“Make it new!” demanded Ezra Pound.  Would he have liked the cover for the outrageous winter 2017 issue of the Sewanee Review, America’s oldest continuously published literary quarterly?  It consists of a mustard-yellow ground on which, in addition to the title, in a new font, are scattered six rough parallelograms, blue, as if scissored from the blue cover introduced in 1944, now mutilated.  The message of this art, as the new editor called it, could not be clearer—deconstruction, with an eye toward reconstruction.

For more than two centuries, the role of literary quarterlies in Anglo-American culture has been important.  George Core, the Sewanee editor from 1973 through 2016, called them “an ornament of the great age of reading,” “a linchpin of civilization since the eighteenth century,” and “the most important form of periodical so far as literature proper is concerned.”  As Monroe Spears, a prior editor, asserted, they “try to keep alive the ideal of the profession of letters . . . as the center of a unified culture.”  In 1952 T.S. Eliot wrote,

The Sewanee Review . . . has reached the status of an institution—by which I mean that if it came to an end, its loss would be something more than the loss of one good periodical.  It would be a symptom of an alarming decline in the periodical world at its highest level.

Sir Herbert Read, writing in 1964, said that he knew of no other literary journal anywhere in the English-speaking world that had “maintained such a consistent level of interest over such a long period of publication.”

Among eminent editors of major quarterlies, in addition to Core and Spears, have been Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Lewis P. Simpson, Joseph Epstein, and, at the Sewanee, Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle.  Neither a weekly featuring news and hot topics, nor a monthly survey of recent books, the quarterly has, as Lytle pointed out, the important purpose of affording, in its reviews, time for a reflective, rather than hasty, assessment.  Core argued further that it had the wider role of establishing or continuing a critical program.  What is the point of such a program?  Tate wrote in 1936, “The ideal task of the critical quarterly is not to give the public what it wants, but what—through the medium of its most intelligent members—it ought to have.”  Authoritarian?  It means simply, he explains, three things, in ascending order of importance: “the exercise of taste, the pursuit of standards of intellectual judgment, and the acquisition of self-knowledge”—surely fundamental goals.

Core—who before 1973 took a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, taught at Davidson College, then served as senior editor at the University of Georgia Press—was, like other figures above, a fine judge of writing and an astute critic.  In an homage article, Robert Benson wrote that Core had given the Sewanee “an intellectual coherence unique among literary quarterlies.”  “His editorial and critical wisdom has earned him a prominent place in the history of American letters.”

That editorial and critical wisdom vanished with the publication of the winter 2017 number of the Sewanee Review.  Sometime in 2015, Core privately announced his retirement, and a search for a replacement was launched.  The new editor, appointed in February 2016, is Adam Ross.  For months, this decision was not made public, and Core continued to preside over the journal and oversee the production of issues, but without the help of his experienced managing editor, Leigh Anne Couch.  She was not appointed as Core’s successor, though she was, according to a reliable source, a candidate.  After she learned that she had not been selected, she informed contributors of her resignation as of late that month.  Core subsequently was assisted later by Robert Walker, class of 2015.  (More on him below.)

Ross, aged about 50, is a New Yorker, though he now he resides in Nashville.  His origins include, he states, a Mayflower family on the maternal side and, on the paternal, Hungarian and Russian immigrants.  He took a B.A. at Vassar College, then master’s degrees in creative writing at Hollins and Washington University.  In that connection, an observation of the fine Louisiana writer John William Corrington comes to mind.  Art, he wrote, is a measure of one’s character, and time is better spent in prayer than in a writing program.  Ross has published two volumes, with Knopf: Mr. Peanut, a novel on which he spent, he says, 15 years, and a collection of short stories, Ladies and Gentlemen, called “darkly compelling.”  In Nashville he was “special projects editor” for a tabloid weekly, the Nashville Scene, an alternative paper concentrating on music, other entertainment, features, sometimes local politics.

After finishing college, Ross submitted a manuscript to the Sewanee.  A printed rejection slip was the reply.  He vowed to become editor one day, and obviously he has succeeded.  But this was not a singular accomplishment; he needed support, to wit, that of the provost, John Swallow, whose responsibilities include “overseeing the Review.”  A Sewanee graduate of 1989, with a Yale Ph.D. in mathematics, Swallow became acting provost at his alma mater in 2012, then was duly promoted.  Previously, he had been at Davidson for 17 years, teaching math and also in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program, showing thus a disposition to think outside the box (as administrators urge).

But Swallow does not work in a vacuum.  So one has to look further for the background to Ross’s appointment—to the top, and from there to board members and others who for years have wanted to alter the ethos of the institution.  Already in 2004, the name was modified from The University of the South to Sewanee: The University of the South, thus making the historic appellation into a subtitle, minimizing the South, with its unspeakable history.  (On the website the subtitle is minimized further by very small typeface.)  One can imagine what the next step will be.  Among Swallow’s additional responsibilities is overseeing Title IX matters and “Diversity, Inclusion, and Cohesion.”  As we diversify and include, must we also cohere?  (Yet each molecule proclaims its independence.)  Panels, task forces, and “initiatives” carry out this mission.  In 2015 the university held a “social gathering” titled “Stand with Mizzou” (in reference to the controversy at Missouri involving “Racism Lives Here,” the Melissa Click incident, and the ultimate resignation of the president).

None of this is new; countless institutions have remade themselves, and traditions older than the Sewanee Review have been sabotaged and destroyed, in a campaign aimed ultimately at re-engineering society and the body politic over a wide spectrum.  This particular case is, however, striking.  As Brooks Egerton observed (on Chapter 16, a website), the alteration represents “enough transgression to satisfy the spirit of Tennessee Williams” (whose large bequest, made in honor of his grandfather, a graduate of Sewanee, was intended specifically to encourage creative writing there).  Core, seeing what was coming with Ross’s appointment, requested that starting in 2017 the issues be renumbered as “New Series, Volume 1,” and so forth.  His request was denied; though Ross called any connection of the new Review to the previous periodical “irrelevant,” continuity must be maintained even as its face is rubbed in the dirt—or perhaps, in order that it might be.  The garden variety of leftists and many high-profile ones invoke established custom—a smokescreen—even as they repudiate it. 

When Ross stated (in an interview with Egerton) that “you have to get off the mountain,” he may have been referring to refined manners and Christian morality, such as the Review illustrated in former times, or the lofty, elitist peaks of fine literature, in contrast to “the broader literary conversation”; he may also have been mindful that “the mountain” is a familiar term for the campus at Sewanee (an Episcopal institution).  Egerton wrote that he “imposed modernity”; Ross spoke of maintaining a “radical openness.”  Of nearly a score of contributors to his first issue, only one, it is reported, had published work there before.  “Henceforth new voices will predominate,” he told Egerton; they will “reflect the literary community of the time.”  (That says it all; former contributors are not in today’s community.)  To make up his first number, Ross solicited a long piece from John Jeremiah Sullivan and may have approached additional figures.  More women than men are represented.  While a number of contributors are connected to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (also overseen by Swallow), various journalists associated with New York publications are featured or will appear in future issues.  For the new design, Ross turned to Knopf’s “legendary” Peter Mendelsund and someone named Oliver Munday; the work of each has been recognized by the New York Times.

Having heard such proclamations, one might be led to assume that Core was a literary bigot, a man of narrow tastes.  Yet over the years he enlarged the interests of the Review.  He introduced new contributors, whose perspectives as well as styles and topics ranged widely, and he encouraged writers of familiar essays and literary biography.  In particular, he held new fiction and poetry as essential in a quarterly.  Tate observed, “Good creative work is a criticism of the second rate.”  Original work contributes to the critical program mentioned above by illustrating principles examined and developed in the magazine in essays, review essays, and reviews of current books, judiciously selected.  For his first issue, at least, Ross has eliminated the two latter genres entirely and given little space to critical essays.  There are only three literary pieces—an article on the contemporary poet Christian Wiman, an interview with a novelist, and “A Craft Lecture,” by the formalist poet Mary Jo Salter, dealing with Mark Strand.  Other than a four-page statement by Ross, that is all.  Beyond that, the nonfiction consists of memoirs and Sullivan’s essay, on the early blues and Columbus Bragg, a cakewalker.

Among the fiction pieces is “The Okiedoke,” by Sidik Fofana, a teacher in Brooklyn.  The title alludes to a Harlem neighborhood.  The story, written in black speech, uses thrice in the first paragraph a forbidden ethnic word (in a familiar, friendly sense, presumably), along with vulgarity throughout, including the abusive term (noun or adjective) “muhf–k,” applied to various figures, among them the U.S. president (at that time).  One poet included is A.E. Stallings, an eminent woman formalist.  Another is Jennifer Habel, whose contribution, “P Is for Permission,” consists of very short prose fragments (identified as being drawn from Paris Review interviews) set off by frames—dark-bordered shallow boxes, which are arranged on the pages in unbalanced-looking stacks, touching one another at points.  It’s a kind of installation piece—odds and ends, of no artistic interest and not much otherwise, picked up in trash bins.  No poetry of any sort can come from black-framed rectangles; it’s the words that count.  “If you think it’s art, it is,” opined Donald Judd.  Well, no.  Ross would find irrelevant Core’s pertinent statement in the winter 1977 issue: “One can be alive to the possibilities of contemporary literature without being wholly in its thrall.”

Now, how did Ross have such a blank slate as he began work?  Core, like many editors, accepted manuscripts well in advance of their likely publication date.  (I do so as poetry editor of this magazine.)  Thus he could plan ahead; he had materials with which to shape issues, balancing their contents, even designing some around favorite themes (war, books).  In my experience, all accepted pieces were published, as one would expect from an editor who signed his letters “Faithfully yours.”  Such is no longer the case.  In a terrible insult to his predecessor, Ross has refused to honor the backlog—and without informing all those with work pending.  Many accepted manuscripts remaining after 2016 will likely wither.  Such an editorial stance, while not unknown, is shameful, indefensible; if a candidate doesn’t like the backlog, he need not take the job.  Certain authors, left in the dark, inquired about their work, more than once—not of Ross, who cannot easily be reached, but of Robert Walker, the replacement assistant, now managing editor and poetry editor, who, one recalls, graduated in 2015.  (Mr. Core was his own poetry editor.)  I am among those who had poems pending.  Unsure about editorial plans, I sent three polite inquiries, unanswered.  Finally, this past winter, when I tried again, Walker replied by saying that the poems would not be published, although “each are [sic] adept.”

Breaking custom, Ross has introduced politics into the review—not incidentally, within the context of cultural discussion or fiction, but directly.  In summer 2016, fresh with his new authority, he commissioned from a Sewanee alumnus, Jon Meacham, a piece on the 2016 presidential election.  Meacham, a journalist and historian with a Pulitzer, is currently executive editor and vice president at Random House, which owns Knopf.  Assuming that Hillary Clinton, benignly but pointedly identified as a “Midwestern Methodist,” would win, Meacham—citing Clinton’s “profound admiration” for Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, notably the Grand Inquisitor episode—discussed what that admiration meant for her character and her presumed presidential conduct.  On November 9, doubtless in shock, he agreed to compose a companion piece, “Trump’s Literacy”; both appear side by side.  Meacham, one learns, had interviewed Trump in May to ask him about that very topic, “Presidential Literacy.”  The interview was not productive, he reports, since Trump evinced little interest—and perhaps, additionally, because Meacham obviously despises the man, a “hopeless narcissist,” with “a consuming Nietzschean belief in his own centrality.”  Christ versus the Übermensch.  Madam Clinton’s arrogance, vast ego, and further defects of character are not mentioned.  (Is Nietzsche a code word?  Naming that philosopher often leads to reflections on 20th-century Germans.)

À nous deux,” vows Rastignac as he overlooks Paris in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot.  France has been rent asunder by revolution and wars; the Bourbon Restoration will be short-lived, and new upheavals will follow.  Having established a foothold in society, he can profit from the continuing turmoil and the “tide in the affairs of men, / which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”  Ross, with a prestigious quarterly in his hands—the useless, nay harmful cargo jettisoned—and the support of a university in transformation, can ride the waves forward.