A red and white inner tube attached to a rope is being thrown into a stormy sea that is filled with random serif letters

Credit: Mark Smith

A Literary Revival

While many journals of its type have perished owing to budget cuts, the reborn 'Hopkins Review' defies the odds and continues to champion eminent and emerging writers.

The inaugural 1947 issue of Johns Hopkins University's literary magazine, The Hopkins Review, begins with a poem by then undergraduate John Stephen called "Revaluation":

Mightier than swords,

They said- a soothing token Of power's impotence

When peace has softly spoken;

But blades continue keen,

And pens too soon get broken.

These lines speak to the frustration of a young writer who's realized that many things are, in fact, mightier than the pen. Off the heels of World War II, Stephen was probably thinking of land mines and atomic bombs, but his words make me think of money. Mightier than the pen and deadlier than the sword, it's the thing that, only six years later, killed The Hopkins Review.

But in those six brief years, The Hopkins Review had an impressive run. It was established by Writing Seminars founder Professor Elliott Coleman, who felt editorial training and publishing experience were essential for the success of his students. It would become the first literary journal published by a degree-granting creative writing department, setting a precedent for others to come. While Coleman's editorial staff took chances on undergraduates like Stephen, they also solicited work from celebrated poets like E.E. Cummings, Richard Wilbur, and Kenneth Burke. The Hopkins Review launched careers, as well; the Fall 1950 edition included John Barth's first published story, "Lilith and the Lion." Like any cultural institution literary journals are a necessary investment for any society that values the humanities. While putting together the Spring/Summer 1953 edition of the journal, editors Robert K. Burns and H.L. Scharf sensed the end was near and braced readers for the worst. In a foreword titled "Last of the Mohicans?" they warned, "It is entirely possible that this will be the last issue of The Hopkins Review, though that is not a certainty." They were frank about why:

The trouble is finances. Like all literary quarterlies, 'The Hopkins Review' cannot pay its own way. Its revenues during the course of a year amount to something less than the printing costs of a single issue of the magazine. Its subsidy from the university has been $1,000 a year, or just over the cost of one of the four annual numbers. … To say that 'The Hopkins Review' is a nonprofit publication would be to belabor litotes. It is not only noncommercial; it is nonsalaried. No contributor has ever been paid for his contribution. Not one of the editors and associate editors has ever received a salary for working on the magazine.

Flipping through the original journals chronologically, one gets a sense of mounting financial unease. In a scholarly publication, I hardly expected to find Mr. Boh, the one-eyed cartoon mascot for National Bohemian beer, but there he was, on the inside covers of every issue from 1950 onward, proclaiming, "Oh boy, what a beer!" By contrast, the previous issues had no ads. Through the years, however, they became ubiquitous: beauty salon and soda fountain ads sandwiched between poems, tear-out forms for mail-ordering the latest paperbacks. Whatever money the editors received for these concessions to capitalism was evidently not enough to sustain the publication.

The 1953 issue was indeed the last issue—for the time being, that is. It would be nearly 60 years before they published the next one.

If swift and early success, coupled with institutional support, could not guarantee The Hopkins Review's longevity, it's mind-boggling that any literary publication survives more than a few years. As noted in The Hopkins Review's farewell letter, these journals are nonprofit enterprises in the most literal sense. They do not make money. The people who start them likely expect to lose a few dollars, a worthy exchange for giving writers space to explore and reinvent. Like any cultural institution—art museums, local theaters, graduate programs in film production—literary journals are a necessary investment for any society that values the humanities.

Typically, the survival of university-based literary publications is not contingent on their ability to make money. Writing Seminars professor and Hopkins Review editor-in-chief emeritus David Yezzi emphasized this fact: "No magazine of this type balances the budget based on subscriptions," he said. "It requires institutional commitment to literature and the humanities." Indeed, subscription fees are almost never enough to cover production costs, let alone pay writers and staff, so magazines usually subsist on a mix of grant and institutional funding. But grant applications aren't always successful, and institutional support has become increasingly unreliable. In 2022, Bard College announced the closure of its elite literary journal, Conjunctions, citing its unsustainable production costs, a move that came on the heels of a $500 million endowment. Perhaps letting these journals die with dignity is better than what the University of Nevada at Las Vegas did to The Believer. In 2017, UNLV bought the popular publication from its parent company, McSweeney's, but in 2022, they decided the production costs were too high, so they sold it to a company called Paradise Media. Replacing the magazine's usual online content—Toni Morrison poems, Bob Odenkirk humor writing—were such headlines as "25 Best Hookup Sites for Flings, New Trysts, and Casual Dating." To introduce the internet's newest salacious search engine optimization farm, the new owners tweeted, "Hi, this is the new owner of The Believer" from a subsidiary company's account called the Sex Toy Collective. The literary community's uproar was so great that Paradise Media quickly sold the journal back to McSweeney's. All this so UNLV could pocket a mere $225,000.

Budget shortfalls in higher education are a nationwide trend. An analysis by the National Education Association revealed that 32 states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than in 2008, with an average decline of nearly $1,500 per student. When faced with uneasy decisions about where to cut costs, universities take aim at less formidable targets—like literary journals and, even more dramatically, sometimes the departments that house them. When the University of Alaska Anchorage defunded its creative writing MFA program, it also ceased funding its publication The Alaska Quarterly Review, a prestigious outlet for poets and fiction writers. Purdue University killed the Sycamore Review after dismantling its highly competitive and esteemed MFA program. And Gettysburg College recently overhauled its budget, choosing to shut down the highly successful Gettysburg Review because it did not, in the administration's view, contribute to "student experience" or "outcomes."

During John T. Irwin's 19-year tenure chairing the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, he surely also cared about student outcomes and expectations, but his metrics for measuring them clearly differed from those of today's decision-makers in higher education. From the outset, he was determined to have a campus literary publication for students to work on, arguing that every top-ranking writing program needed one. Ultimately, he would make his vision a reality by reviving The Hopkins Review in 2008, but it took decades—and a lot of fundraising—for him to get there.

Irwin came to Baltimore from Texas, bringing with him a Southern geniality that made him well liked by most everyone. He was known for his infectious humor and boisterous laugh; Writing Seminars Professor Jean McGarry recalls him having "a real knack with people," though students might have been intimidated by him at first glance. He wore a three-piece suit every day to work, liked to spring pop quizzes on unsuspecting students, and could recite countless poems from memory. His choice of office door decoration aptly captured the two poles of his personality: Next to a stoic photograph of Edgar Allan Poe was a banner declaring "Don't mess with Texas."

His first attempt at creating a lit mag resulted in the short-lived Strivers' Row, a joint venture with the English Department that published exactly one issue, in January 1974. It is impossible to know how Irwin, who died in 2019, felt about the fleeting existence of Strivers' Row, but if his next move is any indication, one can guess he was disappointed—that same year, he left Hopkins for the University of Georgia to edit The Georgia Review. His editorial stint there was also brief; according to McGarry, Irwin was dissatisfied by The Georgia Review's aesthetic.

"He told me it was a very old-fashioned literary magazine," she says. "Even though it was the '70s, it really reflected the '50s. John was interested in modern, very contemporary fiction, critical theory, and psychoanalysis, so he basically went scorched earth. And so, all the oldtimers couldn't publish [in The Georgia Review] anymore. He told me after a while he had to leave because he had so many enemies. That's what he said. But he came back to Hopkins in 1980 and was hired by John Barth."

Irwin probably felt much more at home working with Barth, a luminary of postmodern fiction, but The Georgia Review must've made an impression on him. Like The Hopkins Review, it debuted in 1947; unlike The Hopkins Review, it never went under. If its traditionalism wasn't inspiring, its longevity must've been.

Why Irwin waited nearly two decades to undertake another editorial venture is a mystery. Nevertheless, in 2005, he announced his intentions to revive The Hopkins Review, which published its first new issue in winter 2008. The three intervening years were spent soliciting funding, securing authors and editors, and coordinating printing with the Johns Hopkins University Press, potentially tricky tasks at which the affable Irwin excelled.

Rob Friedman, A&S '81, who audited Writing Seminars Master of Fine Arts classes during Irwin's tenure and helped relaunch the journal, notes how much the journal's success hinged on Irwin: "I really salute John. He hungered to do this thing, and he did everything he could to make it work. He really pulled in a lot of heavy hitters to give weight to [the journal]. And it is a testament to the respect that people have for John that they gladly came aboard to help him get this thing going."

If the first iteration of the journal ended with a whimper, it returned with a bang. The "new series," as Irwin dubbed it, launched with a mix of fresh and recognizable voices. The first issue included two unpublished stories by the late experimental writer Donald Barthelme, prefaced with a touching note from his longtime friend and peer John Barth. Award-winning poets Mary Jo Salter, John Hollander, and Richard Wilbur appeared in its pages, and future issues would feature venerated literary critics Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler and decorated novelists Alice McDermott and Colm Tóibín. Fifty-five years after the first editors mourned the journal's uncertain future, it was more alive than ever.

Irwin helmed the journal until 2015, when a stroke forced him to scale back his professorial and editorial duties. At that time, poetry Professor David Yezzi was guest editing an issue of the review, a position he hadn't expected to become permanent. But with Irwin unable to continue, Yezzi volunteered to take over.

"I wanted to stabilize everything," Yezzi says, "kind of keep [the journal] on track and grow it from what John had built without doing a major overhaul—extend and innovate within the existing format."

Yezzi upheld the journal's reputation of publishing excellent writers by including the likes of William Logan, Andrew Motion, and Natalie Shapero. Irwin's efforts were not forgotten—when he retired in 2016, the journal honored him with a 36-page Festschrift, a book of tributes for a retiring academic, with contributions (some in poetic form) from 13 of his colleagues.

Yezzi has since passed the torch to poetry Professor Dora Malech, who became editor-in-chief in 2022, just in time for a 15th anniversary redesign. With design director Sevy Perez, Malech and her editorial team spent a lot of time reimagining the journal for a new generation.

"We had the opportunity to really do some soul-searching," Malech says. "What are we about? What can we be?"

A lot of things, as it turns out. The covers, once uniformly blue and white with a staid black logo, are now full color and full bleed, featuring vibrant art from Baltimore-based artists. Inside, readers will find art folios, visual essays, and a diverse selection of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and criticism from a roster of esteemed writers including Claudia Rankine, Paul Muldoon, Terrance Hayes, Michael Martone, and John Barth. Each issue also contains works in translation from a variety of languages, from Spanish to Yiddish to Swahili. It's the kind of quarterly that Irwin, wary of traditionalism, would've loved.

The journal is not confined to its physical copies. On its website, readers will find podcast episodes and online exclusive features. In the wider Baltimore community, magazine contributors participate in local literary festivals and gather to recite their work at Bird in Hand, a cafe and bookshop across the street from the Homewood campus.

The new series of the journal has received broad acclaim, especially in the past few years.

Michael Dumanis, editor of Bennington College's literary journal, Bennington Review, praised The Hopkins Review's precise artistic vision: "I think The Hopkins Review is a terrific reclamation, in a digital age of spontaneous website clicks and a glut of decontextualized literary content floating through the internet, of the value of a bound, tangible, unified art object that carefully selects, compiles, and arranges a spectrum of new fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and criticism through a distinct editorial lens. What you get is a cohesive, engaging volume full of varied literary textures ordered into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every few months, you can read it like a new book."

Since Malech took over, the number of subscribers has doubled. The editorial team, a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty (including Professor Danielle Evans as fiction editor), and professional editors and writers, cull work from a large pool of unsolicited submissions. Their ability to recognize good writing and collaborate with writers during the editing process has resulted in individual pieces (from each editor-in-chief's tenure) being reprinted in wide-ranging anthologies such as Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best Spiritual Literature, and Best Literary Translations. The journal won a 2022 Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial and Design Achievement from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, with the judges noting: "The design changes have brought this important arts journal into the social stream of twenty-first-century cultural connections."

Despite the larger trend of colleges defunding their literary journals, The Hopkins Review's future seems secure, in large part because it belongs to an institution that chooses to invest in the humanities. The journal has a three-year partnership with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute and funding from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, in alignment with its five-year strategic plan, Priorities for the Future. Under Dean Christopher Celenza, KSAS outlined four major priorities: revitalize the undergraduate experience, grow the size of our faculty, enhance the graduate student experience, and promote public-facing scholarship and community engagement.

Faculty size aside, this list could easily be presented in answer to any college administrator questioning the purpose of their campus literary magazine. Literary journals might contain the most accessible, and most enjoyable, form of public-facing scholarship, and hands-on editorial work certainly enhances both the undergraduate and graduate experience. Malech called it "one of the more meaningful experiences outside of the workshop that a program can provide for its students."

Phoebe Oathout, A&S '23 (MFA), who is the journal's current senior editor, agreed: "Before I arrived at Johns Hopkins, I was working in a Wyoming town that fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 living in it between the seasons," she says. "I knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea what the publishing process looked like. When I started my MFA, I heard about the opportunity to edit THR through my closest friend in the program, and primarily joined because she said it was fun. Within my first few months as an editor, I learned what the evaluation side of Submittable looks like, the primary tool used by literary magazines to read submissions, along with what helps a piece stand out from the pile. I was given the opportunity to work with an emerging trans author one-on-one about a piece that I really related to, about a nonbinary character in rural North America navigating homelessness. I got to edit work by some of the nation's leading artists, including Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, Vauhini Vara, and Alejandro Varela. It was the kind of responsibility I had no idea I could have access to, and instead only thought I could dream about."

Oathout's experience, coupled with The Hopkins Review's indelible impact in literary circles, might serve as proof to skeptical college leaders that there is in fact a return on investment in the humanities. For those who remain in doubt, come to the next reading at Bird in Hand. Grab a latte, peruse the bookstore shelves while mingling with Baltimore's literary community, and find a seat among the stacks—maybe you'll change your mind.

"When we had our end-of-year event at Bird in Hand the other day," Malech told me, "I was watching incredible graduate students from Miami, from New Mexico, meeting members of the Baltimore literary community, interfacing, connecting, celebrating one another's work as editors, as writers, getting to know one another, and I just thought that those are the kind of connections that don't show up in a numerical sense. They're qualitative, not quantitative—but they're also, I think, really invaluable."

Aleyna Rentz is a communications specialist at Johns Hopkins University.

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