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Literary Awakenings, Courtesy of the Hudson Review

Lee Smith

Founded in 1947, the Hudson Review is one of America’s most esteemed literary journals. Three young men started the magazine, William Arrowsmith, a poet and translator, Joseph Bennett, and Frederick Morgan, a poet and the longtime editor of the Hudson Review, from 1948-1998, when he was succeeded by his wife, now widow, the writer and critic Paula Deitz. (Deitz is also a WEEKLY STANDARD contributor.)

I was very fortunate to work at Hudson as my first job after leaving graduate school, without the PhD I’d sought, half-heartedly. It was the golden age of deconstruction and I’d camped at one of the capitals of post-structuralism, Cornell University. My professors and colleagues were brilliant, warm, and in love with literature and philosophy, but their notion of the discipline finally did not appeal to me.

Hudson was a different matter. All of the magazine’s correspondence with contributors and others, dating back to the founding of the magazine, was filed in the office. Here was literature alive and the men and women who made it were close by. I ate lunch reading letters, postcards, whatever I could find at hand from the masters of literary modernism, its founders—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and others, all of them.

I was most moved by the correspondence of a poet perhaps best known as a critic and teacher, Yvor Winters. During his career at Stanford, Winters taught a number of very excellent poets, like Thom Gunn, Robert Hass, and Robert Pinsky, who are proud to bear his stamp. Still, Winters was an acquired taste—a critic whose sharp temperament seemed to suggest a man standing high atop the Pacific cliffs shouting, important and useful things for sure, but still in the wind, much lost in the clamor and din of the 20th-century. His poetry is difficult, an idiosyncratic song, very fine but not sweet, which I hope he would think a compliment. I was struck by one letter he’d written after learning of his illness, when he confided in Mr. Morgan, much younger than Winters, that he thought perhaps his career, his work, his life hadn’t amounted to much. I wanted to tell him no, he was wrong. Over the great distance, the span of many years, I felt his crushing disappointment and wanted somehow to tell him how much he obviously meant, to others, and now to me. So I read him. I read everything by him, essays, poems, etc., by his students and his wife the poet and novelist Janet Lewis. For nearly a year I read nothing but Winters and his circle. To me, this was the study of literature, to follow the form it gives a life, and study what form that life in turn imposes on meaningful utterance, which is nothing but literature. My education was courtesy of one of the leading cultural institutions of the last seventy years—the Hudson Review.

My former colleague—actually, he was my boss—Ron Koury has been managing editor at Hudson since 1981. Just recently, he’s published a collection of essays selected from the pages of the magazine, Literary Awakenings: Personal Essays from the Hudson Review (Syracuse University Press). Recently, he and I spoke about his, and Hudson’s, latest book.

TWS: Over its 69-year span Hudson has published the work of major fiction writers and poets—most of the great modernists from T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden to Ezra Pound, whose extensive work with Hudson is part of the magazine’s extensive archives. So, why did you decide to focus on the essay?

Koury: Over thirty years ago, we started seeing what turned out to be a trend among the best literary essayists and reviewers to situate their criticism in a highly personal manner as opposed to the theoretical, technocratic work being produced in many literary and academic venues. We were impressed that these essays are enjoyable, entertaining, and share certain qualities as, to quote Joseph Epstein’s title, “The Pleasures of Reading.” I felt they deserved a second life in book form. And actually, the modernists do occupy an important aspect of Literary Awakenings. Besides which, a previous collection we put together: Poets Translate Poets: A Hudson Review Anthology (Syracuse University Press, 2013), featured such modernists as William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.

TWS: What is a uniquely Hudson Review-style essay and how does it differ from, say, a New York Times Book Review essay?

Koury: I love the essays in the Times Book Review, but they simply don’t have the space to feature the longer, more wide-ranging essays we publish. Hudson Review essays are often thoughtful appreciations of serious writers. Usually they have a “hook” that is literary, but not exclusively so. Harold Fromm’s “How We Became So Beautiful and Bright” is an essay on evolutionary anthropology. Or there is one of my all-time favorites, Robert Graves on “Jungian Mythology.” Brooke Allen often writes essays on the Founding Fathers. So, I would say that range of subject matter is one of the defining characteristics of our essays.

TWS: Has the nature of literary culture changed since Hudson first started publishing in 1948? And what about since you started at Hudson in 1981?

Koury: Literary culture has changed enormously since the beginning of the magazine and since the time I started. Clara Claiborne Park’s essay “Talking Back to the Speaker,” included in the anthology, traces some of these changes in how we talk about literature. It reads like a detective story. And of course, the number of literary quarterlies has diminished dramatically since the 1940s. This is a great loss. But people still appreciate good writing.

TWS: Are literary magazines still an essential part of American intellectual culture? Or how does it vie for influence with a culture that tends to value shorter, more rapid and more fleeting forms, like Twitter.

Koury: Literary magazines will always be an essential part of intellectual culture. My favorites are the Times Literary Supplement (London), which is the great temptation, and The New Criterion, both for their range and fine writing. But no, their influence can’t possibly compete with the blogs and online whatnot. Sadly, so much of the culture consists of ephemera.

TWS: Who are some of the new writers you admire, those Hudson has published and others?

Koury: So many talented new writers. Antonio Muñoz Molina is a well-known, prizewinning novelist in Spain but not as famous here, so I feel I can call him a new writer, in terms of the U.S.; we have published essays and memoirs by him. Asako Serizawa, Cary Holladay, Leslie Pietrzyk, Timothy Dumas, Alia Ahmed, Dana Fitz Gale, James Vescovi, Mark Jacobs, and David Klein—several of whom we discovered through our recent short story contest—are all wonderful fiction writers. A. E. Stallings, Michael Spence, Rebecca Foust, and Liane Strauss are great new poets. And the list of new critics would be too numerous to mention, but Erick Neher is one.

TWS: Looking over Hudson‘s history—and let’s say it’s only the middle of the story, if that—what is the magazine’s most important contribution to American literature?

Koury: We are constantly discovering exciting new writers, many of whom have gone on to become household names. It’s hard to say what the magazine’s most important contribution to American culture is, but one factor is our focus on world literature, on translation. From the very beginning, Ezra Pound had encouraged Founding Editor Frederick Morgan in this direction. And a number of our writers, and/or those to whom we gave our literary prize, the Bennett Award, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Thomas Mann, St. Jean Perse, Seamus Heaney, Octavio Paz, T. S. Eliot, and Nadine Gordimer, which is quite a list.

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