Boston Review

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Boston Review


"Founded by a group of people who sought to develop a small arts and cultural publication that drew on the knowledge, skills and interests of the Boston area academic community, Boston Review (initially called New Boston Review) was first published in June 1975 and included an interview with Susan Sontag. The focus of the publication then was much less political than it is today. The archives section of the web site gives an indication of the wide range of articles in early issues, including interviews with Grace Paley and Joseph Campbell and an article about the “Latin American Boom,” a period in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a surge in interest in Latin American authors. Over the decades, the magazine has had many different iterations, with each version reflecting the focus and interests of the editors who have guided the publication. Since no complete history of Boston Review has been recorded, this brief report has been pieced together through conversations with several of its editors, past and present. Memories are sometimes a bit hazy about details, but this account describes generally how the magazine has evolved.

"Anita Silvey, who was a member of the initial group that founded the paper, remembers that the volunteer staff would assemble informally in the apartment she and Jeffrey Hart, a Harvard professor and founding editor, shared. “Everyone would come at 5 or 6 o’clock and we would work into the night,” says Silvey, who is author of 100 Best Books for Children (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). “I remember doing that almost every night until three or four o’clock in the morning. There was more cat hair in the paste-ups than anything.” When it came time to send the issues to subscribers, the group would hold “bundling parties” to sort the copies of the magazine according to zip codes for mailing. The costs of producing the publication, about $1,500 to $2,000 per issue, were shared by three members of the group. Various volunteers would come and go through the years, and Silvey herself left within two years. Gail Pool, who was a freelance writer at the time, began working as an editorial assistant in 1976 and eventually became one of the editors. “I remember the excitement of it all,” she says. “Even getting one new subscription was a big deal to us.” She is author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 2007), which she says grew out of “Inside Book Reviewing,” an essay that she wrote for Boston Review in 1987. In 1980 when Pool and Lorna Condon were working together as co-editors, the twin challenges of developing editorial content and trying to secure funds for the magazine led them to seek a publishing company that would financially support the journal. They approached Arthur J. Rosenthal, the founder of Basic Books, who was then director of Harvard University Press. Rosenthal said that although the Press would not be able to assist in the project, he himself thought “it was a worthwhile small journal of literary value” and was interested in supporting the venture. “Arthur loved Boston Review and cared a lot about the mix of culture and politics [that it represented],” says Margaret Ann Roth, who later edited the magazine.

"In the summer of 1980, Nicholas Bromell, who was then a graduate student at Stanford University and had worked with Rosenthal at Harvard University Press, became guest editor for one issue. “It turned into a four-year stint,” says Bromell, who eventually returned to Stanford to earn his doctorate degree in English and American literature and is now professor of American Studies and director of the graduate program in the English department at the University of Massachusetts (and a contributing editor of Boston Review). “Arthur and I were feeling our way along,” says Bromell of the first issues he edited. “He did not have a specific vision of what he wanted to do with this publication, except to in some way carry forward what the prior people had wanted to do. That was to have a publication, if not The New York Review of Books, at least a serious publication dealing with literary and political culture.” Under Bromell’s editorship, contributors of political articles included John Kenneth Galbraith, Joseph S. Nye, Noam Chomsky and Anthony Lake. Among others, Bobbie Ann Mason, Adrienne Rich, Ann Beattie and James Merrill contributed to the arts and literature sections, and Eric Wanner, who is now president of the Russell Sage Foundation, guest-edited a special issue on computers and psychology. The budget grew substantially during these formative years. “When Arthur came on we had a total annual budget of about $50,000,” says Bromell. “By the time I left, it was about $250,000. The difference was largely made up by advertising, subscription increases and grants from foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. A breakthrough moment in the history of Boston Review occurred in 1981 when a special issue on “The Nuclear Threat” that included articles by Robert Jay Lifton, Helen Caldicott, Shirley Hazzard, Alice Kimball Smith and H. Bruce Franklin became a finalist for the National Magazine Awards.

"Roth, who was then married to Rosenthal, had been involved in book publishing and was developing educational materials for WGBH radio and television shows. She enjoyed “hanging around and listening” to what was happening with Boston Review, and in 1984 agreed to help market the magazine. After Bromell returned to graduate school, Boston Review had several editors, including Mark Silk, who later wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is now director of the Trinity College program on public values. When Silk left in 1986, Roth took over as editor, discovered that she loved the work and remained in the position. She also continued in a marketing capacity, except for a few years when Garen Daly filled that job. At this time the Boston Review office was on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, halfway, as Roth describes the address, between Harvard and MIT; later the office moved to Boston’s Chinatown. “The rent was cheap, and our office was in an old union building. Our floor had been used for labs and examining rooms,” she says of the quirky quarters. “It was marvelous and a lot of fun. We could go right across the street to the market, and, if you wanted, buy a live duck.” In addition to the regular roster of writers, Roth often found authors through word-of-mouth suggestions. “The authors were paid, but not very much,” she says, adding that the magazine had less of a political thrust under her editorship than it has now. In November 1990 Rosenthal retired as director of Harvard University Press and moved, with Roth, to New York City to join Farrar, Straus & Giroux as publisher of its Hill & Wang Division. Boston Review needed a new home." [1]

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  1. The Early Years, Carnegie, accessed December 10, 2008.
  2. About, Boston Review, accessed December 10, 2008.