The Hudson Review at 50, a monument of civility

May 24, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The Hudson Review just had its 50th birthday. It is changing editors. The outgoing editor has done the job for 50 years, the entire, full life of the publication. Frederick Morgan, founder and defining consciousness of the institution, is stepping down. As his successor, he's chosen his editing colleague of 31 years, Paula Deitz, who, not insignificantly, is also his wife.

If you do not read - or even know - the Hudson Review, there's no cause for shame, though you've been missing irreplaceable joys. It comes out of a small office in Manhattan four times a year, with a circulation of about 5,000 copies. Even with an estimated 10 or so readers for every copy, the readership, in terms of a mass market, is minuscule.

It carries the subtitle "A magazine of literature and the arts" but might better be called "A playing field for the mind." Within its pages, there is a cornucopia of good reading for anyone with healthy intellectual curiosity. The writing is expressed vigorously and intelligently - and usually with breath-taking clarity of language and concept.

By most ways of calculating, the Hudson Review is the only serious intellectual journal in America that now survives without the sponsorship of a university or some other larger institution or constricting support from the National Endowment for the Arts or other government programs.

That has positioned it to become the most important independent forum of arts and culture generally published in the United States, and probably in the English language. About 10 percent of its subscribers are outside the U.S. and Canada.

From its founding by Morgan and a now long-departed partner in 1948, the HR has published original essays, memoirs, poetry, short fiction and criticism. Major figures have published their very first articles or poetry there - including Anne Sexton and A.R. Ammons.

Unmistakably speaking for Morgan and for continuity, Ms. Deitz emphasized to me the other day that when they and their handful of advisory editors screen submissions - most of which are unsolicited - high among their motivations is to discover unrecognized promise of greatness.

"There is probably never an issue that does not have something by someone who has never been published before," she reported. "Among all articles that are submitted, only about 5 percent comes from established writers, and the rest from names none of us here knows." How on earth is such quality maintained, I asked. "Just as when I taught," she insisted, "the A+ papers always float straight to the top."

The HR's first issue, in the spring of 1948, famously contained a poem by Wallace Stevens. Other masters whose original work has been published there before they were widely known constitute a pantheon of contemporary culture. Among them are e.e. cummings, William Faulkner, Robert Graves, Anthony Hecht, Ernest Hemingway, R.W.B. Lewis, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Theodore Roethke, Louis Simpson, Dylan Thomas, Paul Valery and Eudora Welty.

Nobel Prize winners who were published by the Hudson Review long before that recognition include Octavio Paz, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Saul Bellow and I.B. Singer.

I have not read every page of all 200 issues (the latest is 288 pages long), but I have read many, going back to my high-school days, and nothing I have come across - from great names or unknowns - could for an instant be thought of as pot-boiling. Vast amounts of the work first published there live on in repeated republication in anthologies and other books.

How have these standards and this substance been maintained? Most importantly, I believe, by staying clear of academic fads, political frenzies and the machinations of institutionalized cultural power - a set of forces that makes the Spanish Inquisition seem benign and flexible.

There is an interview of Morgan in the upcoming summer issue, which I have read in proofs. In it, he relates that "the magazine ... has been over the years definitely pragmatic and non-ideological. I have never been an ideological person and never wanted the magazine to be ideological." Later, in describing the sweep of its contents over the entire half-century, Morgan says, "we have always been mistrustful of taking critical stances. We have published what we have liked, without feeling that we have to explain our choices in terms of some particular program or platform."

This is in vibrant contrast to other publications that have shared or should play HR's independent role. Though many are interesting and valuable, they are now mainly platforms for political programs or academic institutions.

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