A Walk Around the Block

To look back at the 75-year history of this magazine is, for me as its editor, to flirt with paralysis. I knew from the moment I took the job two years ago not to take up a Greek nom de plume and compete as an essayist with my two distinguished predecessors, Aristides and Philonoë. And although I scanned the lists of editorial-board members and contributors from the magazine’s past, noting the Niebuhrs and Barzuns and Tuchmans and so forths, I’ve tried to focus instead on two names associated with the magazine that humble us all equally: Ralph Waldo. What I draw from Emerson, and especially from his 1837 speech “The American Scholar,” is the urgent need to get the magazine out of the study and take it for a walk around the block. However simplistic an analysis this might be, it has kept paralysis at a distance. But an anniversary such as the 75th, especially for something as ephemeral as a magazine, deserves acknowledgment and even celebration. To do that I thought to ask two writers I admire, both contributing editors, to read through the entire run of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR and to bring back, in one instance, a brief history of the magazine and in the other a selection of representative extracts from that history. Too much reverence in these matters would not do at all, and so Ted Widmer, a supple and witty historian, has reported that the stream of deep thoughts, intriguing studies, and deathless prose has at times been less than robust. Rich Nicholls, a literary critic of serious mien, however, reminds us while introducing the excerpts that what has been both steady and admirable over the decades is a habit of mind that embraces seriousness and the democratic notion that seriousness trickles down into the culture at large.

READING THE EXCERPTS WE PUBLISH HERE, and a much larger selection from which they were drawn, has heartened me in a way I could not have predicted. I might have guessed, had I thought to, at Widmer’s message that even the mighty Homer nods. But the message of Nicholls’s excerpts is something subtler, that the nature of seriousness itself has changed over the years within the pages of the SCHOLAR. The great thoughts of great men (and only a very few women) from the early decades can seem just a bit ponderous—serious in a way that feels disembodied today. My impression is that, as the decades rolled along, the arguments became more specific, more rooted in particular cases or in personal experiences, more dependent on narrative. The magazine has moved, broadly, from subjects to stories. I do not believe that there has been an accompanying diminution of seriousness. Look at Brian Boyd’s essay critiquing Theory in our last issue or Ethan Fishman’s essay in this one, which begins with a famous SCHOLAR article by Richard Hofstadter and to my mind deepens and extends it. But look, too, at the memoir herein by James McConkey, no less serious in its intentions than anything in the magazine’s history and yet humble and anecdotal in its approach to the reader, an approach that would feel alien, I suspect, to the magazine’s first editors.

This message of change, if that is what it is, has been delivered in a package that has changed surprisingly little over the years. We have embarked on the most radical possible new course in this department, and yet one that is at least a decade overdue. The SCHOLAR at last has a credible Web site of its own, thanks to the design talent of Florence Altenburger and David Herbick, and the computer talent of Chris Kelly and Erik Meier. For the present, the site’s content will be drawn almost exclusively from the print magazine, and the site’s archive, which we expect at some time to include the whole 75 years, freely available to everyone, is as yet far from complete. But here we are at last in a world beyond paper, where the good ideas of our writers, felicitously expressed, can rebound through space and time—if not infinitely then to a degree that we cannot imagine. Come join us online to renew a subscription or register a complaint. We hope that each time you return you’ll find that we’ve offered something new. Our excitement about the fresh, colorful look of the Web site has made us wish to apply a little rouge to the print magazine itself. Watch for a series of small changes in the issues to come, beginning here with a new cover stock that allows us to use color even more recklessly than we have in the past. Or not.

Editors come and go around here with what, from the editor’s point of view, seems like alarming frequency. But luckily for its writers and readers, the SCHOLAR’s managing editor and associate editor do not. Jean Stipicevic is well into her fourth decade in these precincts. Sandra Costich is more than halfway through her third. Both retain an invigorating love of language and an unshakable allegiance to the Chicago Manual of Style and to the way a person named Joe, also of Chicago, used to do things.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society has paid the bills for this magazine for its entire history, and recently the society’s governing committee renewed its commitment to do so in the future, while expressing as ever the sensible wish to see those bills be as small as possible. Why do they do it? For a reason that, as best I can determine, has never changed even a little bit. They believe the magazine offers something of value to the culture. We’d like to continue to prove them right.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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