Friday, December 09, 2016

Richmond's a Real Person

This fall the Main Library hosted the Richmond Zine Fest, an exciting frenzy of do-it-yourself printed matter. Richmond in fact has a long history of forward-thinking publishing, stretching as far back as the Southern Literary Messenger, edited by Edgar Allan Poe, and, in the 1920s, the ambitious “little magazine,” The Reviewer

Between the Messenger and The Reviewer the South went through a period that caused H.L. Mencken to refer to it as something of a cultural desert. In 1921 the book section of the Richmond Evening-Journal closed, and its editors decided at a party in the Fan to continue reviewing books and publishing fiction and to prove Mencken wrong. Emily Tapscott Clark, The Reviewer’s first editor (pictured below), remembers someone simply stating: “Let’s start a little magazine.”

That magazine, The Reviewer, sought to be both regional and experimental, to see past the mists of the Old South towards new literary forms. In its first issue Mary Johnson recalled a man who, after visiting Richmond for the first time, said, “‘I shan’t let it be the last time. Richmond’s a Real Person!” Johnson agreed, and extended the sentiment: “A real person always has literary value.” Publishing from and about this real entity meant exploring new approaches to literature, dispelling old myths and finding new ones. 


Credited with prompting the Southern Literary Renaissance, The Reviewer published work by Ellen Glasgow (who lived not far from the Main Library), Gertrude Stein, and English stylist Ronald Firbank, whose eight short novels remain as challenging as they are hilarious. Reviewer editor Hunter Stagg (seen above as painted by Richmond-native Berkeley Williams) went on to spend time with Firbank in Europe, furthering a bridge between The Reviewer and the international avant-garde.

After 35 issues and the departure of editors Clark and Stagg, The Reviewer moved to Chapel Hill in 1925 and from there to Dallas, where it merged with The Southwest Review and continues to publish. The Main Library holds all original issues of the Richmond-based Reviewer as well as Clark’s memoir of her time at The Reviewer, Innocence Abroad.

Pioneering publishing lives on in Richmond ninety years after The Reviewer changed headquarters. Considering the daring nature of their magazine, Clark and Stagg would have been perfectly at home setting up a table at October’s Zine Fest, perhaps talking up the Gertrude Stein piece in the latest issue or handing out button badges that say: “Richmond’s a Real Person.”

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