ complaints.”
“The what? That sounds like copy for a new patent medicine.
“It’s the second most familiar panacea,” groaned the editor. “‘If I could understand your articles,’ one reader confessed, ‘I’m sure I’d like them. But I must be up to your average reader and I don’t often know what it’s all about. If you want subscribers why don’t you get stories that somebody wants to read? Now there’s that Waldo Frank—’ But I broke in on him then to say that William McFee ranked the book that Mr. Frank’s Quarterly papers went into as the best book of the year.”
“What did your man say to that?” The business man was sympathetic.
“Oh, he just asked, ‘Who is McFee?’ Then there’s the other sort of fellow who complains that the Quarterly isn’t scholarly enough. ‘Now,’ said one professor the other day, ‘that thing of Hamilton’s “These Things Doth the Lord Hate”—it was darn good stuff to read but I wouldn’t call that a dignified piece of constructive political writing.’”
“You could answer that; couldn’t you?”
“Yes, I said, ‘Neither would I.’”
“But what did you mean by your worst grouch?” (The business office has a lingo all its own.)
“That! Localism and nationalism; conservatism and radicalism. One reader writes, ‘I like your Review better than any magazine I see, but why call it Virginia?” It has no more about Virginia and the South than most other magazines. I think you ought to have certainly two articles each issue on strictly Virginian or at least Southern topics.’ Then I see an old friend from Philadelphia. ‘Fine work you’re doing on the Quarterly,’ says; ‘only one criticism—atmosphere too Southern and too Democratic.’ Next a fine old gentleman of the Best Traditions sweetly but firmly suggests that this or that in the Quarterly was a sin against the Past and a week later The Baltimore Sun invites my attention to North Carolina for a lesson in real liberalism. So there you are: what’s an editor of any magazine in the South to do? He can’t please everybody.”
“I see, I see,” broke in the business manager, whose lunch hour comes an hour earlier than the editor’s. “You’re right, old man: follow your own eyes. Maybe, after all, the ten million people in the United States who would not be bored by the Virginia Quarterly will find it out. Who knows? Who knows?”
No doubt there’s a story here—an ad cancelled at the last moment, restlessness setting in with the second year of the publication—but we don’t have the faintest idea of what it is. But it is interesting to learn that some of the quandaries that face us today haven’t changed in 83 years.