Tradition and the Individual Talent by Daisy Atterbury

On the occasion of the Yale Review’s centennial celebration, Daisy Atterbury talks literary giants with J.D. McClatchy, editor of the literary institution.

The Yale Review is like one of those crumbling white buildings that you walk past every day to get to the grocery store, a house down the block that’s been there forever, obstructed by the very grocery store that is your destination, crusted with moulding that upon closer inspection is dynamic in the upper corners: all ghouls and religious figures and young, brawny heroes. One day you discover with a start that the place housed Thomas Mann, Henry Adams, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, H. G. Wells, Leon Trotsky, John Maynard Keynes, Eugene O’Neill, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, W.H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren, John Ashbery, and James Merrill all under the same roof. Who lives there today? Joyce Carol Oates, John Hollander, David Bromwich, and Harold Bloom, among others—and to omit any contributor is to neglect to mention one as illustrious as the rest.

Founded in 1819 as The Christian Spectator and christened the Yale Review in 1911, the self-proclaimed oldest literary quarterly in history just celebrated its 100-year anniversary with readings by Louise Glück, Caryl Phillips, Edmund White, and Michael Cunningham (standing in for Lorrie Moore, who was unable to attend).

Combing through the century’s titans, I can’t help but speculate as to the whences and wherefores of my reverence for these writers. In the current issue of the Yale Review, David Bromwich reveals the “subtler hazard” of heroizing: “We admire the hero with a reverence that humbles our pride, but this can be a dangerous generosity. Thanks to the legitimate fame of the hero, the demand we make of ourselves becomes smaller”—__How Lincoln Explained Democracy__. Perhaps, though, author-worship begs response in the form of creation, the demand I make of myself actually increasing as I face my heroes.

J.D. McClatchy, an established poet and Editor of the Yale Review, agreed to speak with me about the journal’s aesthetic choices.

Daisy Atterbury Wilber Cross, editor and conceptualist of the modern Yale Review, said, “One of the most important services an editor can render to his readers is to keep the road open for candid statements of different standpoints from writers of exceptional ability, and to let these writers present their material as their own consciences and minds may direct.” John Cheever, Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Hardwick were all relatively unknown when their early pieces were accepted. Did the Review often publicize emerging writers? How has the Review assessed the quality of writing, and how, historically, has it defined a “writer of exceptional ability”?

J.D. McClatchy Writers of truly “exceptional ability” are usually recognizable from the start, and it’s an editor’s job to look for that sort of talent. How did Ezra Pound realize that, with much judicious editing, “The Waste Land” would be a great poem? Hard to tell—these are murky instinctual matters. In point of fact, most of the authors we publish are well-known and long-established. But I think the young writer of genius would rather appear beside an old master than beside another newcomer. In that way, “tradition” becomes a frame to highlight promise.

DA Has there ever been any friction between the journal and the University concerning an article up for publication?

JDM The University itself has never interfered with the editorial content of the journal. Very occasionally I have sent a submission to the legal office to vet, and sometimes that office has advised that we avoid printing something for legal reasons (libel, and the like). The only time the University really interfered was when, twenty years ago, they shut down The Yale Review in an effort to show their muscle in budget-trimming. That move backfired badly, and when the University then came under critical fire from around the country for its action, the decision was reversed … and I was hired to take up the reins.

DA During your tenure as editor, have you sought to maintain the Review’s original aesthetic mission? Have you overseen any important changes?

JDM I haven’t been literal about a specific “mission,” but I have quite deliberately wanted to sustain and burnish a marvelous tradition. Clear thinking and elegant writing are not things that change, and promoting them needn’t change either.

DA How much exchange occurs between an editor and a writer before an article is published? Does the review occasionally demand extensive rewrites?

JDM Of course, extensive re-writes are sometimes called for, and when that happens the writer is usually grateful for the chance to improve a piece he himself had come to realize was shaky. A great idea will sometimes gleam through the maze.

DA In the increasingly digitized publishing world, is the Yale Review remaining essentially print-based? Will we see an app in the future?

JDM The Electronic Future is essentially a business that is controlled by our publisher. We have as yet only been backing into it, slowly and hesitantly. I realize the day is coming when everything will change, and I am neither fearful nor enthusiastic about it. Which would a writer prefer for her work: the handsome appearance of a journal’s pages or thousands more readers? The answer, of course, is both, but the forces of the marketplace are making those decisions for everyone now.

Daisy Atterbury is a writer based in New York and Santa Fe.

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