Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Paris Review - The Life & Death of a Famous Literary Rag

Did it not always seem a little strange, gentle reader, that the primary support of the most famous serious literary periodical in the Western World, The Paris Review, should emanate from one Sadruddin Aga Khan, a scion of a wealthy royal (Iranian) family residing in Europe? With the revelations which have come to light regarding the origins of what had always, over the years, been referred to as "George Plimpton's magazine," it all seems to make perfect sense. 
Following accounts in the press since Plimpton's death, it's now been revealed that the original "founders" of the Paris Review were Thomas H. Guinzburg and Harold L. Humes, but that control was wrested away from these two by none other than Peter Matthiessen, acting on the behalf, and as an agent, of the American Central Intelligence Agency. Apparently, Plimpton too was connected with the CIA, and his name appears on the masthead of issue #1, instead of that of Humes (the original chief editor). Most of the important figures at the magazine had been connected in one way or another, either at college, or in the New York publishing world, but the CIA connection still seems an astonishing revelation, given the apparent serious nature of the magazine.
But perhaps not so surprising after all. In the immediate post-War years, at the height of the Cold War, when international political suspicion and paranoia was at its height, the American CIA had, apparently, been clandestinely supporting any and every kind of favorable subversive activity, in an attempt to influence the European community (as well as those on the home front) to look favorably upon anything positive (even in a literary sense) which might be associated with Western ideals. Situated in Paris, The Paris Review, which was in every sense of the word except perhaps a legal one, an American publication, seemed very much the kind of preppy, cheerful, up-to-date cultural organ that the CIA liked, and it apparently pumped support money through a shell foundation named after the Aga Khan, to keep it afloat. That it could not have managed to survive without this kind of support probably comes as no surprise to those in the periodical industry. Even in its heyday, the "little [literary] magazine" was never a prosperous enterprise.   
I remember the first issue of The Paris Review I ever bought and read. It was issue #41, the Nabokov Interview issue, and it had poems by Philip Whalen and John Ashbery. I've never been that into experimental fiction, and for some years I couldn't make heads or tails of the fiction I read in PR, but Tom Clark had been the Poetry Editor for some while by 1967, and though I didn't know it at the time, his selections put me right into the thick of the avant garde poetry scene of the mid-1960's: Other selections in this issue included poems by Bill Berkson (whose collected early poems, Blue Is The Hero, would be the first major title of my small press, L Publications), Dick Gallup, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler and Tony Towle. As I was to learn later, these figures mostly belonged to the first or second generation of the so-called New York School
I knew nothing, then, of the literary issues involved in these kinds of selections, or anything about the history of The Paris Review. What was apparent was that the magazine was a sophisticated, professionally edited magazine devoted to showcasing new kinds of writing, and that as odd and peculiar as that writing might seem, I knew that it was I who was not up to date, not the magazine.

It's my theory that every magazine has a certain life, a certain course of development over time. Literary magazines inevitably reflect the taste and persuasions of their editors, and no one can like or prefer everything at once. Editorial practice involves choices, and you can't please everybody. The Paris Review was clearly devoted to discovering and publishing the newest, most audacious and innovative writing it could find--that much was plain. 
How this policy could have thrived, despite being fronted by an international counter-intelligence agency, is a question for another day. But thrive it did, and it continues today, albeit in a very different form, and under a regime with very different goals, than those it began with in 1953. 
The look and feel of periodicals changes over time. Magazine publication isn't a static thing, and design, typography, paper and binding procedures gradually are transformed by taste and technology. I have a complete run of The Paris Review of issues #1 through #60. The format of issue #1 pictured above stayed fairly constant throughout the first twenty-something issues, then began to change. The page size stayed fairly constant up until a couple of years ago, when it was slightly enlarged. Some time in the 1970's, the lovely paper and signature binding was abandoned, and the cover designs began to look pretty dull. The early years featured cover designs by important artists that were so popular, that poster reproductions of them were typically on sale, and even traded on the collectible market. Back issues, which used to be advertised on the back cover of the magazine, were also collectible.  

The editorial masthead changed over time, too. In the early years, the poet and teacher Donald Hall edited the poetry department. After several years, this passed to X.J. Kennedy, a rather academic figure whose choices were fairly conservative. Then, in 1963, Tom Clark was chosen to replace him, and for a good long while, perhaps seven years, his choices were really top-notch. Then Tom's choices began to seem a bit questionable, and in 1973 he was removed in favor of...was it Richard Howard? I'm not sure. In any case, things did change considerably.

But my real point in discussing The Paris Review is to suggest, once more, as I have in the past, that a magazine has a certain life. Truly small magazines may have a life which reflects the amount of conviction and energy which go into their production. Periodicals with institutional backing may go on wobbling around for decades, with successive generations of editors and sub-editors and staffs following each other in a dull order. 
An inspired literary magazine can't simply believe in "good" writing or "literature"--it must have a point of view, an axe to grind. Without this kind of attitude, it's not likely to have a clear measure of choice in its selections. Middle-brow literary ventures tend to be very dull, whether they're workshops, publishers, periodicals, prize contests, or readings and conferences. A vision of something specific may be half-baked, radical, eccentric or wild-eyed, but this is always better than simply announcing "quality" or "good taste" or "eclectic" as criteria. The selections that appeared in The Paris Review during its first 15 years or so of life were no better, or worse, than the editorial vision of its editors, and these changed over time. The Interview feature, now in its 57th year, has undoubtedly been the most popular and useful of the magazine's content over the decades. One of its most famous was the Hemingway Interview, conducted by George Plimpton himself, for the 1958 issue #18 (pictured above).

For me, The Paris Review ceased to be interesting somewhere along in the mid-1970's, at about the time that Tom Clark left, and the original paper/binding/cover format began to change too. But Clark's departure did not become the occasion of a revision of the "new"--as if a younger rank of writers was coming aboard. On the contrary, it was an opportunity to turn back the clock on taste, returning the magazine to the early days of its inception in the 1950's. Richard Howard, for instance, could hardly be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, as an avatar of avant garde literary taste. 
In my view, then, by, perhaps, 1975 or so, the magazine had simply run out of steam. Its editorial choices had ceased by then to represent experimentation and risk, and simply reflected accepted notions of "fine writing" which were as commonplace as they had been 25 years before. One no longer opened The Paris Review with any expectation of reading unusual prose or challenging verse; it simply wasn't being published there any more; and that's been largely true ever since. 

Magazines begin in optimistic fervor, and continue for a while, and then die. This is inevitable. Every generation has its new version of itself. Today, online magazines like Slate and Jacket seem much more important than material text versions. The costs and distribution issues associated with publication of paper magazines and journals will soon make them untenable, as these same trends have impacted newspapers and general interest periodicals. But The Paris Review died a long time ago--it has just had to wait a few more years to be finally put to rest.

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