A Century in Six Weeks

Marilyn Hacker Has a Speculative Poem in this Issue

If you had six weeks to teach twentieth century literature, which works would you include? I’m thinking of sticking with stories, essays, and poems in order to maximize the ground we can cover.

I want to focus on the ways in which editors of literary journals helped in the formation and invigoration of literary movements. The class is called Critical Perspectives on Twentieth Century Literature, and, while I don’t want to examine literary criticism, I do want to explore ways in which other sorts of critics have affected literary movements and literary camaraderie.

I’m interested in exploring the following editors and literary journals and their impact on literary landscapes of the 20th century:

  • Harriet Monroe, founded Poetry in 1912, where she promoted the work of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., W.C. Williams, Wallace Stevens, and others.
  • John Crowe Ransom, founded a group of poets called Fugitives, which included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Together they started the literary journal The Fugitive in 1922. Ransom also created the literary theory, New Criticism.
  • Charles S. Johnson, was the editor of Opportunity: Journal Of Negro Life, which started in 1923 and was a publication during the Harlem Renaissance that featured the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen.
  • Andre Breton, a surrealist, founded the review La Révolution surréaliste in 1924, which he and his friends formatted like a scientific review of Breton’s time called La Nature. Breton wrote a Surrealist Manifesto and had a pivotal role in the surrealism movement.
  • George Plimpton was the first editor-in-chief of the Paris Review, which began in 1953, (where excerpts of the following works were first published: Italo Calvino’s Last Comes the Raven, Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, Donald Barthelme‘s Alice, Jim Carroll‘s The Basketball Diaries, Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, Jeffrey Eugenides‘s The Virgin Suicides, and Jonathan Franzen’s The
    Corrections
    . Plimpton also started the Writers at Work interview series.
  • Marilyn Hacker and Samuel R. Delany, poet and science fiction writer, respectively, edited Quark, a quarterly of speculative fiction, in 1970-1971. This anthology series featured stories by Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, and Thomas Disch.
  • Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s in 1998 to close the century with a bang.

I like the idea of using editors and literary journals as a way to frame the study of some significant writers and movements of the twentieth century. As a result, I will end up not studying some of my favorite authors, but I like the way that the canon can get shaken up by looking from a new vantage point.

I’m curious what you think. Any words of warnings? Any suggestions for authors or texts to be sure to include? Any literary journals and/or editors that should be addressed?

7 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I wonder if Gordon Lish should be included, and some of the writers he edited for Esquire and The Quarterly — Carver, Hempel, Hannah, etc.

    • Shira Richman says:

      Oh, good. I wanted to look at Lish and Carver (and others Lish edited?) but didn’t realize he was connected with a magazine. Thanks.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Story magazine seemed pretty significant too. And what about the journals Bly edited — and all his translation work?

    • Shira Richman says:

      I’m happy for an excuse to include Bly, one of my all-time faves. Thanks, again.

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        Shira, from the setup for the Willow Springs interview with Bly: “He soon started The Fifties, a literary magazine for poetry translation in the United States, which eventually became The Sixties, then The Seventies, and introduced a new international aesthetic to American Poetry.”

  • Shira,

    I really love this idea, and would be very interested to see the syllabus later and hear posts about how the class goes. I’ve done similar things in the past, and the hardest thing for me has been getting materials—there just isn’t a good anthology or textbook for this, and not enough pre-21st century lit mag issues are online.

    It seems you couldn’t do it justice without looking at Ezra Pound, arguably the most influential person in modernist lit mags. Robert Scholes new book on modernism in the magazines covers this. Scholes is also in charge of the Modernist Journals Project—as you probably know.

    TriQuarterly (with Charles Newman) and Granta (when Bill Buford was editor) would no doubt be great additions.

    Again, would love to hear more about the class.

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