Reed Whittemore, 1919-2012
Poet, editor, and scholar Reed Whittemore passed away last Friday at the age of 92. I only came upon Whittemore’s work a few years ago, when I stumbled upon a 1963 pamphlet by him on the literary magazine, published by University of Minnesota Press and titled, simply, Little Magazines. The book remains the most concise and wide-ranging document on the American literary magazine I have ever come across, and I find myself returning to it again and again, most often to gain some sort of focus and clarity regarding the often-seeming formless subject of literature and the periodical. Here’s a moment of welcome concision on the subject from the beginning of the book:
A little magazine is a serious magazine or a serious magazine is a little magazine. Such a definition may be nonsense but it is as near to definition as most readers of little magazines get. Nor will this pamplet get further.
Here is what the little magazine movement has been, generally, about: it has been a manifestation of opposition to the cultural results of American and French revolutions, that is, opposition to some of the realities of the resultant age of the common man, opposition to a historical condition. [emphasis his]
In 1939, while still undergraduates at Yale, Whittemore and future CIA chief James Angleton launched the influential literary magazine Furioso, which focused largely on modernist American poets, such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, but also published notable work from Edmund Wilson and Wayne Booth. Whittemore himself described the magazine as “a late showing of the odd twentieth-century art beast, modernism.” His bibliography since then as author and editor is daunting, to say the least. (He was twice U.S. Poet Laureate, for instance.) He will no doubt be missed; luckily, his work remains. This is from Whittemore’s very early poem, “Still Life”:
I must explain why it is that at night in my own house,
Even when no one’s asleep, I feel I must whisper.
Thoreau and Wordsworth could call it an act of devotion;
Others would call it fright. It is probably
Something of both. In my living room there are matters
I’d rather not meddle with
Late at night.