OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 16, 2007
by Richard Stern
In certain movies of the Thirties and Forties, one motif was "Let's Put On a Show," and sure enough, the local adolescents, the best-known of whom were Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, were soon singing and dancing up a storm before the hearty appreciation of their peers and elders.
The intellectual equivalent of this phenomenon in my lifetime has been "Let's Start a Magazine." I myself have been involved in various publications of various worth, which have lasted anywhere from one issue to a dozen. Perhaps the best-known was Noble Savage edited by Saul Bellow, an inveterate starter of periodicals, Keith Botsford and Jack Ludwig. It contained the earliest published prose of Pynchon and Coover as well as pieces by such Bellow friends as Ellison and A. Miller, but lasted less than two years or six issues.
Once in a blue moon, one of these ventures is a durable success. The most distinguished, mentioned by several OU contributors, is the New York Review of Books, which rose from the void of a New York newspaper strike with the starry help of the Robert Lowell circle and the editorial smarts of Robert Silvers and the Epsteins, Jason and his then wife, Barbara. A less far-reaching but very important periodical, Critical Inquiry, was started in the Sixties by the late Shelley Sacks at the University of Chicago and continued on its very advanced level guided by Tom Mitchell. But the successes are few. What begins with the familiar ache of intelligent people that their important work has failed to be recognized, written about or in some dire cases even noticed ends when the ache is somehow lessened and the energy and time required to put out the periodical are regarded as less important than their next work. (A very few console themselves with the history of such books as An Interpretation of Dreams--whose 800 copies were finally sold out in ten years--or Capitalism and Freedom whose publication wasn't greeted with a single review.)
Jeffery Herf's intelligent plea for a new publication which would consist largely of reviews of such important scholarship makes plenty of sense and undoubtedly fills a need that isn't temporary or transient. Franklin Foer's suggestion that the OU columns are themselves a place where such reviews could appear is also excellent, although it means the displacement of the original notion of the Open University. My own notion is that a new periodical requires the slaking of more than this need for reviews of scholarly books. I suggest that it include surveys of foreign publications. T.S. Eliot's Criterion--circulation about 800--the U. of Oklahoma's World Literature and several other periodicals have done this.
At this writing, I favor the Foer notion that OU contributors extend their reach beyond the thematic centers which have dominated these columns to include mini-reviews (such as the one cited, Empson's surprising assessment of The Bridge of San Luis Rey) which might at least alert readers to the significance of works of which they'd otherwise have no knowledge.