Spring 2007 (20.1) Editor’s Pages
With this issue, The Gettysburg Review begins its twentieth year of publication. We will be celebrating this momentous achievement all year long, but this is likely to be the only time I will personally write about it. It was in Slate, the online magazine, that I read someone’s irrefutable notion that such anniversaries are important only to editors and publishers, maybe to a few of the writers published in the journal also. But not to readers. So I will talk about it only once, and I will try not to be boring.
When I go places to do literary things, I am often asked by new acquaintances, speaking in what I take to be a surprised tone, “Are you the founding editor of The Gettysburg Review?” The question surprises me as well, though I am not sure why: editing a literary journal is not a big deal, after all, and few who have done it have earned any kind of fame, so why should they know about me? And rather than be surprised, I could be delighted: the question certainly implies that the journal has both status and longevity, and it may also imply that I seem younger than I actually am. Time passes. Time goes hastening by.
Twenty years have passed since I left my teaching position at the University of Houston and came to Gettysburg College to do this job; thirty years since I left Middlebury College to go to Houston; thirty-seven years since I left the University of North Carolina, with my new doctorate, a wife, and two young sons, to go to Middlebury; forty years since I left Michigan Technological University to go to Chapel Hill; and forty-two years since I left Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota with my masters degree, a wife, and a two-week-old son, to begin my career in Houghton, Michigan.
Time goes hastening by. And memory makes time uncertain. Memory is the offspring of time, but memory longs to embrace eternity. Enduring little hugs and kisses, smooches that linger as long as memory endures, and then are gone. Human eternity is as long as human memory. Human memory is as long as human consciousness. Human consciousness is as long as an individual human life. The illusion of human eternity lasts as long as human memory, as long as human consciousness, as long as an individual human life.
A Sunday morning in October, the fifteenth. 2006. Basketball season is coming, and I am getting ready to buy a new television set, high definition, forty-six-inch screen. Moments ago I was doing some research using Sheila’s computer downstairs, comparing models and prices. I noticed a box lying beside her printer, a tiny box, a matchbox. I picked it up. Five little matches still inside, a notice on the back saying, “Made in Italy,” a logo on the front side, black background with “Lowell Inn” embossed in gold.
My first wife and I spent our honeymoon at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater, Minnesota, on the night of August 12, 1961. She drove us there from Minneapolis in her father’s green ’48 Studebaker because my license had been suspended. When Judith unpacked her suitcase, rice spilled out from every garment.
Sheila, my third wife, and I are raising three kids, teenage girls. They spend most of their time on the computer, instant messaging with their friends, updating their sites on MySpace. One of them must have found that matchbox while rummaging through the junk drawer up here in my office, then carried it downstairs.
Memory obliterates time. By letting me live again in that time and place, and with that person, memory creates a little packet of timelessness, an illusion of eternity. For me these moments are pleasant at first, but then increasingly painful. Every such illusion of eternity must come to an end, must be replaced by knowledge of time—of time and its power to destroy.
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—old their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
The realm of memory is a reminder of age, and old age, as they say, is no place for sissies.
a brief history
When The Gettysburg Review was founded, our goal—mine and the college’s—was to produce a high-quality literary journal that would reflect well upon the institution. We were among the first, perhaps the very first, such journals to print a full-color art portfolio in every issue. We have won many awards and published many beginning writers who have gone on to significant careers.
Several things have changed over the twenty years. Five years ago we switched our mode of production from hot-metal composed by linotype to offset composed by computer. We still proofread everything twice, on-site, using the oral method in which one person reads text aloud to another person who looks for errors. Our staffing has fluctuated over the years. Not long after I arrived, we added the position of managing editor by hiring Carolyn Guss; Emily Ruark Clarke and Mindy Wilson have also held that job, and Kim Dana Kupperman fills the position now. Around the time the first issue was published, Tricia Pitney became our office manager. When she was elevated to the new position of business manager, she was replaced by Linda Stonesifer and later by Kris Koontz. Kathy Staneck later replaced Tricia as business manager.
Frank Graziano, our first assistant editor, was hired in 1988, followed by Jeff Mock, and Mark Drew, who is still here. When the college eliminated the position of business manager some years ago (truly a hard time for us) those duties were split between the office manager and the managing editor. Secretarial help ended then, and clerical work was taken over by student workers.
The biggest change and challenge we have faced by far has been the increase in the number of submitted manuscripts, which has gone from about four hundred in 1987 to nearly six thousand last year. With only two primary readers—one of whom also teaches and supervises this entire operation—and one or two part-timers, we find it difficult indeed to process this material within the industry standard of three months. Another change has added to that problem, the now near-universal practice among authors of submitting their work simultaneously to more than one journal—a reasonable thing for them to do, but one that drives us to distraction.
the persistence of memory
I recently returned from Las Vegas with a sock full of half-dollars. I am a blackjack player, and I love half-dollars. An ordinary win in blackjack pays even money: you bet five dollars, you win (or lose) five dollars. But if you win the hand by drawing a blackjack (an ace coupled with any ten-value card for an instant total of twenty-one) then you are paid one and one-half times your wager: you bet five dollars, you win seven-fifty. The casinos in Atlantic City have chips valued at two dollars and fifty cents in anticipation of this possibility, but the casinos in Vegas use one-dollar chips and fifty-cent pieces, half-dollars. Whenever I make a five, fifteen, or twenty-five-dollar bet and am dealt a blackjack in Las Vegas, I will be given a half-dollar, and I always put those coins in my pocket and bring them home.
Why? Gamblers are notoriously superstitious—I stack my chips in a certain way and bet them in a prescribed order, for example—but my obsession with half-dollars is based on something else, something that happened at the Grace Lake Resort in what, 1948 or 1949? When I was a kid, my family spent summer vacations on the shores of Grace Lake, somewhere near Bemidji, Minnesota. I have just tried to find Grace Lake on a map of Minnesota, but without success. If any of my young daughters were here now, she could probably Google the lake for me—but I cannot even figure out how to turn off the touch pad on my laptop, though I did it once before. And a couple of days ago I had to summon the English department secretary to install a printer on my teaching computer. These things are happening because I am growing old—old in life and, shall we say, seasoned in my job. But I have my memories.
Grace Lake Resort was a mom-and-pop operation, and it had a little convenience store stocked with essentials like bread and milk. One afternoon—I was eight or nine years old—my mother gave me a five-dollar bill and sent me to buy something she needed to make dinner. I walked to the store—a short distance on a sidewalk across the sand—and bought whatever it was. In the change I was given was a fifty-cent piece, a beautiful half-dollar, pure silver, with the image of the goddess Liberty on its dominant side.
I appropriated that coin as my own, put it in my pocket, convinced that my mother would never know. But when I gave her the rest of the change, she looked at it and said, “This isn’t right.”
“That’s what Mrs. Werner gave me, Ma,” I said.
“Well, we’ll just go over there and talk with her,” she said, and off we went.
Mrs. Werner was certain she had given me the correct change. “I counted it twice,” she said. “You know how kids are.”
My mother turned back to me with one of those looks, questioning, doubtful. “Uh,” I said, “maybe I dropped it?”
“Let’s go look,” she said. The three of us went outside, split up, and began searching the area between our cottage and the store. When I was safely out of sight, I dropped the half-dollar in the sand, yelled “I found it,” picked it back up, and handed it to my mother. I suppose she said something like, “Well, that mystery is solved,” and she probably gave me that look again.
The design of the half-dollar changed in the early sixties; the coins now feature an image of John F. Kennedy. They started out silver, but sometime later in the sixties the mint began adding copper to them, and all the coins minted since the early seventies are mostly copper. I accumulate a lot of them during my excursions to Las Vegas, and I bring all of them home. Most go straight to the bank, but on the rare occasions when I find one of the older, silver ones, I put it into a jar. This may be one of the little ways I grope for eternity.
I do not deny eternity. No more than I deny infinity. To be honest, I know nothing of these things. But matter exists, and space exists, and energy exists, and they always have. Maybe these things fluctuate, gathering to an invisible point, then expanding through a big bang. But they exist in a state of timelessness, and together define eternity. The energy that is inherent in matter creates motion and change, and some of that motion and change creates the thing we call life.
Matter and energy are eternal in a sense much larger, much more real, than the illusion of human eternity created through human consciousness and human memory. Some form of life, in the largest sense, may be eternal also, if life is defined as energy interacting with matter. But human life is not eternal, not individually, not collectively. Human life is but a blip in the eternal swarm of matter, space, and energy. And time? An illusion created by human consciousness and perpetuated by human memory. The notion of human eternity, the survival of human consciousness, is a dream, a hopeful illusion borne of the ego. Eternity, alas, is impersonal.
the problem with pronouns
The choosing of manuscripts for publication is fundamentally important; a journal will rise or fall because of the editor’s taste. After that the editor’s most vital function is copyediting. Generally at The Gettysburg Review we follow The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), though in some matters we go our own way. For example, we persist in preferring the second dictionary spelling of blond—blonde—contrary to the CMS injunction always to use the first spelling. When it comes to rebelling in trivial ways against CMS, however, we cannot compete with the New Yorker, with its doubled consonants in focusses andtravelling and its umlauts over the second e in words beginning with re.
What all editors presumably wish to promote and preserve is simply good writing—and good writing demands the avoidance of clichés. I have grown old in this profession, old enough and cantankerous enough to be able to identify and despise a fashionable contemporary cliché involving the casual, easy, unthinking use of the words we, us, and our. Here is an example taken from an article on travel published in the New Yorker. The author’s specific subject is the growth of inexpensive intra-European air travel that has come about since the formation of the European Union: “Such are the delights of European travel, in its new and loosely regimented form: it spirits us, without ado, from one small world to another, urging us to forge the links between them.” The author describes his own experiments within the system, including the time he purchased a series of tickets without knowing the destinations of the flights. But us? For this sentence to include me—literally as reader a part of the author’s us—it would have to be written in the conditional mode. I would be happier if the text said that the new form of European travel “can spirit adventurous travellers [sic], without ado, . . . urging them to forge the links between those worlds.” But, no—my little changes are not enough to save this prose from its clichés. “Can spirit”? “Without ado”? “Forge the links”? Why not also “footloose and fancy-free”?
The problem with the we/us/our cliché is its assumption that individuality does not exist, that all people are the same—that human consciousness and human identity are collective rather than unique. I find this most often in writing that pontificates in one way or another—promotional writing, critical writing, or creative nonfiction of a precious and preachy sort. Consider this subhead, which appeared recently in an issue of Sports Illustrated: “An athlete’s suffering can be instructive, even inspiring. But our emotions spill over at the sight of an injured horse.” I do not want to generalize, so I will not speak for my readers, nor for all of humankind. But let me go on record as being neither a soft-headed sentimentalist who weeps for every fallen bird, nor a cold-hearted cretin indifferent to the plight of an athlete with a broken neck. For these reasons I do not appreciate that word our.
In a recent bulletin from the Book-of-the-Month Club, I was informed that a book called Misquoting Jesus “makes the provocative case that many of our cherished biblical stories—indeed, the divine origins of the Bible itself—are the results of both intentional and accidental alterations.” I find both condescending and coercive the bland, empty-headed assumption that all members of this club, me included, should and undoubtedly do cherish stories from the bible.
The root cause of these problems is the assumption that all people are the same. I prefer to think of each person as unusual, unique, individual. As reader, I want to hear, and as editor I want to publish, the unusual story of the rare occurrence, not the average story of the common experience. Tell me not how it is with everyone; tell me how it is with you.
In fact, pronouns in general can be hard to control, if a writer is not paying sufficient attention. Surely Thomas Friedman is an accomplished writer, but look at this paragraph from his New York Times column published last September 15, about the use of eco-fuels in Brazil:
Think of each stalk of sugar cane as containing three sources of energy. First, the juice extracted
from the cane is already giving us ethanol and sugar. Second, the bagasse is already heating very
low-technology, low-pressure boilers, giving us electricity. But if Brazil’s refiners converted to new
high-pressure boilers, you could get three times as much electricity.
The first sentence (“Think of . . .”) is based on the pronoun you, meaning the reader. The second and third sentences shift to the clichéd use of us to create a cozy group encompassing the writer and his readers. But that us also refers to the people already receiving the benefits of the Brazilian system, and that would be some group of Brazilians, presumably not regular readers of Friedman’s columns. Friedman himself, in any case, is not Brazilian. The final sentence returns to the collective you of the first sentence, while retaining the confusions inherent in the preceding use of us.
The problem with clichés for a writer is that, once they become lodged in the writer’s head, they are so easy to use. I am guessing, of course, but I think Thomas Friedman wrote that paragraph the way he did, and his editor did not change it, because of the fashionable pervasiveness of the we/us/our cliché.
While writing that last sentence, I almost allowed myself to type “our writers” rather than just “a writer”—which brings me to my last example of the we/us/our cliché. On the back cover of the paperback edition, a recent novel by Alexander McCall Smith is described thusly: “Complete with wonderful Edinburgh atmosphere and characters straight out of a Robert Burns poem, The Sunday Philosophy Club is a delightful treat from one of our most beloved authors.”
The book is a reprint for an American audience of a work set in Scotland and first published in Great Britain. As for the author, he “was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe, and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana and at Edinburgh University. He lives in Scotland.” So who is this our?