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Minor Aspirations and Mock Debate

October 1, 2013 by Charles Newman

Triquarterly, the literary magazine at Northwestern University, is shutting down. It isn’t news that publishing is in upheaval, and Triquarterly isn’t the first literary magazine to lose the support of its university, but for forty-five years, under several different editors, Triquarterly championed the idea of the literary magazine. Charles Newman, who became the editor in 1964 ”‘more or less invented the look’ of the modern literary magazine.” They published a special issue on The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History in 1978. They sponsored a famous symposium on the Writer and the World in 1984, three days after Ronald Reagan’s re-election. The university’s disregard for that history is disheartening. The way the decision was made is also disheartening—the editors were only informed of it a few hours before the press release was sent out. The university had an opportunity (and a responsibility I think) to initiate an important discussion about the future of literary magazines—in public, with the magazine’s editors, readers, and writers, and the entire literary community.


Charles Newman, who transformed Triquarterly from a student paper to a national publication, died in 2006. The executor of his estate, his nephew Ben Howe, is a contributing editor at this magazine, and I asked him if we could include his foreword to his first issue here.

As for the future, it cannot possibly shock us, since we have already done everything possible to scandalize ourselves. We have so completely debunked the old idea of the Self that we can hardly continue in the same way. Perhaps some power within us will tell us what we are, now that the old misconceptions have been laid low. Undeniably the human being is not what we commonly thought a century ago. The question nevertheless remains. He is something. What is he?” —Saul Bellow

There are two kinds of magazines—those which fascinate with nouns, and those which delight in verbs. The former are more proper: dealing modestly with time and life, they assert rather than explain; to sell things, they name things. The latter, more common, more active, tend to make a statement, ask a question, give a command. Their tenses are generally more progressive and less tangible. This is a perfect situation for dialectic, but there isn’t one. It is not at all as simple as that. This accounts for the ambiguity of the title—Tri-Quarterly. We read it as an adverb—a modified occurrence, in which action and naming are indivisible. It may tell place, sense, manner, frequency, degree, direction. Yes and no are also adverbs.


When Dos Passos said, “All right! Now we are two nations,” he was right save one particular—the number. Dualism for his generation dramatized a final disgust with oneness, the phony unities of the modern world. We have since learned that even something elemental as disgust is not easy to come by. In a society where poets use the marketing techniques of advertising, where businessmen hire poets to sensitize their images, where radicals captivate the very audience they are pledged to destroy, where the bourgeois find anarchism fashionable, where the ethics of corporations and universities appear interchangeable, it is difficult to draw that old dialectic taut again. Heaven and Hell are no longer popular concepts in an affluent democracy. The social scientists have given us another, less pejorative vocabulary to explain ourselves. What De Tocqueville noted as the tyranny of equality, what Jefferson envisioned as the chance for each talent to find its own authority, we call now Pluralism—which is both the fear and promise of unlimited possibility. Now we are xnations.

It is possible, of course, that we simply cannot calculate fast enough, that a machine will come up with that number and set us straight again. But that is to assume that mere naming will again suffice. It is who makes use of that pure mathematics, and how, which concerns us. Pluralism means that the number in Dos Passos’ retort is an unknown integer. It does not mean that any single reply is inadmissible—but that answers are viable, dangerously so, precisely because they are mutable. Pluralism means that the stuff of each choice is a genuine confusion, and that order may be as various as the unique personalities which lay claim to it.

Order is perverse then, when a personality is absent or synthetic. Modern journalism is awesomely adept in avoiding the price of order. In collective editorializing, the personality is subsumed by committee for the sake of consistency. The voice must never catch or waver; that would complicate things. There are the ‘Objectivists,’ on the other hand, who would let the “images speak for themselves.” Thus, we are treated, in successive exposures, to a president, a quadruple amputee, tomato soup, a debutante, and earthquake—bound together simply because they are all “news.” In one case, the perspective is synthetic; in the other it is non-existent. Both lack the unity of personal vision and the courage implicit. Commercialism is only one kind of cowardice, however. Who know what to make of that president, that cripple, that girlie, that soup, that disaster.

Art Modern art is the creative personality’s confrontation with pluralism—the sharing of the spectrum. There is an old and engaging ideal that art, literature, particularly, might structure reality in such a way as to develop human sensitivity, and if not create values, at least indicate alternatives. A figure as recent as James Joyce is said to have thought that the worst thing about World War II is that it kept people from reading Ulysses. The Sturm und Drang literary reviews at the time of “two nations” believed that after that blasting, what floated back to earth would find new roots, grow new patterns. It is no secret that all the pieces did not fit together. The tradition that Art might affect Life, even uplift it, is now carried on, not so much by artists, but by the profession of criticism, which—whatever its merits as a discipline in itself—must be considered a rear guard action in terms of art.

A most compelling fact of modern life is that much of modern art seems to repudiate it. It is the old debate between Jefferson and De Tocqueville again; whether you choose to celebrate the dynamism or the vulgarity of a pluralistic world. The cultural elite used to allow that people get along pretty well without art. It has taken them the last half century to say that art gets along pretty well without people—since the people confuse their capacity to react with the artist's ability to explore.

It is not for us to gauge the proper relationship between art and society, or even to bring the mind and marketplace together. They are already too close for comfort. The idea that art should serve society is impractical, not because some societies, like ours, have failed at it, or others like Russia, have succeed all too well—but simply because it is impossible to harness the creative personality to a phenomenon which is more or less than himself. It takes too much out of everybody concerned.

But what if society should serve art? The artist’s task, we have often been told, is to question without regard to the consequences. Society’s task is less newsworthy, but no less compelling—for they must have the courage to confront questions which not only do not occur to them, but which they could not answer if they did. In that sense appreciation is a selfless act. It is the audience, themselves, who must reject the synthetic order of those who serve their needs or presume to create them. In the supermarket the consumer must provide his own synthesis.

The necessity for the artist’s personal vision, the value of his partiality is clear. The creative individual has his place, such as it is. Art, and what passes for it, is surely taken seriously enough. Perhaps it is the audience in which we no longer believe.

The University Proof of pluralism is that we can now talk of the university in the same breath with art and society. Higher education has come in for a good share of attention lately. It has been criticized both for a willful aloofness from society and its needs, and for a fatally perfect adaptation to society and its impositions. One thing is clear—its scope has been immeasurably increased—not only does everyone end up at college, but as institutions, universities have been made responsible for everything from driver training to the preservation of grand opera. Given modern military and technological goals, some have acquired a power, prestige, and concomitant awe, once reserved for nation-states. The competition between them is purer than between our oligopolies; the politics within them as proselytizing as in any of our parties. They insist upon tangible credentials from a society whose motive force has always been a pragmatic test of talent. They talk among themselves in specialized languages provocative as any underground, yet justify themselves to society in a common counter-revolutionary rhetoric. They are becoming a sub-culture unto themselves.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the number of artists who are not only educated in universities, but make their subsequent living off them. What this relocation of dissent will cost us is not yet clear. It has gone far enough, however, that the old Bohemian/Bourgeois debate has been set along new lines; the “academic” and the “beat,” or in Robert Lowell’s words between the “cooked” and the “uncooked.” We want to elaborate that debate—make the dialectic something more than the rejection of some foul unity. We are not interested in making anybody’s career, although we hope our existence may dignify many. We hope to search out new talent, and encourage the established to venture beyond their reputations.

One recalls, however, that universities, like all institutions dependent upon the good will of the community, have not always been receptive to the kind of questions good artists ask. One can tell artists to avoid such institutions, or demand that the institutions become more accountable. It may be that in the expanding university, we are witnessing an affluent democracy’s oblique answer to the patronage system of the old world—although we could not afford to call it that yet. Still, leisure does strange things to people. And the university’s function, most magnificently conceived, has after all been roughly akin to the artist’s, in that it is pledged to the damnation of spurious order, and devoted to questions that society will not, alone, ask itself. This does not negate synthesis; it simply enhances its value. The university serves art by witnessing the pluralism of society.

All this implies the concept of limited revolution; revolution in the America tradition by chance, in that it makes use of the Establishment. We believe that to be more in accord with both the ideal and the real. This is not the time to profess loyalty to institutions, but to the discipline which keeps institutions alive.

Our task is to assemble. Literary reviews provide no more viable standards than I.Q. tests or annual income. They are simply another alternative; an attempt to bind temperament and action through language. Without resorting to epilogues or manifestoes, we want to embellish those proper nouns and common verbs which have made our culture too often a vehicle for minor aspirations and mock debate. It will be a modern enterprise, perhaps embarrassingly so, in that we are justified by little save our own potential. We’re getting dressed up to celebrate the fact we’re still looking. —C.H.N.

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