From the Editor

J. D. McClatchy
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

This coming year’s issues mark the hundredth anniversary of The Yale Review’s founding, and are designed to celebrate the intellectual riches of this university, present and past. In each, we will feature exclusively work by members of the Yale faculty. Our July issue will be devoted to pieces reprinted by Yale faculty giants of the past. The effect, we hope, will be to compose a portrait of the mind of Yale over the past century, but particularly at this exciting time in its long history.

The Yale Review traces its history back to 1819, when a group of Yale faculty members started a quarterly journal then known as The Christian Spectator. In 1843 it was renamed The New Englander, and its contents were broadened to matters beyond theology, so long as they “gave utterance to the New England way of thinking”—which meant Congregationalist and Whiggish views, along with strictly orthodox morals and a firm anti-slavery stand. In 1892, the magazine changed its name again, and this time the new editor—Henry Walcott Farnam, Professor of Political Economy at Yale—changed its focus more decisively. Where The New Englander appealed to Yale graduates who were busy with the nation’s industrial revolution and western expansion, Farnam wanted a more professional social science journal. He called it The Yale Review (now known as the Old Series), and devoted its pages to “the critical and impartial discussion of economic, political and social questions of the day.” Over the next two decades, its editors were all members of the Yale Department of Political Science and History, and they included Arthur Twining Hadley, who himself became president of Yale in 1899.

The modern history of the journal, though, really began under an umbrella in 1911. Crossing the campus one day in a rainstorm, Wilbur Cross ducked under Hadley’s presidential umbrella. Hadley was on his way to visit his tailor, and Cross accompanied him there and then back again to his office. During their walk, he outlined to the president plans for a new and greater Yale Review, “a magazine which might take an honorable place in a fast-moving world.” The president was enthusiastic. (In fact, we have hanging in our offices a note Hadley wrote in 1919: “The thing on which I look back with most satisfaction in my whole administration is the development of the publishing work of the university and the recognition it has obtained throughout the world. I regard the Yale Review and the Yale University Press as our best products of the last twenty years.”) When Cross assumed the editorship and launched a new series of the journal, he was a member of the English Department at Yale, and had recently published a popular biography of Laurence Sterne. In the years that followed, he served as dean of the graduate school, chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was four times elected governor of Connecticut. During all that time, for thirty years, he stayed on as editor of The Yale Review and transformed the journal into the nation’s leading university quarterly.

“One of the most important services an editor can render to his readers,” he once wrote, “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.” To that end, Cross set out vigorously to attract the best writers from around the world. But he also regularly drew on the Yale faculty. In fact, the very first essay in the first issue of the New Series was by William Graham Sumner, a distinguished Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale and the first professor to teach a course entitled “Sociology.” His essay in the October 1911 issue was called simply “War,” and it was remarkably prescient: Looking ahead, Sumner wrote: “There is only one thing rationally to be expected, and that is a frightful effusion of blood in revolution and war during the century now opening.”

As he recalled in his 1943 autobiography, Connecticut Yankee, Cross was pleased by the reception accorded the journal’s first appearance: “An editorial in a metropolitan newspaper announced that ‘a star of the first magnitude had swum into the constellations of our magazines; and a college president congratulated the Yale Review on its freedom ‘from cant, from pedantry, and from vaporous theorizing,’ in spite of its ‘many articles by university professors.’” Of course, Cross was wise enough to look beyond Yale’s own resources and to draw into the magic circle of his pages an assembly of literary and intellectual stars. Thomas Mann, André Gide, Henry Adams, Sean O’Casey, Virginia Woolf, George Santayana, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, José Ortega y Gasset, Eugene O’Neill, Josiah Royce, Leon Trotsky, Frederick Jackson Turner, H. G. Wells, Thomas Wolfe, John Maynard Keynes, H. L. Mencken, John Galsworthy, Benedetto Croce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ivan Bunin, A. E. Housman, Sherwood Anderson, Julian Huxley, Kay Boyle, Margaret Mead, Ernest Rutherford, Ford Madox Ford, Wallace Stevens—these are just a few of the names found regularly among the contributors to The Yale Review in those years.

No journal can survive on an editor alone. Down the decades, several assistant editors played an invaluable role in soliciting material and overseeing production. The first three, under Cross, were Henry Seidel Canby, Edward Bliss Reed, and Helen McAfee. Others whose work was crucial to the journal’s success included Stanley T. Williams, John Hay Whitney, Mary Price, Holly Stevens, Sheila Huddleston, Wendy Wipprecht, Bruce Hainley, and Ellen James. For more than a decade now, Susan Bianconi has been, first, managing editor, and now associate editor.

After Cross’s resignation in 1940, the magazine had a succession of distinguished editors. Helen McAfee, who had served as Managing Editor under Cross and came eventually to be its virtual, though never official, editor, was never given that title until after she retired, when the masthead listed her, in its masculine way, as “Editor Emeritus.” David Morris Potter, and Paul Pickerel followed her. In 1954, John J. E. Palmer arrived from The Sewanee Review and began a twenty-five-year tenure as editor, while also serving as Dean of Silliman College. Palmer extended the journal’s rich tradition of literary excellence by publishing W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Erik Erikson, William Maxwell, Randall Jarrell, John Hersey, John Berryman, and many others.

Not all the names are famous when they first appear in the Review’s pages. John Cheever, Eudora Welty, and Elizabeth Hardwick were beginners when their early stories were accepted. Walter Lippmann was a twenty-five-year-old cub reporter when he was asked to review a book for the Review. Archibald MacLeish and Stephen Vincent Benét were still undergraduates when their first poems appeared.

In 1979, Kai Erikson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and American Studies, a past president of the American Sociological Association and a Master of Trumbull College, took over as editor and broadened the range of the magazine’s interests. He and his associate editor Penelope Laurans brought to its pages Bayard Rustin, Gregory Bateson, Noel Annan, Julian Barnes, Hortense Calisher, Isaiah Berlin, E. P. Thompson, Seamus Heaney, Edmund S. Morgan, Stanley Cavell, R. W. B. Lewis, Michael Harrington, Nathan Glazer, Gloria Naylor, Jonathan Kozol, Joyce Carol Oates, Edward Gorey, Helen Vendler, Natalie Zemon Davis, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Aaron, Robert Fitzgerald, John Hollander, William Gass, Amy Clampitt, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Robert Coles, Adrienne Rich, and Francine du Plessix Gray.

Erikson was succeeded as editor in 1989 by Laurans, who had worked closely with him for several years to discover and nourish writers. She now serves as Master of Jonathan Edwards College. There had been two occasions since 1819 when the journal briefly suspended publication—the editor had died, the money dried up.

It happened again in 1990 when Yale’s then president, Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., decided to shut down The Yale Review in a budget-trimming effort. This occasioned a howl of protest from prominent alumni, and scornful notice in the national press. The president relented; a search committee was named to find a new editor, and in 1991 I was named to the post.

From the beginning, I felt that the Review’s mission should remain unchanged. Again, an array of new names appeared in our pages—Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Ann Beattie, Richard Powers, Michael Howard, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Poirier, Allan Gurganus, Anita Brookner, Susan Sontag, Kenzaburo Ôe, Leon Edel, Eric Bentley, Siri Hustvedt, Charles Wright, Ned Rorem, Lorrie Moore, Jorie Graham, Fritz Stern, Hermione Lee, Peter Demetz, and Paula Fox, among many other exhilarating and astute writers. Like Yale’s schools of music and drama and architecture, like its libraries and art galleries, The Yale Review has helped give the university its leading place in American education. In a land of quick fixes and short views and in a time of increasingly commercial publishing, the journal has an authority that derives from its commitment to both established writers and promising newcomers, to both challenging literary work and a range of essays and reviews that can explore the connections between academic disciplines and the broader movements in American society, thought, and culture. With independence and boldness, with a concern for issues and ideas, and with a respect for the mind’s capacity to be surprised by speculation and delighted by elegance, The Yale Review proudly nears its third century, and celebrates this year the anniversary of a remarkable transformation, and of a still more remarkable record. With our publisher Wiley-Blackwell, a series of exceptional undergraduates over the years as assistants, and my esteemed colleague Susan Bianconi, we hope that the past is prologue, and that over the course of this coming year our readers will enjoy the remarkable talents of some of Yale’s finest minds, and find reason to celebrate, as we do, the continuing excellence and enduring presence of The Yale Review.

J. D. McClatchy (1945–2018) was an acclaimed American poet and the editor of The Yale Review from 1991 until 2017.
Originally published:
January 1, 2011


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