The Wilson Quarterly

In 1946, poet and critic R.P. Blackmur sent a letter to many of America’s most prominent writers and critics. “For reasons that will later become apparent,” it began, “we should be very grateful for your best opinion as to what literary magazines now being published in the United States are of the most use to literature.” The impetus behind the query was the Rockefeller Foundation, which had decided to support literary magazines and had asked Blackmur to determine which were the most deserving.

The letter’s mysterious introduction and “flat bureaucratic tone” elicited some extraordinarily candid assessments of the country’s literary present and future, writes Evan Kindley, a Princeton doctoral candidate and the managing editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books. Many respondents weighed in as well on the benefits and perils of offering financial support to publications whose marginal status and anti-commercial stance were part of their identity.

The friction between aesthetics and politics was a central concern for many of the respondents. Poet and critic Randall Jarrell admired the leftist Partisan Review (which ceased publication in 2003), but also expressed reservations, in a critique that, with a couple of substitutions, might well apply to many literary magazines today: “Although its politics are doctrinaire and academic in that funny New York professional- left way, they haven’t prevented it from printing other groups, Stalinists excepted. . . . The worst things about it are its extraordinary limitations and lack of imagination: everything is looked at from the point of view of someone who’s semi-Marxist, fairly avant-garde, reasonably Bohemian, anti-bourgeois, cosmopolitan, anti-Stalinist, lives in New York, likes Mondrian, etc., etc., etc.”

Many of the writers saw the advantages of foundation support for little magazines—a number had folded under the twin pressures of the Depression and World War II, and those that remained were struggling. But these writers were also concerned about the effects such support might have on literary culture. Writing of Poetry, in whose pages he himself had been published, Wallace Stevens observed that even with a lavish endowment, the magazine would still only be “a modest establishment.” The difference, he added, would be that “no-one will write for it any longer for love. The New Republic would discover that it was the tool of the luxurious. Everyone would expect poets to buy the drinks, and so on.”

Stevens’s ambivalence points to an inherent conflict in the endowment of literature by virtually any big institution—even if such support allows writers to avoid rank commercialism. “Literature could perhaps become big without selling out to the market,” Kindley summarizes, “but at the cost of making itself explicable, rationalizable, justifiable.”

Respondents had less anxiety about supporting criticism than imaginative literature, Kindley notes. The Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Sewanee Review—“the ‘big three’ little magazines” that were the top vote-getters—were regarded, “first and foremost, as critical magazines.” And “there is just not the same sense of sacredness, and hence violability, attached to criticism. . . . The thinking may have been, if you have to institutionalize something, institutionalize criticism.” But perhaps most important, criticism naturally feeds the grants-based literary economy, because foundations are forever in search of justifications and distinctions in deciding where to put their money.

Though only The Kenyon Review and The Sewanee Review received Rockefeller money, a new institutions-based age in literature dawned. Out of this grew what Kindley terms “Big Criticism,” and, on its heels, “Big Theory” (as practiced by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault). Both Big Criticism and Big Theory “owe their existence to a standing need to justify literature and literary culture, which means, in a capitalist society, justifying their subsidization.” This modern arrangement, Kindley concludes, has fostered “the literary and intellectual culture we know in the United States today.”

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The Source: "Big Criticism" by Evan Kindley, in Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/timechaser

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