When Ralph Salisbury, my late husband, was invited — in 1964, three years before we met — by the University of Oregon to edit Northwest Review and thereby lift it from censorship limbo, the young assistant professor of English and creative writing initially declined.
Knowing he’d been chosen not only for his status as a rising star, with recent publications in Poetry, The New Yorker and other prominent magazines; not only for being well-loved by his students and for his leadership in creating the brand new MFA program; not only for his proven editorial abilities and diverse literary connections; but to help move the university administration beyond the “great scandal of 1963” (my words) and pretend that its recent firing of the most recent editor, for publishing supposedly anti-American and scurrilous material, had never happened.
How could Ralph — a non-combat veteran of World War II who’d studied on the GI Bill with Robert Lowell at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a firm believer in speaking truth to power — accept this offer when he was one of three leaders of a campus-wide “freedom of the press movement” (his words), charging the state of Oregon and the University administration with censorship?
For Ralph, being American was about the freedom to question, to challenge the status quo.
Some of that history — which I know partly from first-hand reports, between 1966 and 1968, while serving as Northwest Review’s assistant editor and then managing editor (before Ralph and I became romantically involved); partly from Ralph, himself; partly from past editors’ and their colleagues’ published reflections; plus what I’ve gleaned from studying that issue and those before it — bears telling, not only because it conveys how the first six years of Northwest Review reflected and contributed to the legendary social upheavals of the 1960s, but because it sets the context for Ralph’s role as editor-in-chief.
What had led to the student-run journal’s suspension? It seems the university’s financial backing of departmentally-independent NWR — via the Office of Student Publications, which produced the perfect-bound print copies — had come with a hidden price tag: compliance with the reading tastes and morals of the right-leaning Oregon voting public.
Who knew? Certainly not the editors of NWR’s first six years: graduate students from various disciplines, aided and advised by several volunteer faculty members, mainly from the department of English. Ralph had volunteered, also, as poetry editor for three issues, right after his 1960 arrival as visiting professor, fresh from teaching at Drake University in Iowa.
From its founding in 1957 until late 1963, Northwest Review had steadily been taking its place alongside some of the most highly respected academic literary reviews of its time: Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and others affiliated with institutions of higher education, reputed to be extensions of the New Critics’ aesthetic.
NWR editors’ main goal was to publish, in addition to some student writing, the best and most exciting new work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reviews, interviews, and visual art — they could find from across the nation and overseas, no matter the aesthetic, plus academic lit-crit and book reviews. For the first five years, things went quite well. Distribution — local, national, as well as in 15 countries — was extensive. Each masthead boasted a hearty list of sponsors and donors. Then came bold and left-leaning editor Edward van Aelstyn, PhD candidate in English, who — in 1962 — introduced a political dimension: an article on our country’s Red China policy, another on unilateral disarmament, and another exposing the CIA’s involvement in overthrowing the government of Guatemala.
Then, the notorious Volume VI, Number 4 (Fall-Winter 1963), which contained not only an interview by former U.S. Congressman Charles O. Porter with Cuban President Fidel Castro (conducted, in Cuba, before the missile crisis of October 1962); it also, to the shock of some readers, slipped in a bit so-called indecent language and content: work by Beat poet Philip Whalen; poems by Charles Bukowski, dubbed, by Time Magazine, “the laureate of American lowlife”; and especially challenging, according to George Wickes (who later shepherded the review through other difficult times), a translation of a radio address by Antonin Artaud, made shortly before his death.
No matter that for six years the journal had been offering outstanding work by many of America’s best and brightest: Ken Kesey, whose first published story appeared in Volume I, Number 2; work by Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, Robert Creeley, the Beats, the Deep Image poets, poets from the “New York Schools,” Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” translated by W.D. Snodgrass, photographs by Ansel Adams, and an article on design by Buckminster Fuller. Oregon taxpayer dollars would no longer go to print that salacious, un-American Northwest Review.
And it wasn’t just angry words from a handful of Oregon readers, directed at the University. This handful took their complaints to the Oregon State Legislature, which took them to the Oregon State Board of Education. The Board of Education called University President Arthur Flemming to a meeting in Eastern Oregon and ordered him to suspend the journal or risk university defunding. To further complicate matters, van Aelstyn had already completed his selections for the next issue (Volume VII, Number 1), which was waiting to be printed by the university-funded Student Publications Board. They were, of course, instructed to refuse.
Under these circumstances, how could Ralph, in good conscience, take over Northwest Review as though nothing had happened? Torn between wanting to save the journal, in whose mission he believed, yet not wanting to take part in a cover-up, he consulted with far-flung writer friends.
A personal letter, dated August 4, 1964, from Karl Shapiro — renowned poet, critic, and former editor of Poetry and (later) Prairie Schooner, who said that he, himself, had just been ousted from the Schooner for parallel reasons — advised Ralph to refuse: “When a faculty sits to decide what is or is not going to be ‘appropriate’ – take to your heels. Excuse me for trying to discourage you. Quit if you have to palaver with superior moral intellects. … Or give them a go, if you are a scrapper.”
Ralph was a scrapper. When the university renewed its face-saving offer, he negotiated, requesting:
- that the English department join with a near-majority of university faculty in endorsing the “freedom of the press resolution” (Ralph’s words) which he had written, and which he had presented at a campus-wide meeting;
- that a diplomatic solution with van Aelstyn be arranged: the university would pay his chosen contributors and allow him to publish the issue off-campus in a new magazine, Coyote’s Journal (coyote often appearing as a “trickster” in many Native American myths);
- that the English department take Northwest Review under their financial and supervisorial wings (the latter wing in name only, I say from personal experience); and
- that he be given a paid staff of MFA, MA, and third- and fourth-year, undergrad creative writing students of his choosing. To their credit, the English faculty, headed by Kester Svendsen, and the University administration agreed.
How did Ralph, as editor, steer Northwest Review? The most visible change was his return to the journal’s original, duotone cover image: the iconic whale head of Northwest Indian Art, designed by Jane Marquis — a strategic move, as I see it, offering reassurance to the readership and the administration that stability had returned. Scrappers are good at maneuvering. One of my own, very minor contributions, as managing editor, 1967-1968, was the shift to psychedelic color combinations. (I was very young.)
So, as one who loved poetry and fiction as much as he loved freedom, Ralph was biding his time, while providing stable ground on which to offer some of the best and most exciting new work he could find. Another change was his loading the tables of contents with considerably more poets and fiction writers than before. In van Aelstyn’s last issue, we find three poets. In Ralph’s first issue, Spring-Summer 1965, nine poets were joined by five fiction writers. In the Spring 1966 issue, with its special focus on the Pacific Northwest, they numbered 21. The Fall-Winter 1967-1968 issue, with its special section of contemporary British poets, contained 37.
Looking back, I firmly believe that Ralph did not aim to place his mark upon or “shape” the literature of the 60s. He belonged to no “school.” Through solicited and open submissions, the many dozens of writers he published included (in no particular order) David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, Patricia Goedicke, John Logan, Karl Shapiro, William Stafford, Gary Miranda, William Kittredge, Robert B. Heilman, Robert Penn Warren, Joyce Carol Oates, Lewis Turco, Robert Huff, Barbara Drake, James Merrill, Charles Wright, James Tate, William Pitt Root, Albert Drake, Benedict Kiely, Greg Kuzma, Barbara Harr, Earle Birney, James B. Hall, Gary Gildner, Paul Zimmer, David Ray, Marvin Bell, and Philip Levine. His special British poets section included Ted Hughes, Donald Davie, Dannie Abse, Jon Silkin, and Michael Hamburger. “Excellence” was the determining factor in all Ralph chose. I never once thought his decisions wrong, though his tastes were eclectic, and he broadened my own horizons.
How pleased he would be today, to see this new Northwest Review also committed to literature’s frontier.
Ralph loved the Surrealists. He loved the Traditionalists. His small book of poems by Yeats was well worn. He loved work that challenged easy assumptions and the status quo. He loved inventiveness in all things. He loved the sound of language and he recited poems, from memory, in languages he didn’t understand, including Swahili, just to hear their music. He courted me, during our first long car ride together, by singing an English sea chanty he’d learned from an LP record, sonnets by Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Wyatt, plus Federico García Lorca’s “Romance Sonámbulo” and César Vallejo’s “Masa,” in Spanish (which he spoke well). He’d taught himself French, so he could read the works of Camus as written.
For Ralph, editing, writing, and teaching served the same purpose. As he later wrote of himself: “Though I have lived and worked among the intelligentsia of many nations, my [work] comes from being a questing, mixed-race, working-class individual in a violent world. My work is offered to the spirit of human goodness, which unites all people in the eternal struggle against evil, a struggle to prevail against global extinction.”
It was in that spirit that Ralph conceived of the “Protest and Affirmation” issue (Volume X, Number 1: Summer, 1968), which ended up costing him the editorship. But it wasn’t the reading public this time, it wasn’t the legislature, it wasn’t the State Board of Education. It was one person (maybe more) on the Student Publications Board — more specifically, someone in the campus printing office — who refused to set that issue in print. This was the explanation Ralph was given, when the issue did not come out on time. Sounds preposterous, no? Did that person have a name? Was it someone higher up?
We never learned. Despite Ralph’s repeated questions and calls for the issue’s release, the administration claimed its hands were tied. And where was the English Department when he needed them?
Ralph conceived of this issue in early 1967, as he was shaping the large review section of that year’s Fall-Winter issue, which contained Kenneth Rexroth’s reviews of Robert Bly and David Ray’s landmark anthology A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War and Robert Bly’s The Light Around the Body, plus Maxine Combs’s review of Denise Levertov’s anti-Vietnam War book of poems The Sorrow Dance. What especially inspired him was Levertov’s claim that protest, by itself, is not enough: protest must walk hand-in-hand with affirmation of what we are marching for: visions of what “living at peace” could be.
Not everything in this issue expressed anti-war sentiments, or direct affirmation of the vitality of popular culture, and of love, war’s opposite. But much did. Scheduled for publication in Summer 1968, was a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body”; an essay by William Cadbury, “Sgt. Pepper for This Year’s Head”; one of Diane Wakoski’s long, adventurous poems involving George Washington; a direct, anti-war poem by Sam Bradley; four anti-war poems from the Russian underground, translated by Joseph Langland; and love poems by Karl Shapiro, Joseph Langland, Charles Edward Eaton, and the Japanese poet Tsunado Aida, in translation. There was also a special insert of explicitly anti-war visual art: photography, sculpture, oil, relief etchings, and photos of life-sized pencil drawings.
What, we wondered, had been so terribly offensive that someone unknown refused to set it in print? Was it Karl Shapiro’s rather decorous appeal to “Hymen, O Hymenaee”? Or was it, equally likely, that the art insert contained some truly difficult images, intended to shock, as Picasso’s “Guernica” and the works of Goya have done: an image of “Death”–a skull with a cape where the skeleton body might be — sitting in a chair; drawings of children, screaming, their faces bloated out of proportion; soldiers with rifles advancing into a field of water buffalo; a photo of an eagle clutching a dove, behind them a tattered American flag.
For many months, beginning late Summer 1968, Ralph waged a letter-writing campaign to prominent writers and editors of other journals, asking for support. Letters poured in — to the English department — from across the country, criticizing their inaction. The result: another compromise negotiated, this time over Ralph’s head, with the university administration: replace Ralph, as editor, with John Haislip, another tenured and highly regarded poet in the creative writing division, replace almost everyone else on the masthead, and the journal, as edited, would come out. Maybe the mystery person in the printing office got canned, too. Who knows?
Thus, the “Protest and Affirmation” was finally published, in early 1969, though its cover bears the date Summer 1968. Don’t be fooled by that deception. A letter from Joyce Carol Oates, dated December 1968, wonders if and when her story had been, or would be, published. I wish I had a copy of Ralph’s reply. Ralph, of course, was not pleased with being replaced. Over-riding that sentiment, however, was the huge relief that \ Volume X, Number 1 — complete with the bright red cover he’d chosen — was finding its readers; that NWR was in capable hands; and that he could become a full-time professor again, focusing on his own poetry and fiction while continuing to mentor students who went on to become published, prize-winning writers and editors and teachers and publishers, themselves, leading lives of consequence, among them: Olga Broumas, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Ira Sadoff, Patty Dann, Steven J. Cannell, Barry Lopez, William Kittredge, Kim Stafford, John Witte, Marilyn Krysl, Barbara Ras, Cindy Veach, Lawson Inada, Barbara Drake, Rodger Moody, Jim Heynen, Maxine Scates, Philip Foss, Frank Rossini, and others too many to name. Impossible to count how many stayed in touch for so many years, grateful.