Time gives generously of its passage, and The Literary Review has been sixty long, prolific years in the making this fall. We’re celebrating our birthday with a special archival issue. We have, at last count (and we did count), published 10,266 original pieces through the decades. Often, here in the TLR office, we’ll look back at past issues—wondering idly whether we’d ever published Borges, for example—we have: his poetry in the Winter 1993 issue. Or, when Peter Balakian won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry last year, we looked to see when we’d first published him: Spring 1980. When Joyce Carol Oates accepted an honorary degree from our benefactor, Fairleigh Dickinson University, she went out of her way to acknowledge that little magazine, The Literary Review, that had published her first story—in the spring of 1962—back when she signed off as J.C. Oates, lest anyone make judgments based on her gender. We take pride in all these past issues and the marvelous array of contributors, but have never really had the chance to comprehensively plunder this rich archive, to read again with fresh eyes, and see what our history has to tell us.
This little magazine has had seven different editors-in-chief. At its inception, the first editors, Charles Angoff and Clarence Decker, thought of their mission as international in scope. World literature was an emphasis (Langston Hughes gave us a translation of Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral for that first issue), a way of recognizing and celebrating the literature of New Jersey (William Carlos Williams had several poems in that same first issue); and also as a means to return to the belletristic tradition—a tradition whose importance waxes and wanes quite separately from popular trends, and is now thriving again by way of the lyric essay. The original mission statement, in fact, begins: “The Literary Review is an internationally circulated medium of publication for contemporary writing in the field of belles lettres. It seeks to encourage literary excellence and its appreciation by a wider audience and to further cultural exchange among the peoples of the world.” Each new editorship has honored that original mission in different ways. We’ve had periods that were heavy on literary criticism, others that celebrated profoundly literary writing (just to the left of the mainstream), and deep dives into the literatures of underrepresented languages and cultures. In the last ten years, we’ve been playing with the organizing principle of themes (I Live Here, Game Theory, Invisible Cities). We have always, though, attended to the unexpected—the debut writers, international writers, unconventional writers, the writers, perhaps, you haven’t already heard of.
When we were conceptualizing this issue and how to celebrate our sixty years, we took all of these editorial values into account—as well as the more nuanced idea of how to represent the way a magazine evolves: aesthetically under its various curators,
and aesthetically as the cultural landscape shifts around it. I’m proud of what we’ve created here, in particular because the pieces from our archives were researched and selected in very large part by apprentice editors. Our editorial interns—Matthew College, Maiasia Grimes, Zachary Heffner, and Katrina Elwertowski—spent their 2017 spring semester poring over the complete TLR archives, developing and realizing the theme of “how writers respond to their world.” Each of them have contributed an editor’s letter, commenting on their experience and selections. Ariana Abad, Evan Portadin, Kelly Peacock, and Anne Fillenwarth continued that massive effort this fall, suggesting additional pieces for inclusion and shepherding these unwieldy non-digitized texts into the anthology of an evolution that follows.
Our mission was to compile pieces from the archive that somehow spoke to the ways that writers navigate their sociopolitical moment. We emphasized translated work, intent on maintaining a spirit of outward-looking, a worldview. Our approach was curious, informed by two generations (I’m Generation X and my fellow editors are Millennials), part literary and part—for lack of a better word—anthropological. There’s no way that our selections don’t in some way reveal our combined 2017 perspective, that our curiosities are formed from parallels we can draw to our present moment, as well as, admittedly, a taste for vintage. Anticipating this editor’s letter, I considered how I might characterize this very moment now, if I were trying to describe in broad strokes what the writers of 2017 were responding to, and how it might be different from 1957, or ’77, or 2007 for that matter. But history at its best is subtle and today is already saturated with broad strokes. Inference might be the most graceful lens through which to read these pages; and so I’ll cast comparisons to the side and recommend literature’s great gift of nuance instead.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this issue to our editorial coordinator, Louise Dell-Bene Stahl, who is, perhaps, The Literary Review’s greatest champion. Since 1992, and alongside three very different editors-in-chief, Louise has been making everything at TLR work with diligence, dedication, humor, and fiercely defended attention to birthdays and many small acts of kindness. For her presence, I am grateful.