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Virginia Quarterly Review marks 75th anniversary with book of classic essays and a special spring issue

By Robert Brickhouse

Staige D. Blackford
Editor Staige D. Blackford

D.H. Lawrence and Andre Gide were among its first contributors. Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot and Thomas Wolfe soon wrote for it too. As did Thomas Mann, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Frost, Bertrand Russell, H.L. Mencken, George F. Kennan and Robert Graves, to name but a few illustrious figures who have appeared in its pages over the years.

The Virginia Quarterly Review, one of the nation's most venerable literary periodicals, will celebrate its 75th anniversary next month with the publication of a special spring issue and a commemorative book. Containing more than 50 essays, the book showcases a range of distinguished styles and voices from the 1920s to the present.

The VQR, published continuously at the University since April 1925, when it was founded by President Edwin A. Alderman as "a national journal of literature and discussion," is one of the few publications in the country that aims to be a true magazine of general culture, points out its longtime editor Staige D. Blackford. For each issue the quarterly comes up with a wide-ranging mix of poetry, fiction, book reviews and essays, often by some of the country's best- known writers.

The new book, We Write for Our Own Time, takes its title from a VQR essay by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Just released by the University Press of Virginia, the book covers such diverse themes as Thomas Jefferson and the Italian Renaissance, "Do We Have a Class Society?" and an anonymous 1970s piece on "Attitudes toward Sex."

In an age of corporate publishing often geared to light entertainment, the nation's small-circulation literary periodicals, many operating on shoestring budgets, are among the few outlets for serious writing and new writers, adds Blackford, who has guided the magazine since 1975. Gregory Orr, a U.Va. English professor, serves as the VQR's poetry consultant.

Another VQR hallmark, its sweeping range of nonfiction and essays, on topics from politics to travel to the arts, is being celebrated for the 75th anniversary in the book, We Write for Our Own Time, which takes its title from a VQR essay by the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Sartre. The book, edited by former New York Times writer and editor Alexander Burnham and published by the University Press of Virginia, offers a selection of articles from each decade. It covers such diverse themes as Henry Steele Commager's "Do We Have a Class Society?", Kenneth Clark on Thomas Jefferson and the Italian Renaissance, Mary Lee Settle on wartime London, and an anonymous 1970s piece on "Attitudes toward Sex."

In an office in one of the University's original Jeffersonian buildings ("so original it lacks a bathroom to this day," notes Blackford), with tables piled high with books to be reviewed, he and managing editor Janna Olson Gies handle dozens of manuscript submissions from around the country each week. One of the pleasures of the job is discovering a fine new piece of writing, he says.

Quarterlies today remain "the last refuge of the elegant essay. We studiously avoid here anything that contains jargon," asserts Blackford, who has engineered few changes in the format of the journal over the years. The quarterly's editors have always sought a range of subjects, with the one criterion being good writing, he says.

Early editors included a literary scholar, James Southall Wilson, and a historian, Stringfellow Barr, who went on to establish the "great books" program at St. John's College. Serving as editor during four decades before Blackford was Charlotte Kohler, who received her doctorate in English at U.Va. and was one of the few women at the time to head a national literary journal.

Blackford, a U.Va. graduate and Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar, had been a journalist, staffer at the Southern Leadership Council, editor at the LSU Press, and press secretary to Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton before returning to the University. He says his predecessor explained the editing tradition: "to get the very best of the best." He adds that he is particularly proud that in its 75 years the Virginia Quarterly "has never shirked from publishing articles on the American dilemma of race.

The spring anniversary issue continues the tradition. In one essay, Edward L. Ayers, author of the highly acclaimed book The Promise of the New South and a professor of history at U.Va., takes a look at how the quarterly's native region has been described, deplored and debated in previous issues. "To survey the essays on the South that have appeared in these pages is to survey much of the region's history in the 20th century," he says.


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