Sept. 27-Oct. 10, 2002
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Blackford planning graceful exit as Quarterly editor
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Staige Blackford
Photo by Matt Kelly
Staige D. Blackford

Blackford planning graceful exit as Quarterly editor

By Matt Kelly

Staige D. Blackford did not want to pull a William Shawn and overstay his welcome.

The Charlottesville native, who is stepping down after 27 years from the prestigious post of editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, compared himself with Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker who many felt stayed beyond a time when he could retire gracefully.

“It’s mainly a matter of age,” Blackford said. “It’s time for new blood and, in this age of cyberspace, someone who is more computer-literate.”

Blackford, 71, is the seventh editor in the magazine’s 77-year history, following Charlotte Kohler, who put out the 50th anniversary issue. Blackford took over in June 1975, with the intention of maintaining the VQR’s reputation. He succeeded and added to its prestige.

Blackford was among the first to publish a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler and a “lost” story of William Faulkner, writer in residence at the University from 1957 to 1962. A friend suggested he look over the work of a North Carolina writer who had dropped out of Penn State and was working as a house painter. Blackford liked it and was the first to publish T.R. Pearson, who went on to write “A Short History of a Small Place” and several other novels.

Blackford has surrounded himself with talent. Writers and U.Va. faculty members Ann Beattie and George Garrett have been among the readers who cull the VQR’s 800 annual fiction submissions.

“I wanted to get a bumper sticker that read ‘Help stamp out MFA classes,’ ” he said when discussing the volume of submissions. “They are getting all these people who write short stories, and there is not much of a market for them.”

Some journals, such as Sewanee Review, Shenandoah and Southern Review, are carrying on the mission. Blackford refused simultaneous submissions, citing a time he and the editor of the Sewanee Review both accepted the same short story. He found out on deadline and pulled the story just before the Quarterly went to press.
“That’s embarrassing as hell,” he said.

Blackford looks for originality, humor, diversity and an interesting topic in stories. “If I don’t know what a story is about, I don’t publish it,” he said. “It has to be something that I find interesting. It has to hold my attention. And the same is true with the essays. They can’t be too esoteric.”

The VQR is a blend of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and reviews, which gives Blackford a wide range of topics to publish. He points to the masthead, the second line of which reads “A National Journal of Literature and Discussion.”

“He has been an editor for whom excellence was the chief criterion,” said Garrett, author, professor emeritus and Virginia’s newest poet laureate. “During the period he was running the VQR, many quarterlies came and went (as did many other magazines). The VQR with Staige at the helm stayed the course, not merely surviving — although that was something of magic in itself — but growing and exerting a significant influence on our intellectual scene.”

Blackford’s background helped him produce a journal that is accessible to people. Blackford’s father taught medicine at the University. A member of the Class of 1952, an editor at the Cavalier Daily and a Rhodes scholar, Blackford has had a varied career, working for the CIA in the 1950s, editing an internal publication for Time Inc., a history encyclopedia and books for the Louisiana State University Press. He was director of research at the Southern Regional Council from 1962 to 1964, then he went to The Virginian-Pilot, where he covered politics and met Linwood Holton, the first Republican governor in living memory. Blackford became Holton’s press secretary and speechwriter.

“Those were the four happiest years of my professional life,” he said.

After Holton left office, Blackford came back to U.Va., working as a special assistant to presidents Edgar Shannon and Frank Hereford. When Kohler stepped down, Blackford suggested a friend from New York for the job. One day, while Blackford was working in his office off the Lawn, the late Bill Weedon, chairman of the advisory board of the VQR, stopped by, leaned on the door frame and said “What about you?”

Blackford took the job, and his friend in New York went on to become an editor at W.W. Norton.

During Blackford’s tenure, the Quarterly published its 75th anniversary edition. He is also proud of publishing two anthologies of VQR material. Fiction was published in “Eric Clapton’s Lover and Other Stories” and the essays were published in “We Write for Our Own Time.”

The Quarterly, with a 4,000 to 5,000 circulation, remains a paperbound publication. A Web site for the journal reproduces the table of contents and cover, but the text of articles and stories is not available on the Internet. If the magazine leaps into cyberspace, Blackford said, that would be his successor’s decision.
He plans on staying into the spring, getting out another issue or two.

Blackford has three projects lined up for retirement. A glaucoma sufferer, he plans a book titled For Your Eyes Only, on eye maladies written for the layman.

He also wants to write about Virginius Dabney, whom he described as “an Old Dominion tragedy,” a talented man who failed at a critical time. Blackford said Dabney, editor of the Times-Dispatch in Richmond for 35 years and the quintessential liberal Southerner, kept quiet during the massive resistance to school integration, while Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, railed against it.

He also wants to write his own memoirs, titled Down Hill All the Way, based in part on a diary he has been keeping since working for Holton.

“It’s all for posterity,” he said, “meaning my grandchildren will get to read it.”


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