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The Founding of The Virginia Quarterly Review

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

[Editor’s note: this essay was originally published in Vol. III, No. 1 (1956) of the Virginia Librarian. It is reprinted here with the permission of the Virginia Library Association.]

On the first day of January, 1925, the first letters bearing the signature of an editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review were dictated and mailed. The idea of establishing such a magazine went back at least as far as 1904 when President Edwin A. Alderman in his very first year announced among the plans that he had for the University of Virginia the intention of founding a review of national scope. From time to time after that he repeated officially that “dream.” Soon after I came to the University in 1919, he induced me to take the editorship of the Alumni Bulletin, a somewhat nondescript quarterly, by promising to replace it in time by a magazine of discussion, and suggested that meantime I might let the Bulletin “squint toward” such a journal.

In the spring of 1924 I told Dr. Alderman that I had collected material for a biography of Poe and if I began to write that I would not be available for editing the quarterly which he had said he wanted me to edit. He decided then to take steps toward founding the magazine at once on condition that I would agree to edit it for at least five years. We discussed the type of publication to be established and the method of raising the money. He then outlined to me a plan of inviting friends of the University to become “donors” to underwrite the publication for the first five years, with or without (as each donor pleased) the further promise to continue for five more years if needed. He undertook to make a list of prospective donors, and instructed me to return the next day with the draft of a letter and an outlined description or the character of the magazine that I planned.

It is one of the most remarkable experiences of my life to have seen Dr. Alderman take the letter I brought him and turn it from a begging letter to an opportunity to take part in an exciting intellectual adventure. He summoned his secretary, Mrs. Richardson, and holding my letter in his hand he dictated without hesitation a paraphrase of each sentence. He did not omit a sentence nor, as I remember it, did he add one; but he retained scarcely a word that I had used. The result was a masterpiece of persuasion. The returns from the appeal, as I recall the event, did not reach the annual ten thousand dollars that was Dr. Alderman’s goal, but came nearer it than I had expected. The five hundred dollars a year which I had received for editing the Bulletin continued as my salary, and the budget appropriation for that publication, about twenty-five hundred a year, was transferred to the new Quarterly.

With the letter of invitation there was enclosed a copy of the imaginary table of contents with fictitious names that I had made up on a day’s notice to show Dr. Alderman as a concrete example of the magazine that I envisaged. There were listed eight articles, two poetry groups, and nine reviews. The chief divergence from a current title-page was the absence of two stories in place of two of the discussions. In the replies received from the donors, two commented on the distinction of the contributors whom they took to be the writers for the actual first issue. Since this is the only issue of the Quarterly which was composed by one author even to the authors’ names, I shall give here the table of contents of that fictitious January, 1925, number.

Walter de la Mare, by John Howard Smith
The South Says the Last Word, by Alfred Tinker
The New Romance, by Cutter Wingfield, Jr.
The Man of the Night. Verse, by Edward Austin Snow
The Psychology of Conventions, by Emory Low
New Letters of Carlyle, by William Preston Mann
The Economic Future and the Negro, by Henry Clay Hartley
A Group of Poems, by Elizabeth Hay McCleish
Leadership in England, by Henry M. Morgan
An Artist Afield, by Thayer A. Major
New Books in the Case: by George A. Heller, Herbert Flanders, Bruce Peery, David Lawford, James E. McGill, Raymond Davis, Edwin S. Thorner, Guy Black, Rufus Smith Jones

There were three conditions that I insisted on: I would do nothing toward a first issue until I had an office and a secretary; and prose and poetry, excepting reviews, were to be paid for at a rate not less than five dollars a page for prose and fifty cents a line for verse. That was the rate paid by The North American Review. The basement room in Pavilion V on the Lawn that had formerly been Professor Raleigh Minor’s kitchen was the first editorial office. The absolute promise was given that more suitable quarters would be assigned when any became available. On the first day of January, 1925, with two chairs, a table, and a typewriter, I dictated the first letters to Miss Mildred Weaver, who came to the office from 9 to 1. For those first years, Miss Weaver made up in energy, interest, and devotion to the magazine for what she then lacked in experience. The other active worker during those first days was Dr. Atcheson L. Hench, the first of a brilliant line of business managers or managing editors, which included Stringfellow Barr, Lambert Davis, William J. Gold, and Charlotte Kohler. Three of these became Editors of The Quarterly. The first board of Advisory Editors was chosen partly by President Alderman and partly by the Editor. In the early days membership on the Advisory Board was thought of as an honorary office. Two of the first advisory editors, were, however, largely responsible for the reputation that the magazine soon acquired for typographical accuracy. Professor J. C. Metcalf and Professor Carroll Sparrow were superb proofreaders and each gave unstintingly of his skill and erudition.

In the interval between the decision to establish the magazine and the opening of the office, I had visited the offices of several magazines, including the Forum, Scribner’s, The Yale Review, and The North American Review. Miss Elizabeth Cutting, who was then Editor of The North American under Colonel George Harvey, was the most helpful of all my expert advisors and it was from her magazine and the English Mercury, then recently started by Jack Squire, that I drew most for typographical suggestions. The Quarterly was most fortunate in finding in the Michie Company an excellent press in Charlottesville. To one of its staff, Mr. Samuel Arundale, it owed a continuing debt. He had the skill and the interest, and he spared no trouble in trying (often, at first, with violence to his own printing traditions) to get exactly the effects that I sought. I would take to him a sample of paper, of type, of arrangement, or of cover, and sooner or later he would reproduce it. We built up together painstakingly the format I desired and with slight changes The Quarterly still appears in the dress that Sam Arundale fashioned for it under my direction. The first cover was designed by Joseph H. Hudnut, then head of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. It included a beautiful adaptation of the University’s seal and was intended to represent an hourglass. The upper part of his design is still used but the lower part had to be given up when it was decided to carry the table of contents on the cover as had been done on the original dummy cover. After hours of discussion, President Alderman and I had chosen a dark blue for the cover color, which after several years gave way to tan, chiefly for the reason that the type did not show well on the dark blue page.

The four issues were first entitled January, April, July, and October, and the publication date was fixed as the fifteenth of the preceding month in order to add two weeks to the currency of the issue. It was a matter of pride to Mr. Arundale always to meet that deadline. Later, on the basis of further extending the apparent currency of each number, the issues were called Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.

The first number of The Virginia Quarterly Review was that for April, 1925. Nothing could be more exciting than assembling that magazine. I had made a long list of authors and public personages to whom I sent personal letters inviting each to submit articles or suggestions for articles to the Quarterly. Then I had written to about twenty writers, including poets, especially urging them to contribute to the first number. I protected myself by saying that I could not assure publication until I had read the paper, and that articles that came after the first number had been assembled would be held for a later issue. In ample time for the printer’s requirements there were enough acceptable articles in hand for the first issue, with two or three to assure a beginning for a second number. The leading article was on Dolly Madison by Gamaliel Bradford, who was enjoying his greatest popularity. He was especially liked in the South and it was an act of generosity for him to send this particular essay to a new Southern magazine. Another article that gave distinction to this number was Pirandello’s own essay on his “Six Characters in Search of an Author” secured through the interest of Arthur Livingstone. In addition to the general advertising mail sent out by Dr. Hench, every day I mailed myself ten pieces addressed to names from a personal list that I had made out. I kept a card on which was entered each day the number of subscribers. The list reached one thousand during December of 1925. During the early years of the Quarterly many of the articles were written on themes suggested to the authors by the Editor. I found that often a writer who could sell his articles to magazines that paid more would accept an invitation to write for the Quarterly if an idea that interested him was suggested. I depended also largely upon the better agents for articles and stories which they were often glad to place in a magazine of the character of the Quarterly even at ill low rate of payment.

President Alderman kept his promise as to offices and while I was still Editor assigned the present dignified quarters on West Range.

The increasing load of work in the Quarterly office, plus a full schedule of teaching began to threaten a breakdown, and after six years as Editor I resigned. I recommended as my successor Stringfellow Barr, who had for some time been the Managing Editor. Meantime the magazine had found an excellent secretary, Miss Ashley Davis, who for years maintained the circulation division as well as the general correspondence. The first full-time Managing Editor, and later Editor, was Lambert Davis (now at the head of the North Carolina Press) and when he became Editor, William J. Gold succeeded him as Managing Editor. During the period when Barr and Davis were editors, the first editor spent much time in the office and the three of us formed almost a triumvirate, though the Editor made all final decisions. When Lambert Davis resigned to take an editorial position in New York, Lawrence Lee, then a member of the Romance Department at the University, became Editor. He resigned after two years. Professor A. B. Shepperson, who succeeded Lee, became an officer in the Navy and left the Quarterly in the hands of Miss Charlotte Kohler, who had very recently come to the magazine as Managing Editor. Miss Kohler, with the assistance of the Advisory Editors, edited the magazine until Dr. Shepperson’s return. Miss Kohler became Editor very soon after his return when he resigned in order to give his full time to his English professorship.

Since 1947, the magazine has been brilliantly edited by the current Editor, Miss Charlotte Kohler. Miss Kohler, born in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Vassar College and received her doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She was Assistant Professor of English at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina when she was called to the Quarterly staff. All the editors since the first have been appointed by the President of the University of Virginia on the recommendation of the chairman of the Advisory Board of Editors.

From the beginning the aim of the Quarterly has been to be a national discussion magazine of liberal tradition published in the South. President Alderman wished to be remembered as its founder and was very proud of it. He said that it had given him more satisfaction than anything else he had helped to start. His only criticism, he said, was that as a liberal magazine it had never got into trouble.

“And if it did,” I asked, “what would you do?”

“Wait and see,” he countered.

It is to be recorded that no one of the three presidents under whom The Virginia Quarterly Review has been conducted has ever undertaken to influence its editorial policies. Each of the three, Alderman, Newcomb, and Darden, has staunchly supported it and seen that its economic necessities were supplied.


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