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
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.
From Blackford’s period of editorship came two
anthologies: ERIC CLAPTON’S LOVER AND OTHER STORIES
(1990), and WE WRITE FOR OUR OWN
TIME: SELECTED ESSAYS FROM 75 YEARS OF THE VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW
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,
1, No. 3 ,
3, No. 2 ,
5, No. 3 , and
6, No. 3.