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«The Making of Chicago Review: The Meteoric Years Chicago Review’s Spring 1946 inaugural issue lays out the magazine’s ambitions with admirable ...»

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The Making of Chicago Review: The Meteoric Years

Chicago Review’s Spring 1946 inaugural issue lays out the magazine’s

ambitions with admirable force: “rather than compare, condemn, or

praise, the Chicago Review chooses to present a contemporary standard

of good writing.” This emphasis on the contemporary comes with a

sober assessment of “the problems of a cultural as well as an economic

reconversion” that followed World War II, with particular reference to the consequences this instrumentalizing logic held for contemporary writing: “The emphasis in American universities has rested too heavily on the history and analysis of literature—too lightly on its creation.” Notwithstanding this confident incipit, cr was hardly an immediate success. It had to be built from scratch by student editors who had to negotiate a sometimes supportive, sometimes antagonistic relationship with cr’s host institution, the University of Chicago. The story I tell here focuses on the labors of F.N. Karmatz and Irving Rosenthal, the two editors who put cr on the map in the 1950s, albeit in different and potentially contradictory ways. Their hugely ambitious projects twice drove cr to the brink of extinction, but they also established two idiosyncratic styles of cultural engagement that continue to inform the Review’s practice into the twenty-first century.

Rosenthal’s is the story that is usually told of cr’s early years: in 1957 and ’58 he and poetry editor Paul Carroll published a strong roster of emerging Beat writers, including several provocative excerpts from Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs’s work-in-progress. After the Chicago Daily News described cr as “filthy writing,” the Review was suppressed by the University’s Administration, and Rosenthal and Carroll resigned and started a new magazine, Big Table, to publish the suppressed material. This is a sensational story and well worth retelling. But we can get a more fine-grained sense of the magazine’s history—and in particular of the magazine’s unique relationship to the University of Chicago—by contextualizing the 1958 convulsion in light of Karmatz’s tenure, which ran from 1953 to ’55. In collaboration with Professor Reuel Denney, Karmatz refashioned cr from a modest college magazine into a nationally distributed, closely read organ of intellectual record. Rosenthal, in turn, reinvented Karmatz’s reinvention, presenting edgier fare to the mainstream audience Karmatz cultivated. Their inadvertent collaboration across time created the conditions of autonomy under which the magazine thrives to this day, even as their projects tested the limits of University sponsorship.

Chicago Review has been edited by graduate students at the University of Chicago since its inception. This is, on the face of it, an improbable model for survival. Other university-affiliated journals of cr’s scale and longevity are typically edited by tenured faculty, an arrangement that tends to maximize editorial continuity and minimize friction with their host institution. The Kenyon Review, for instance, has had thirteen professor-editors since its inception in 1939; The Yale Review, founded in 1911, has had eight, two of whom edited for more than twenty years. In contrast, Chicago Review has had fiftyfour different editors in the last sixty years. On hearing these figures, Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy quipped, “What are you, a banana republic?” From the perspective of faculty-edited university-sponsored journals cr’s structure may seem labile and unstable. But from another perspective (call it that of the purist outsider) the very fact of university sponsorship is seen to necessarily compromise a journal’s aesthetic integrity. Praising a recent issue, poet Ron Silliman wrote that cr’s success “is more or less impossible” given that it is a “college magazine” (his emphasis), and as such, must work against the fact of “typically cautious faculty sponsorships & rotating student editors.” But cr’s unique history reveals that for all its liabilities—and there are those—this structure has been a surprising source of strength that promotes improbable and enduring adaptations and keeps the magazine’s agenda fresh and mobile and free from the predictable programs of more stable editorial models. Devin Johnston, cr’s poetry editor from 1995 to 2000, recently observed that this structure makes it possible to “combine the university’s intellectual earnestness with an irrepressible enthusiasm (from being young).” Karmatz and Rosenthal proved this in the 1950s, as have cr’s fifty-two other editors, each in his or her own way. May the magazine thrive and expand in new directions for another sixty years to come!



The Review’s first six years were wobbly. Funding was limited and editorial tenures were particularly concise: twenty editors topped the masthead between 1946 and 1958. Edited by students such as Ned Polsky (who went on to write an influential sociological study of pool, Hustlers, Beats, and Others) and V.R. “Bunny” Lang (a poet who became muse and confidante to Frank O’Hara before her early death in 1956), cr’s early issues included fiction by Kenneth Patchen, poems by Paul Éluard and Tennessee Williams, and critical prose by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Marianne Moore. There’s a range of contributions from University of Chicago professors and notable alumni, including Jackson Mac Low and Susan Sontag (her first time in print).

But there was also a lot of chaff—most of it student work—interspersed among the more memorable proceedings. Larzer Ziff recently described the challenges faced by the start-up student-run


When we went out in search of material and wrote asking established writers to give us something although we couldn’t pay we sometimes received interesting pieces. We also, of course, read unsolicited manuscripts and published those that attracted us, but I feel there was always too wide a gap between the two and so an unevenness amounting to uneasiness in our pages. (42:3/4) Money was a constant source of concern. Albert N. Stephanides, another early staffer, remembered the Review’s early bakesale-style


The only material aid we had from the University was use of office space in the Reynolds Club and the right to use classrooms in the evenings as part of our fundraising. Our main sources of fundraising were to persuade popular U of C professors of the day to give lectures (gratis to us, charged to attendees) and to show movies.

The journal’s format in its first six years reflects this scarcity of funds.

Most issues were saddle-stapled chapbooks of roughly fifty pages.

During one especially dry stretch the format switched to eight-page newsprint for two issues. Circulation was modest as well: fewer than 700 copies were printed of any given issue, and distribution was primarily local.

All this changed with the Spring 1953 issue. This handsome ninety-six-page perfect-bound book with a conspicuous logo marked the arrival of F.N. “Chip” Karmatz, who presided over the Review for three years (nine issues in all) and gave the magazine a welcome sense of direction, focus, and substance. He solicited and published wellknown authors and critics and set a strong precedent for engagement with contemporary us culture. Just as significantly, he created a robust national distribution system, which placed the magazine’s circulation in another league altogether. George Jackson, on staff for most of the 1950s, remembered Karmatz as the editor “who turned the Review from a campus literary magazine into a major quarterly.” Lucy B. Jefferson recollected that he was “determined to get the Review up there with The Sewanee Review and others of the ‘respectable academic journal’ class.” It’s clear he did just that: by spring 1955 Karmatz could proudly announce to his readers that cr had “the largest circulation of any cultural quarterly or ‘little’ magazine” (9:1).

The titles of two special issues published during Karmatz’s tenure—“Contemporary American Culture” (8:3) and “Changing American Culture” (9:3)—accurately denote the focus of the Review at the tail end of the McCarthy Era. “I did everything I could to keep the Chicago Review apolitical or neutral,” Karmatz told me last year.

“We were a cultural publication, open to all cultural viewpoints.” This liberal pluralism is reflected in the pieces Karmatz published,

F.N. “Chip” Karmatz (right) and staff at a Chicago Review meeting in 1954.


by the likes of Leo Strauss, Ben Shahn, and Henry Miller, and on topics ranging from Brown v. Board of Education to


Expressionism. Karmatz’s upgrade also included poems by William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings and stories by Nikos Kazantzakis and Philip Roth (his first published story). cr-sponsored readings at the University by Edith Sitwell and e.e. cummings (Dylan Thomas died a few days before his scheduled reading) contributed to the cultural prestige Chicago Review was accumulating, and generated necessary revenue for the journal’s increasingly ambitious print runs.

Karmatz also injected memorable energy into the business of editing the magazine. George Starbuck, who joined the staff towards

the end of Karmatz’s tenure, recalled the charismatic boss:

If he had a fedora, it would have been crushed, worn on the back of his head, and thrown, on occasion. He liked to sit in the Chicago Review offices with his shirt unbuttoned and his tie on but askew, handling two phone calls at once, East and West coasts, because nobody had told him he couldn’t badger e.e. cummings for poems or Rexroth for a think piece.

George Jackson noted new modes of moneymaking that Karmatz

devised to fund his renovation:

The ways in which Karmatz managed the transformation were ingenious and amusingly devious. One tactic was to slick down his hair, put on his leather coat, turn up his big collar and with his best gangster manners visit neighborhood merchants to solicit ads for the Review.

Karmatz told me that this appealing lore was somewhat overstated—he only had one phone, never published Rexroth, and everyone on staff sold ads locally—but his energetic presence, and the influence it had on his staff, is amply evident.

The good working relationship between Karmatz and his staff was complemented by his fruitful collaborations with cr’s faculty advisors Gwin Kolb (Professor in English) and Reuel Denney (in Sociology). Karmatz was especially close with Denney, 1939’s Yale Younger Poet and co-author of The Lonely Crowd (1950), a groundbreaking, bestselling analysis of conformity and individuality in the postwar us. They were tennis partners, and a folder in Denney’s papers at Dartmouth College traces the brainstorming sessions that transpired between them. Most of these notes focus on the “new model” Review that emerged under Karmatz: lists of potential contributors, distribution strategies, circulation figures for cr in comparison to other little magazines, and a parsing of cr’s efficient cause, formal cause, material cause, and final cause (neo-Aristotelianism was all the rage at the University in those days). There are several documents focusing on staff structure and training, but it is worth noting that faculty oversight is mentioned only once in passing: Kolb and Denney’s involvement was apparently so seamless and healthy as to not require consideration of possible antagonisms or conflicts of interest.

The fuzziness of this relationship worked well for Karmatz.

“Editorially, if Gwin Kolb or Reuel Denney OK’d a particular issue’s content,” he explained to me, “Dean [of Students] Strozier allowed the publication to go ahead. However, I don’t think this was a formal process and I am not aware of the communication between them.” Karmatz’s told me that cr was defined as “a student publication endorsed by the Administration”: “Strozier simply covered our printing debts, if there were any, for any given period. […] Dean Strozier never explained how it worked—wasn’t student business.” This opacity was unproblematic for the duration of Karmatz’s tenure, but it led to an almost fatal crisis shortly after his editorship ended.

A notice in the Chicago Tribune’s “Literary Spotlight” set the scene: “Chicago Review, the quarterly owned by and published at the University of Chicago, recently issued its second annual copy […] in a special printing of 22,500 copies.” Karmatz had his reasons for this optimistic print run (exactly twice the circulation of Partisan Review, the largest little magazine of the day): he was anticipating an essay by former President Harry Truman. It fell through, but a new distributor remained sanguine and the print run was not adjusted. A massive printing bill arrived several months later in tandem with a flood of unsold copies, long after Karmatz had graduated and passed on the Review’s editorship. The Dean of Students threatened to close down the magazine rather than pay the bill, but Karmatz’s colleagues interceded on cr’s behalf.

Denney and Elder Olson (a professor who, like Denney, was both a longtime supporter of the Review and an occasional contributor)


convinced Dean of Humanities Napier Wilt to assume direct administrative and financial responsibility for cr. Two years after this crisis,

Wilt explained the changes:

Since the spring of 1957, when the Dean of Students in the University asked to be relieved of fiscal responsibility for the Chicago Review, the magazine has been “located,” administratively, under the Division of the Humanities of the college. The change was made to ensure continuation of the Review at a time when its future was precarious.

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