The back of a subscription card sent each year by the Yale Review includes a sample of writers whom the magazine has published in its history. The list is filled with notables: Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Leon Trotsky, among many others.
Although the publication — the nation’s oldest quarterly literary journal — currently employs only two half-time staff members, it has published prominent writers throughout its century of existence. As it celebrates its centennial this year, the Review is publishing four commemorative issues to reprint prominent works of the magazine’s past and as well as new pieces from Yale faculty.
Throughout its history, the magazine has raised the University’s standing and connected it to the American and international literary scenes, current and former editors said. As the number of small literary and cultural journals in the country declines, the need to preserve magazines like the Yale Review — many of which are only financially viable because of the support of academic institutions like Yale — is only increasing, said former Review editor Penelope Laurans, who now serves as master of Jonathan Edwards College and a lecturer in the English department.
“Every time one of these magazines dies, something fundamental to this country’s culture disappears,” Laurans said. “Universities are among the few places they can be supported in a sustained way.”
YALE (REVIEW) AND THE WORLD
Much like the University’s art and science museums, the Yale Review furthers the University’s goal of advancing the culture of the nation and world at-large, J.D. McClatchy GRD ’74, who has served as the magazine’s editor since 1991, said.
“The kind of contribution that a university makes to the larger nation isn’t just turning out students but is turning out the standards of literature and things like that,” sociology professor Kai Erikson, who edited the publication from 1979 to 1989, said. “To the degree that Yale is a cultural institution, its ability to produce something like the Yale Review adds very much to the quality of the world that it’s a part of.”
Despite its name, the Yale Review has never been exclusively a vehicle for Yale faculty members. In an average issue, about one in ten contributors is a Yale professor or affiliate, McClatchy said.
With its office located up the Prospect Street hill, the Review is not at the center of Yale College life, but does sponsor opportunities for undergraduates, including readings in Jonathan Edwards College and informal internships for students interested in publication, said Susan Bianconi, the Review’s associate editor. Some students who helped at the Review while at Yale later continued their careers at prominent literary magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review after graduation, she added.
The magazine seeks a wide variety of essayists, fiction writers and poets, and aims both to attract established names and to discover new talent, McClatchy said, adding that he got his start as a writer when he submitted a poem to the Review during his time as a graduate student in the English Department.
“We foster a reading and writing life at the University, but I think it is fair to say that [the Review’s] gaze has always been outward,” Bianconi said.
From its home in New Haven, the Yale Review has long contributed to the culture of the country, and when internal politics at Yale have threatened that role, prominent figures on the outside have taken note.
Throughout its lengthy history, many of the Review’s ups and downs have resulted from its changing relationship with the Yale administration. Although the publication traces its roots back to an 1819 quarterly called The Christian Spectator, its modern incarnation began in 1911 when Wilbur Cross 1885 GRD 1889 — a Yale English professor and dean of the Graduate School, also known for his work as a literary critic and his tenure as governor of Connecticut — unexpectedly ran into then-Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley on campus and outlined his ideas for a new publication: the Yale Review. With Hadley’s enthusiastic blessing, Cross founded the magazine.
Hadley later noted that helping establish the Review was one of the proudest moments of his tenure as president.
When Erikson began as editor in 1979, then-President Bart Giamatti held a “very high opinion” of the Review, Erikson said. But by the time Erikson was ready to step down 10 years later, the University had entered a period of financial austerity, and administrators began to question whether Yale should continue to fund the publication.
The news came as a shock to both Erikson and then-Associate Editor Laurans — as well as others in the Yale community and beyond, Laurans said. Writer and journalist John Hersey ’36 resigned from the University Council advisory group in protest, and notable writers from across the country — including Joyce Carol Oates and Adrienne Rich — signed a letter of protest addressed to then-Yale President Benno Schmidt.
Outrage over the Review’s proposed closure flared up even far away from New Haven. Laurans said that when Schmidt traveled to Italy that year, a man recognized him from across a restaurant and accosted him, shouting, “You closed the Yale Review!”
The campaign to save the publication proved successful. When Schmidt announced that the Review would continue under McClatchy’s leadership in August 1991, he also admitted that he was wrong to suggest closing the Review, Erikson said.
“[Schmidt] was probably surprised at the number of people who felt that the closing of the Review was a signal literary event that had larger cultural reverberations,” Laurans said, adding that she respected Schmidt’s views and his decision to reverse course.
Twenty years later, current and former editors say the publication has thrived under McClatchy and with the support of current University President Richard Levin.
THE MCCLATCHY ERA — AND BEYOND
With the selection of McClatchy as editor, Laurans said the magazine found the ideal candidate for the job: a strong leader, a “Yalie to the core,” and a well-known cultural figure. As a prominent poet, McClatchy was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.
He also managed to end the magazine’s financial troubles, reducing the likelihood that it would have to fight for its existence as it had in the early ’90s.
“Besides being the perfect editor, [McClatchy] also recognized — because of what had happened — that it was important to put the magazine on independent financial footing as much as possible,” Laurans said.
Private donations from sources including Yale alumni and the estate of poet James Merrill have gradually made the publication less reliant on the University for funding. Increased financial stability has also helped preserve the magazine’s ability to publish content without regard for whether a piece will help bring in revenue. In this respect, the Review is part of a shrinking category of small, independent magazines, Laurans said.
Most members of this group, which includes the Kenyon Review, the Georgia Review and the Sewanee Review, are affiliated with universities, said George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, which is located in Sewanee, Tenn. Because most commercial quarterly literary magazines are not capable of supporting themselves, Core said those that have persisted are usually reliant on universities for support.
In recent years, several journals of this category, including the Partisan Review of Boston University and the Shenandoah journal at Washington and Lee University, have stopped printing their paper editions.
“Not everything should endure forever in a University,” Laurans said. “But we should work very hard to keep the worthwhile things. By putting the Review on a sounder financial footing, [McClatchy] has helped enable this.”
With ongoing debates over the future of print publications in the internet age, McClatchy said technology has made the Review’s future unclear. Given the complexities and constant flux of copyright law and the Review’s long history of publication, moving old content online has been a slow process, Bianconi said. Although the publication remains committed to its print edition, she added that she believes the Review’s content will eventually also migrate to the internet.
“It will be a profoundly different medium but many things will have continuity,” Bianconi said. “If you can say anything about the Yale Review, it is that it’s fairly comfortable with metamorphosis.”