Was New American Review the best literary magazine ever?

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Aug. 19 2008 11:50 AM

Was New American Review the Best Literary Magazine Ever?

I dare you to name a better one.

Elsewhere in Slate this week, Thomas Beller writes about Ted Solotaroff, his literary contemporary Rust Hills, and the mysterious motives of fiction editors. 

New American Review.

The recent death of legendary editor and critic Ted Solotaroff brought back memories of being in thrall to his greatest creation, the literary magazine New American Review (later simply American Review). In 26 issues, from September 1967 through November 1977, under the successive sponsorships of New American Library, Simon & Schuster, and finally Bantam, NAR reliably bottled the cultural lightning flashing about in those thrillingly depressing years. James Wolcott, in his lovely post "Last of the Literary Godfathers," calls it "a zeitgeist mixtape." That's exactly what it was. As soon as NAR was launched, it became the place where young readers hot for the newest new things in literature and experience rushed to get The Word. Man, did it deliver. I have just looked through the tables of contents of my completist's collection of all 26 numbers, which only confirmed my conviction that NAR was the greatest American literary magazine ever. You might protest, but consider:

Its roster of fiction included work by Philip Roth (two pieces from Portnoy's Complaint and "I Always Wanted You To Admire My Fasting: Looking at Kafka"), Leonard Michaels, Gabriel García Márquez, Max Apple ("The Oranging of America"), John Barth, Tom Robbins, Susan Sontag, V.S. Pritchett, Grace Paley ("Faith: In a Tree"), Robert Stone, Ian McEwan (three of his earliest stories), Jorge Luis Borges, Gilbert Sorrentino ("The Moon in Its Flight"), Brian Moore, J.F. Powers, Cynthia Ozick, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme ("Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning"), Russell Banks, Ralph Ellison, J.F. Powers, and William Gass ("In the Heart of the Heart of the Country"). Do read that list again. It published Harold Brodkey's notorious cunnilingual epic "Innocence," with its immortal line "To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die." E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Coover's The Public Burning first appeared in its pages. Nonfiction works that debuted in NAR included Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Michael Herr's Dispatches, A. Alvarez's The Savage God, and Marshall Berman's lyric apologia for radical striving, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Its brainy and ultraengaged essays included Gass' "Fiction and the Figures of Life," Ellen Willis' "Lessons of Chicago," Leslie Epstein's "Walking Wounded, Living Dead" (an astonishing meditation on the return of the Living Theatre from exile, and perhaps the most penetrating thing ever written about the '60s crackup), Norman Mailer's "A Course in Film-Making" (a chest-beating account of the making of Maidstone), and superb work from Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Gilman, George Dennison, Peter Handke, Wilfrid Sheed, Albert Goldman, Paul Zweig, and Theodore Roszak. Its gilt-edged roster of poets featured Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, John Berryman, Richard Hugo, James Welch, Sylvia Plath, A.R. Ammons , James Merrill, and W.S. Merwin.

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NAR was entirely the product of its editor's particular taste and critical intelligence (with No. 16, the words "Edited by Theodore Solotaroff" began to appear on the cover). It was also acutely reflective of its time in respect to its contents, its overall stance, and its unusual format as a mass-market paperback widely available not only in bookstores but also in drugstores and candy stores. A former graduate student of literature at the University of Chicago in the '50s (where his long, complicated friendship with Philip Roth began), he had honed his editorial skills at Commentary under the tutelage of Norman Podhoretz and then edited Book Week, the review supplement of the New York Herald Tribune for a couple of years.

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