Saturday, July 7, 2007

How the Paris Review Made Popular Literature, Literature Popular

Why choose for our first little magazine essay to feature The Paris Review, a magazine which receives more press coverage than any other literary magazine in America? Why give yet more attention to the magazine that was first published in 1953 and in only five years Time Magazine was already calling it "the biggest little magazine in the world?" A magazine that by its fifth year had already landed interviews with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thurber? Well, exactly because of these reasons, actually. Because, through all controversy (and there has been some) and advantages (some there to) that have been given and gotten by the review throughout its 54 year history, The Paris Review seems to deserve nearly all the attention it gets. Though not the longest running literary magazine in America (see Sewanee Review, Poetry, North America Review, and Yale Review), The Paris Review is the most recognized literary magazine foundation America has.

It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly every literary magazine editor in America today would cite George Plimpton (the magazine's editor from its inception until his death in September of 2003) and The Paris Review as major influences. There are only a handful of people working in the arts over the last century who garnered this sort of across-the-board respect. From the beginning--with a first issue including E.M. Forester, William Styron, Robert Bly, George Steiner, current U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall, Terry Southern, and many more--the magazine has been able to both publish the best literature available and to somehow also say what that literature--what literature itself, in some respects--is. William Styron and Donald Hall both worked on the magazine and many of the others were close friends with Plimpton and the others. Whether they realized it or not fifty years ago, when many of the review's founders were recently out of ivy-league universities, over the next half-century The Paris Review was to become not only a recorder of what Styron called in the magazine's first issue "the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders," but it would also come to designate just what good writing was.

In Paris, 1953, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, William Styron, Harold "Doc" Humes, John Train, and a few others put out the first issue of The Paris Review. From then on, Plimpton, along with anyone he could persuade to help him, constantly pushed to keep the review alive, the subscriber numbers (the only true sign of health for a literary magazine) up. Rumor has it that it was not uncommon to have a conversation with Plimpton end by him pressing into your hand what he called "the Editor's calling card," which was none other than a subscription card. "No harm in filling one out," he would say. He seemed to have had an a priori sense that the work was worth it, that keeping a literary review alive, after five years, after ten years, after twenty, was a worthwhile thing to do in the world. And what is perhaps shocking about this attitude for Plimpton (and since he was in many respects The Paris Review, it became the magazine's attitude as well), was that Plimpton came from a family of privilege. And he was very successful in his life at other things besides running a little journal. He was in films. He wrote well-received books. He hung out with stars. And still he spent long hard hours promoting, editing, organizing, budgeting, and fundraising to publish a small short story and poetry magazine in Paris, and later from his small apartment at the end of 72nd street in Manhattan, overlooking the East River. One can only wonder how much passion and persistence can drive any project, or if Plimpton was just the right person at the right time.

On September 26, 2003, George Plimpton died soon after The Paris Review fiftieth anniversary issue had been completed. On the issue's cover is a drawing of a large horse carrying a small man who is politely tipping his hat. In the last Paris Review preface he wrote, Plimpton ended with a cheery encouragement, congratulating "the horse and its rider." It was almost too perfect. Could he have known somehow? (Similarly, Charles Schultz died soon after he had finished the final planned strip of his comic, Peanuts, which ran in newspapers the day after his death.) The horse was the magazine, taking up half the cover image, and the small man sitting atop of it was Plimpton, gently doffing his hat, forever confident and genial, trusting the horse, riding along until the very end.

Today, after a bit of struggle in the transition, The Paris Review is in the new and, it seems, very capable hands of editor Philip Gourevitch (author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families), along with a recently acquired board of directors. So far the magazine's quality has not slackened, though Gourevitch has shifted the format away from the magazine's traditional focus on fiction and poetry, and added more journalism, non-fiction, and photography (we are, it is true, living in the age of image, and the new graphic literary journal certainly reflects that fact). Also the magazine has adopted a larger, flatter format. If the magazine will last another fifty years while continuing to uphold the standards of the first fifty, only the future can tell. So far, contrary to Brigid Hughes understandable criticisms, the issues are consistently fine. The new summer issue treads both old and new ground, with an interview with Norman Mailer, poetry from Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, fiction by Andre Aciman, and photos from Raymod Depardon. And it would be a shame to miss a new story by Benjamin Percy (2007 Plimpton Prize winner) in the spring issue. Percy, first published on, consistently represents the wilderness and mystery of Oregon with the intelligence and delicacy it deserves, a landscape largely non-existent (except in some stories of D'Ambrosio) in modern American short fiction.

[From everyone at Luna Park, though we never knew George Plimpton in person, we knew him as we could through his collaborative work. He is missed.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent notice of the talent of Benjamin Percy. His stories alone are cause for me to purchase literary journals.