The State of Letters

Adam Ross

Winter 2017

This editorial, like many elements of the Sewanee Review, has a long history. The poet and critic Allen Tate created the State of Letters in Autumn 1944 to announce his editorship when he took over from Tudor Seymour Long, and every subsequent editor assuming the mantle—John Palmer, Monroe K. Spears, Andrew Lytle, and George Core—has employed it to reiterate the Review’s editorial policy and reinterpret its core values.

In his piece, Tate discusses what he perceived as the “collapse of American literary standards.” He was troubled, in particular, by certain popular critics who would do away with such standards altogether. It was wartime, America was in an existential struggle with fascism, and to these men, all authority, even that of intellectuals, was suspected of being anti-democratic. “If you believe in ‘standards,’” Tate writes, parroting these critics’ line of thinking, “who is going to uphold them but ‘authority’? And what other authority is there than the authority of force?” Tate knew this to be ridiculous. Without literary standards, there can be no literature. Jettison any measure of merit, and the slide into anti-intellectualism is quick.

In a 1960 Texas Quarterly essay, Monroe Spears states that any “literary revolution always brings a critical revolution in its wake.” He and Tate felt good critics caught up to the artists and made sense of them after the dust had settled. Editors, however, don’t have the luxury of retrospection. In their case, Tate argues for a radical receptivity. “Some magazines,” Tate noted, “are better than their editors, others worse; still others are neither better nor worse, and some of these ought not to be published; but I am sure that all literary magazines which do not see the public chiefly as a market and which follow, as well as lead, the good writer, turn out to be different from anything their editors try to make them.” Tate allowed both the importance of the editor’s taste and the necessity of openness. In the process of editing a quarterly, one has to risk being changed by what comes across the desk—to “suffer,” as Tate writes, “a few major conversions.”

Adam Ross is the editor of the Sewanee Review, as well as the author of the novel Mr. Peanut and the short story collection Ladies and Gentlemen.

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