An ancient letter

Joseph Mansfield


In 1984 I wrote a letter to the editor of the Sewanee review, to which I subscribed at the time, discussing various aspects of literary quarterlies.  Unfortunately I no longer have my letter, nor do I remember what I said.  I do have the letter which the editor wrote back to me.  I also have a letter from the editor of the Virginia quarterly review, to which I also subscribed.  I had mentioned VQR in my letter to Mr Core at SR, and he sent a copy to Mr Blackford, his counterpart at VQR.  The two letters follow this introduction.


I never responded at the time to either letter.  This year I got the bright idea of writing answers to those letters, and sending along a bit of my writing to see what they might say about it – “Quod erat demonstrandum” to Sewanee, and “The Trion adventure” to Virginia.  On the VQR website I learned that Mr Blackford died a few years ago in a tragic accident.  So I wrote only the letter to Mr Core at SR, sending it by email last June with my little story attached.  This letter is the third exhibit below.


There was no answer.  I considered that Mr Core might never have received my letter, since I sent it to his university office address during the summer recess.  So well into September I sent another copy, without the attachment.  This letter also was not answered, or at least has not been answered to date.  Puzzling.  I thought it was a good letter, one which a literary man would take interest in.



I.  Letter from Mr Core


The Sewanee Review

America’s Oldest Literary Quarterly

Published by the University of the South

Sewanee, Tennessee, 37375

615-598-5931, ext.245


25 September 1984


Dear Mr Mansfield:


            Thank you for your letter of the 15th, which I am sorry not to have answered more quickly.  Lately I have been diverted by a visiting fireman; shortly after his lecture was over, I had a session with a novelist whose manuscript I had read; and yesterday I finished a review that was overdue.  So much for a self-serving litany.


            I liked the letter very much, and indeed I have sent a copy to my friend Staige Blackford, who has been editing the Virginia Quarterly nearly as long as I have been here.  I came when God was a boy; he started to work while giants still stalked the land.


            My distinct sense is that the informed general reader has become an endangered species—and that this cultural fact is what the quarterlies are up against.  On the one hand are a rising tide of little magazines (over 1200), most of them mediocre to wretched; on the other are the specialized magazines that cater to a person’s avocation(s).  In this endlessly rising tide of periodical print the bad is driving out the good; the same thing is happening with books.  I said a little about this in the January number; I have commented on it in print elsewhere.  It seems clear to me what is going on, but while I can diagnose the situation, I can do nothing about it.  Reading is on the decline.  It is too simple to blame this on television.


            A magazine like the Virginia Quarterly or the Yale Review has advantages over a strictly literary quarterly such as this one—breadth of subject.  Mr Blackford publishes some very good general essays that I would be pleased to run, were I editing a different magazine—one like his; I do not envy him for having to publish articles about Why We Are (or Are Not) in Vietnam, the end of the Marshall plan, etc., etc.—essays political and civic, so to speak. The VQR and the Yale Review also have the advantage of being published at large good universities that have excellent graduate schools, thus providing a natural constituency of subscribers.  But it is still hard to find good subscribers, even in these circumstances.


            Our subscription campaign has been successful from our standpoint, bringing in a few hundred new subscribers; and we’ll hope to keep most of them.  Now Mr Blackford and I may return to a plan we discussed a long time ago—a mutual campaign.  One trouble is that we both have more than enough to do without taking on anything extra—and a subscription campaign adds considerably to one’s burdens.


            There are still good readers such as yourself who are itching to read good literature, but it is harder than ever to find them.  Robert Penn Warren has said that students used to stand in line at the Vanderbilt bookstore to get the new issue of the Dial or the New Republic (that was in the 1920s); in the 1940s and 50s they would still buy quarterlies but not stand in line for any magazine; now I don’t know what in the way of print (or pictures) would make them stand in line.  Probably nothing.  And I think this is the case elsewhere.  It’s too bad, but it’s readers like you who help make it worthwhile for Mr Blackford and me to get up and come to work each morning.  Thank you again for writing—and for renewing your subscription.


Cordially yours,


George Core



II.  Letter from Mr Blackford



A National Journal of Literature and Discussion



(804) 924-3124


                                                                                    October 1, 1984


Mr. Joseph Mansfield

P.O. Box 66

Dunlap, Tennessee  37327


Dear Mr. Mansfield:


George Core was kind enough to send me a copy of your recent letter to him, as well as a copy of his reply.  There is very little I can add to what you and he both have to say about quarterlies, except to say that your kind comments about VQR have brightened this otherwise gloomy and rainy day in Charlottesville.


I might just say that what people are reading these days is People magazine, whose circulation now surpasses the domestic circulation of Time and Newsweek.


I also appreciate your recent renewal of VQR for three years, and I hope the contents of our journal will continue to please you.




                                                                        Staige D. Blackford




III.  Email letter to Mr Core


Dear Mr Core,


I recently came across a letter you wrote me in 1984, which I have transcribed and attached to this email.  At one time I'm sure I had a copy of the one I wrote you to evoke it, but I don't find it now.  We discussed the decline of the intelligent general reader.  The decline has of course continued. 


One of my greater disappointments has been the internet.  Coupled with personal computers it has taken much of the labor out of writing and correspondence.  When email was first introduced, with all the naiveté of a child awaiting Christmas morning I expected that friends would write to me, would answer the letters I wrote them, that the tool would facilitate scintillating written conversation across distances.  It never happened.  What did happen was a rising tide of web print that makes your 1984 rising tide of periodical print look like a puddle.  Yet if there has been at all any corresponding rise in readership, there surely is none in the quality of reader or material read.  You said 21 years ago that reading was on the decline.  I would say today that thinking is on the decline, that in fact the art of critical thinking is being lost.  I have been saying for at least 15 years that more and more people are sinking into subjectivism, relativism, some kind of solipsism, that separates them from any perception of an objective reality, and turns them to the pursuit of power and pleasure without regard for what is good or bad, right or wrong.  Our new Pope Ratzinger in a recent speech carried the theme further, saying that with this type of "thinking" any real communication between men, and therefore agreement between men, and therefore civilization itself, is impossible.  He is surely right.  His election strikes me as a sign of hope, but a dim hope in a mighty dark cave.  Back down to earth--  There may come a new day for literary serials.  But not this week.


In 2003 I retired (to Mexico) where I am trying my hand at some experimental writing.  The other attachment (qed2.htm) is a little thing I wrote earlier this year.  I later thought about formally submitting it to the SR but found if it is treated as fiction it falls short of the minimum length guideline.  But if you have time to glance over it and offer me some feedback I should be most indebted.  And if you wanted to use it in the SR anyway I surely would not object.


I also sent a little piece to the VQR early this year, after getting over my shock at learning about Mr Blackford's untimely death.  I occasionally corresponded with him but had not exchanged anything in the last few years.  As my snail mail takes months to reach me, I don't know if the VQR has made any disposition of the submission.


I am leaving for the US early Monday morning.  I have business on the Mountain and if time permits will swing by St Luke's and see if you happen to be spending your summer in full harness.  My son John sends his regards to Mrs Core, who was his English teacher at SAS.


Very truly yours,

Joseph Mansfield


Casas Grandes




© 2005 Joseph Mansfield (written 2005.10.30)