The New York Review of Magazines

A League of Their Own

By Ellen London

One magazine proclaims itself the “first undergraduate magazine and the oldest literary review in the nation.” The second prides itself on being the “oldest continually published collegiate literary magazine in the country.” The third concedes the gold medal while touting its value as the “country’s second-oldest college literary magazine.”

They are the Yale Literary Magazine, The Harvard Advocate and The Nassau Literary Review, respectively, and they are the literary bastions at the Ivy League’s “Trinity”: Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities.

The difference between their claims to be “first” and “oldest” is a matter of semantics, but the variations in the content and character of the magazines themselves are as great as the differences between the storied institutions that they represent. A look inside the pages of these magazines and the offices in which they are put together offers a glimpse into the Trinity’s literary scene at its best — and, sometimes, its worst.

We begin at the “oldest literary review in the nation.” The Yale Literary Magazine is a biannual publication produced, of course, in New Haven, Conn. The publication process is long and brutal, and its climax takes place in the dead of night.

“We’re very selective,” said this year’s managing editor, Zeynep Pamuk, a junior majoring in ethics, politics and economics. Pamuk assumed the position at the beginning of this school year after being chosen from about 25 other staff members by last year’s senior editors. Poetry is the primary focus of the magazine, and Pamuk and the rest of the staff are charged with whittling some 150 verse submissions down to the six to eight that will be published in an issue.

The spring-issue madness begins in early February, the deadline for poetry submissions. For two nights, Pamuk and the rest of the Yale Literary Magazine staff hole up in their office from 7 p.m. until midnight, taking turns reading each of the finalist poems out loud and discussing whether or not it should be published. Each poem gets twelve minutes of discussion, no more and no less. “I have no idea how other literary magazines do it,” Pamuk said, “but we have a lot of tradition here. This is our system, and it works.” By the end of the second night, the foundation for that season’s YLM is established.

The arduous process of selection is not surprising for a magazine with a long history of publishing innovative poetry. Ample page space is allotted to each poem, and a typical issue also includes one or two short stories. Text rules here — there are very few visual elements and some issues are printed entirely in black-and-white — although the magazine is looking to move in a more “visually interesting” direction with its artwork and design (“’visually interesting,’ as opposed to ‘attractive,’” Pamuk emphasized).

The fall 2008 and spring 2009 issues were produced as a two-part series exploring the state of poetry. Both were printed in an extra-large format. The fall issue was built around the concept of a tombstone, using a gray Romanesque font to express the idea that “poetry is dead,” explained Pamuk. As the optimistic antithesis of the fall issue, the spring number featured colorful lettering and graphic illustrations suggesting that “poetry fights back!”

Like the process for choosing each issue’s poems, the process for selecting new staff members is cutthroat. New editors are chosen by the current editor-in-chief and two senior editors at the end of each school year, and the new editorial board takes over the following September. The senior editors are hired from within: Existing staff members indicate which position they are interested in and why, and then interview with the current senior editors. None of the staff of the Yale Literary Magazine is paid, but the prestige that comes with a spot on the masthead is reason enough for the literary hopeful to apply.

A few hours north on Interstate 93, in Cambridge, Mass., The Harvard Advocate takes a more balanced approach to its editorial content. Established a few years after the Yale Literary Magazine, in 1866, The Advocate has a long-standing tradition of printing lengthy nonfiction and fiction pieces — along with poems and artwork — by a diverse group of students that has included such literary giants as Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac and T.S. Eliot.

The exterior of The Advocate’s office at 21 South Street is unassuming, a New England-style colonial house painted white, with pine green front doors that open into a long, narrow hallway, off of which the magazine’s editors and business managers keep their offices. At the end of the hallway is a staircase leading to more offices above.

By day, the office space is like any other, cluttered with papers, notebooks and discarded Starbucks cups. But by night, and especially on weekends, the house is transformed into one of the most exclusive and boisterous party spots on campus.

“There’s red wine everywhere, cigarette smoke hanging down from the ceiling,” recalled one recent Harvard graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous because of his friendship with members of The Advocate staff. The offices where editors read submissions and mark up manuscripts by day become dens for “you-can’t-even-imagine-what” by night, said the former student. The second floor is emptied for dancing; “Love Generation” and the Talking Heads play on a loop.

On a campus where the social scene is defined by private clubs, the late-night scene at The Advocate is intellectually exclusive. “If you walk into a party there and don’t know Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos,’ you’re not going to have a fun time,” said the ex-student. Most of the parties have literary themes, like “Dead Russians” or “Bohemian Chic.” No matter the theme, the dress code is almost always black on black.

The Advocate is a breeding ground for Harvard’s elite, both academic and social. “It caters to people who want to be part of that group,” said the ex-student, suggesting that the magazine’s staff cares more about the scholarly aura of the magazine than about who might actually read it. “It’s not about promoting the work of young authors. It’s designed to promote itself.”

The Advocate comes out four times a year and it often has a theme. The winter 2010 “Bestiary Issue,” for instance, features writings and illustrations about science and animals. Whatever the theme, a few characteristics remain constant: abstract literary references, gratuitous Q&As and literary works in translation.

For example, the table of contents for the winter 2008 issue includes a translation of Cicero’s Academica and Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura,” as well as Dante’s “Purgatorio XXVI,” translated by frequent contributor Chris van Buren, an Italian literature major who graduated magna cum laude from the university in 2008. Similarly, the fall 2007 issue features poetry accented with Italian: “Moto,” an original poem also by van Buren, follows a motorcyclist’s journey dove Bocaccio fu nato (“where Bocaccio was born”).

Recent issues also include a feature about the relocation of the headquarters for the United States Office of Homeland Security, a historical account of the flooding of four towns in Western Massachusetts and an interview with film director Robert Thalheim.

The diversity of work in The Advocate extends to the artwork, which is printed in highly saturated color and often takes up entire pages inside the magazine. All in all, the magazine resembles The New Yorker, with poetry and artwork interspersed between longer pieces of fiction and nonfiction.

The magazine claims to be distributed on five continents: “No place is too remote for the Advocate to reach. You too, wherever you are, can enjoy the magazine,” boasts its website. At $35 for a one-year subscription (four issues), The Harvard Advocate is pricier than the Yale Literary Magazine, which costs $15 for its two annual issues.

The Advocate’s 14-member editorial staff is composed of four content boards — poetry, fiction, features and art — each with its own editor. The names of executive board members past and present are inscribed in gold on wooden plaques, with female names becoming more frequent in recent years. The walls of the Advocate office glitter with more than one hundred of these plaques.

According to the first editor of The Nassau Literary Review at Princeton University — founded as the Nassau Monthly in 1842 and renamed by its undergraduate staff in 1930 — the primary object of the magazine was “to afford a medium through which young writers might publish incognito their first lucubrations to the world.” In those early days, manuscripts were submitted under pseudonyms or initials, and rejections were often publicly announced and derided. This practice began to wane after student newspaper The Princetonian, founded in 1876, encouraged authors to claim ownership over their work. By the 1890s, all of the magazine’s submissions were bylined.

The years between 1912 and 1917 are considered by Princeton historians to be “The Golden Age” in The Nassau Literary Review’s history. Edmund Wilson ’16 (editor at Vanity Fair and The New Republic, book reviewer for The New Yorker) was at the magazine’s helm, and among the staff members was his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17.

Recent issues of The Nassau Literary Review are similar to those of The Advocate in their diverse, interspersed content — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography and art reprints — but are less lavish. Covers are in black-and-white; inside, readers find few illustrations and little use of fancy type. The content has a decidedly sentimental quality, and the magazine occasionally reprints work by former contributors, as in the spring 2003 issue, which featured four early poems by Fitzgerald that had first been published nearly eight decades before.

What artwork there is in The Nassau Literary Review is mostly clumped together toward the back of the book, and it includes photography and reprints of paintings. The magazine is not as outwardly academic as The Advocate, but also not as avant-garde as the Yale Literary Magazine. Much of the work explores themes of love, loss and family through personal narratives and intimate poetry. For example, in a vignette titled “The Elegy” in the spring 2003 issue, author Margaret Johnson describes her first funeral:

Then Bobby’s boots came to me, brown with dirt beneath the cuffs of a seldom-worn suit. His funeral suit. I replayed the boots walking beneath his burdened shoulder hours earlier, his hand on the coffin handle someone would save as though she had cherished it. I hope that he felt her in there, her small weight cached inside the massive wooden chest.

The tone and brevity of this piece lend the issue a poignancy and sense of immediacy that can’t be found in the other literary magazines.

Also in the 2003 issue are a poem called “After the Argument” by Melissa Galvez, about a fight between two lovers, and “For my Grandfather, Ben Schimer,” by Jay Katsir. The effect of these personal explorations is that The Nassau Literary Review reads more like a diary than an academic journal. An extremely articulate diary, of course.

In the end it might be most useful to think of these three literary magazines in terms of the people that they represent.

The Yale Literary Magazine is the angsty poet, a pathos devotee who thrives on pushing the boundaries of what to publish. As managing editor Pamuk said, it’s a magazine that evokes art but doesn’t claim to be art, an innovative platform for all media — but especially poetry — that gets out of its own way.

The Advocate would be cast as the erudite social climber, self-conscious of its own academic heritage while unabashedly perpetuating that image. It’s the well-heeled scholar who works hard but plays even harder — dressed as Nabokov with a glass (or two) of fine red wine in hand.

The quiet intellectual brooding in the corner is The Nassau Literary Review, a man of few words, but those words are profound. This writer provides a byline only because it’s customary to do so, living in the realm of ideas instead of in the pursuit of fame.

It’s probably best that each magazine has developed its own way of claiming to be “first” or “oldest.” For on that matter, as on most others, they certainly wouldn’t be able to agree.

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