Resurfacing Gems from the Archives

Announcing our new weekly feature

Meghan O’Rourke

A letter from Virginia Woolf to TYR editor Helen McAfee regarding payment for Woolf's piece "The Novels of Turgenev." Woolf writes that The Yale Review is "always full of good things, and a great contrast to the usual magazine." Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

This month The Yale Review is celebrating the launch of a new weekly feature, in which we bring you gems and other pieces of note from the magazine’s archive.

The Yale Review has a long and winding history, as my predecessor, the poet and author J. D. McClatchy, once emphasized. The journal dates its origins to 1819, when a handful of Yale faculty members launched The Christian Spectator, a quarterly journal devoted to covering matters of theology. In time, that journal evolved into The New Englander (which “gave utterance to the New England way of thinking”) and then, in the late nineteenth century, to a proto-version of The Yale Review: a journal, now referred to as “the Old Series,” reflecting, of all things, the emergence and professionalization of social science. But our modern history as a journal of ideas and literature that roams broadly across humanist concerns began in 1911, when a professor in the English Department, Wilbur Cross, bent the ear of Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley on campus under an umbrella to urge the president to let him create “a magazine which might take an honorable place in a fast-moving world.”

What a long way we’ve come—and yet how consistent the work has been. I find it interesting that Cross used the word magazine rather than journal. Today, of course, an entity like The Yale Review is sometimes referred to as a “little magazine,” a term that came into common usage not long after Cross and Hadley’s conversation. And a little magazine we have been and are—the modern Yale Review has typically had only a handful of fulltime staff members—sometimes only one. But this little magazine always aimed big. Spend an afternoon leafing through our archive, as I recently did, and you’ll be stunned by the range to be encountered within. Under Cross’s editorship, which lasted thirty years, The Yale Review published some of Virginia Woolf’s finest—and most enduring—literary criticism, including “How Should One Read a Book.” It published noted civil rights activist Bayard Rustin on the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. It presciently asked Edith Wharton to review Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past just as that masterpiece was being translated and published in English. Vladimir Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, Stanley Cavell, Isaiah Berlin, Kenzaburō Ōe, James Merrill. We list these names not to boast but to reflect the hard work of stewardship that took place over decades, before any of us arrived.

A magazine is not a static thing or the creation of a single mind: it’s a site of the social and communal practice of thought. Its archive, over time, reflects the interests of its changing editors, of course. But it also reflects the ideas of a moment: what was taken for granted, what was under debate; what forms of gatekeeping were (or are) acceptable; whose voices are or are not celebrated; what trends in poetry or fiction dominate the landscape. What digging into our archive has shown us is how close to the pulse of new ideas The Yale Review often has been. Sometimes that has been in ways that reflect well on it (The New Englander had a committed anti-slavery stance) and sometimes in ways that make us now justifiably uncomfortable; as our assistant editor Jack Hanson pointed out in a recent editorial meeting, the magazine, in its social science era, took for granted that eugenics was part of the new social order.

It's also true, of course, that much of the archive collects the work of white men—a preponderance that will be reflected as we surface pieces from it. Which is to say: An archive speaks to us not only by what it includes but also by what it doesn’t. An archive is not just a collection of artifacts but also the negative space created by the collective intellectual and emotional gestures that formed it. An archive puts us intensely, and sometimes distressingly, in touch with the past. If any piece of writing tells its own story, it also tells part of the story of the era that shaped it. We find this illuminating, and we hope to engage all these facets of the archive before us.

And so in the coming months, you can expect to see weekly features from the archive. These pieces will sometimes be presented on their own and sometimes in folios we collect and ask a contemporary scholar or artist to reflect on, in a new feature called “Annotating the Archives.” We launch with Claire Messud reflecting on the work Virginia Woolf published in TYR: ten essays in total written between 1926 and 1939 (and one posthumously published in 1979), which are now available on our site for the first time. In June, Langdon Hammer reexamines the poet and critic Thom Gunn, who reviewed books regularly for TYR. As Hammer points out, Gunn’s criticism for TYR, which took the form of occasional group reviews rather than standalone essays, becomes a telling repository of the poet’s views of what a poem should be. Our new senior editor Kate Bolick will be leading the project; we hope you’ll share what you like and what you hope for more of—and join us at a special “Archives Out Loud” event on April 19 at Yale University, featuring Claire Messud in conversation with Merve Emre, editor of The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway. In the coming years, we plan to digitize the archive fully to make it available for scholars and researchers. In the meantime, we hope you will enjoy the pieces as much as we have—finding in them a history of our thrilling, flawed, kaleidoscopic past.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
March 13, 2024


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