In this 1945 letter, historian, writer, and editor Bernard DeVoto offered his advice for people considering careers as magazine editors. A public intellectual, DeVoto held positions inside and outside of the academy. His stint as editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, from 1936-1938, informed this evaluation of the profession, as did his longtime position as columnist for Harper’s.
DeVoto addressed this letter to H.G. Merriam, a professor at the University of Montana who founded several literary magazines and a writer’s conference during his long career. DeVoto, a historian of conservation and the American West, spent stretches of time in Montana doing research. A few years after this letter was sent, he was a guest lecturer at that university.
The gist of DeVoto’s advice for Merriam’s students who might want to break into a New York City editorship: Prospective editors should realize that the job was about being flexible and pragmatic, not just about loving literature. Editing meant developing the ability to recognize good material “not only absolutely but relatively to the magazine [the editor] works for and its audience.”
Editors needed to be idea machines, “fertile in suggesting areas and subjects which are topical or which can be interestingly written up,” and should be able to successfully match good writers with good topics. To that end, editors should have the ability to “deal patiently with the neurotic tribe of writers.” They should also be curious and should develop habits of attending musical performances, museums, and meetings of learned societies on the hunt for new material.
Above all, the prospective editor should have “a certain humility” and perspective when it came to writing. Crisply, DeVoto deplored what he described as:
… a too literary habit of mind, a coterie point of view, a preciosity which believes there is something very fine in literature, and the finer the more limited to the intellectually chosen. A good man will work out of this attitude in the end, but many suffer acute pain and repeated firing on the way.
Thanks to Charles Petersen, who found this letter while researching the history of the University of Montana’s creative writing program, for the tip. And thanks to Mark DeVoto for his help.