o b i t u a r y 

g e o r g e  g a r r e t t

hen, shortly before noon on the 23rd of June, Staige Blackford was killed in an automobile accident, we lost not only an important and influential figure in the contemporary American literary scene, but also a man of diverse experience (far more so than is the usual rule for literary jobs) and of elegant contradictions.

Born into an old and distinguished Virginia family, he was a dedicated and die-hard liberal, from his youthful days as editor of The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Virginia, until his sudden death a week before his retirement, following twenty-nine years as editor of one of America’s oldest journals, The Virginia Quarterly Review. In between these two editorial positions, and following his graduation from Virginia in 1952, a Rhodes Scholarship, and military service in the Air Force, Blackford held a surprisingly various series of jobs: working for the CIA, Time Magazine, Louisiana State University Press, and the influential civil rights organization, the Southern Regional Council, in Atlanta. He was chief political reporter for Norfolk’s Virginia-Pilot, from which he moved on to become speechwriter and press secretary for Governor Linwood Holton. Holton was a Republican but, as Virginia politics would have it, one far more liberal than his Democratic opposition, and Blackford was a perfect match for him. In a state plagued by the effects of decades of segregation, Holton was the first governor to argue forcefully for a new, and positive, relationship between the races. Here, Blackford had a major influence on progressive policy.

All this practical experience within the American political arena served him well, when, after Holton’s term in office was finished, Staige Blackford took over The Virginia Quarterly Review. The VQR (as it is known), though essentially literary, was and is, as its subtitle announces, A National Journal of Literature and Opinion, thus neither primarily regional in point of view nor exclusively concerned with literature. Its closest kin and parallel was probably the recently defunct Partisan Review, though the latter was always more rigid and less diverse in form and content than the VQR. Blackford took over the VQR from Charlotte Kohler, who edited the magazine from 1942 to1975. Ms. Kohler has been called the finest quarterly editor of the 20th century. A large part of Blackford’s challenge was to try to preserve and maintain the standards and quality of the journal as Ms. Kohler (and her predecessors) had set. A few names of contributors from earlier days will give a sense of the editor’s accomplishment: AndrÈ Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, AndrÈ Maurois, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Mann, Jean Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, George F. Kennan, Robert Graves, and many others.

While maintaining his predecessor’s literary point of view, Blackford added political, social, and historical weight to the magazine. He continued to publish high-quality fiction, by Nancy Hale, Ward Just, Peter Taylor, William Hoffman, Ann Beattie, for example, but he also always made room for new young writers, people like Kent Nelson, Allen Wilbur, Peter LaSalle, Kelly Cherry, and many others. Anyone familiar with the directions and trends, the ups and downs, the fashions, high and low, of contemporary fiction will be astonished by the eclecticism of the editor’s taste. If the VQR under Blackford was fairly conservative in the form of its fiction, it was, obversely, bold in its content, more fearless than most quarterlies, and certainly more apt to deal directly, as it did, with a variety of complex social and political subjects.

If Blackford had an editorial weakness, it was, as he was quick to admit if asked about it, that he really didn’t enjoy much contemporary poetry. In point of fact, the VQR published more poems by more poets than most of the other quarterlies of his time. Blackford hired a poetry editor, Gregory Orr, a poet of genuine repute and of strong opinions, someone who could make choices and recommendations. And, following the code of the honorable politician, Blackford took the heat when, from time to time, readers or rejected poets complained. He stood responsibly behind his man.

Blackford’s other changes – illustrations for the cover, the use of color, changes in typeface – were slight, if at the same time significant, something new and (sometimes) improved, built on a solid foundation.


Staige Blackford lived long enough to meet the new editor selected to replace him upon his retirement. Theodore H. Genoways, 31, the eighth and youngest editor in the history of the VQR, said he would make immediate changes, including “a bit of a face lift.” In a recent interview, Genoways allowed: “We want to appeal to a new generation. VQR’s identity will be redefined under my editorship.” Appropriately bold words for a new regime, to which the only appropriate response is, time will tell. As time has now told the story of Staige Blackford and a job well done. R.I.P.


George Garrett is the author of books of poetry, essays, short stories, and novels, including DEATH OF THE FOX; ENTERED FROM THE SUN; THE SUCCESSION; DO, LORD, REMEMBER ME; THE KING OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU; WHISTLING IN THE DARK, et alia. He is Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, Emeritus, University of Virginia, and has been Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is now the Poet Laureate of Virginia. George Garrett’s reviews and comments have appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 3 , Vol. 3, No. 2 , Vol. 5, No. 3 , and Vol. 6, No. 3.





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