On the Wilson Quarterly

Over the weekend, the new issue went up on the website, including a last letter from the editor, Steven Lagerfeld, who had worked at the magazine for thirty-three years and had been its editor since 1999. “The WQ,” he wrote, “will assume a new form with different leadership.” And that was all he said about the change to come. He focused instead on the past.


The subject line worried me. “The Wilson Quarterly’s Final Happy Hour,” it said. Even the rosiest interpretation—that they’d decided, say, to discontinue their occasional get-togethers—was troubling. A link to an online invitation appeared below. The editors had completed the winter 2014 issue, a best-of collection drawn from “four decades of classic essays.” A few particulars followed and then the bad news, withheld for a bit, the way people do: “This will be our final quarterly issue,” they said.

I’d written for the Wilson Quarterly over the years, several book reviews and a couple of essays, but had been out of touch, since the literary editor, whom I worked with most often, moved to New York. Still, I read the issues when they came to our house. My wife, Hadley, was a long-time subscriber. She started receiving the magazine when she was fifteen or so, a gift from her grandmother Ruth, who had read the magazine, I believe, since it was founded, in 1976. In the early 80s, she and several other women were part of a book club, in High Point, North Carolina. As Virginia Fick, another member, told me, they’d attended a symposium at High Point College called “Shakespeare and Women,” and wanted, Fick said, “to read, think about, and discuss new ideas.” Ruth suggested using the Wilson Quarterly as a basis for their discussions, and so the Wilson Quarterly Study Group was born.

Among magazines, the Wilson Quarterly occupied a unique position: Its editors enjoyed complete institutional support—the quarterly is published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—as well as editorial independence. The magazine was not some house organ. It complemented the Center; it did not promote it. Maybe such arrangements were more common years ago, but I can think of nothing else like it now. The editors pursued serious subjects—“Surveying the world of ideas,” reads the motto on the cover—without getting bogged down by academic language or penned in by the sort of disciplinary borders that can stifle university publications.

Once, in 2002, Hadley and I were talking on the phone—this was before we were dating. She’d just gotten home and was going through her mail, which included the new issue of the magazine, and so she was flipping through that, when she said, “What are you doing in my Wilson Quarterly?” And I said, “You read that magazine?” I mean, I liked it plenty, and I was proud of the piece I’d written, my first for them, a review of a book about vintage paperbacks. I just didn’t know anyone who read the thing. When we later started dating, Hadley told her grandmother and said I was a writer, that I’d written for the Wilson Quarterly, and her grandmother said, “What do you think he sees in you?” When she tells this story, Hadley always pauses here, then adds, “And I was her favorite.”

Ruth died, in 2007, and a year or so later, in the summer of 2008, Hadley and I returned to North Carolina, to help her family move her grandfather into an apartment in an assisted-living center. His new place was smaller, with one bedroom and a kitchenette. He could take some of the stuff with him, a favorite chair, the television, some decorative items to make it feel like home, but much of it, there simply was no room for. It fell on me to go through the books. I divided them by subject and then boxed them up for Hadley’s uncle, who was going to store in his basement. I set aside some books on genealogy and family history that I thought he might want to keep out.

Ruth had stored her copies of the Wilson Quarterly underneath the bookcases, and the magazines filled several cabinets. Here were years of past issues, going back to the magazine’s early days. I pulled one down and started looking through it. The design then was different, black type with red headers and footers, like an ecclesiastical volume, but the magazine itself—the content, as we now say—was immediately recognizable. “In Essence,” their survey of recent scholarship, appeared where it always does, but more importantly, animating all the articles was the editors’ and writers’ wide-ranging curiosity, about the world, politics, history, literature, religion; they covered the waterfront. I’d written articles about a nineteenth-century journalistic hoax and the writer William Gaddis. I asked Hadley’s mother if perhaps a local library wanted the magazines, but apparently none did. They’d called around. Not the assisted-living center, even? I said. Surely they had a reading room, a library, something. They did, but they had no space. I thought about taking the magazines home with us—I wanted to—but the reality was, we had no room either. We had a baby boy, our first, then almost three months old. If anything, we were trying to get rid of stuff, just to make room for all his gear. There were just too many magazines.

I sat down next to the cabinets, took a short stack of issues into my lap and began going through them, one at a time, scanning the table of contents, flipping through, looking. I kept articles that interested me, or that gave me that sudden pang of “I don’t know a thing about that.” Here were articles by Anthony Burgess (on music and literature), Anthony Grafton, writing on the 400th anniversary of Descartes’s birth, and T.J. Jackson Lears, with a defense of Henry Adams and an essay called “The Rise of American Advertising,” published eleven years before his Fables of Abundance. In a 1999 issue, Edmund Wilson biographer Lewis M. Dabney interviewed Isaiah Berlin about Wilson. I set aside “The Death of David Crockett,” which promised to detail “one of the bloodier skirmishes of the academic culture wars.” A 1985 issue, meanwhile, offered “FDR and the ‘Secret Map,’” about a forgery concocted to prove that the Nazis planned to reapportion Central and South America. The document bore a striking resemblance to President Bush’s proof, also forged, that Saddam’s Iraq had purchased uranium yellowcake from Niger. I saved articles I thought Hadley would like to read, too, when we were home, when all this work was done. I pulled them out of the magazines, whole articles at a time, the binding glue still holding the pages together. It pained me to break up the collection, but it was the only way. If I found an article that Ruth had annotated, I saved that as well. We all were, I think, looking for those traces. Why, I wondered, had she underlined part of a sentence in an article about Singapore: “Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad,” it said, “found fertile ground for fiction in the ennui.” Had this confirmed something, or had it indicated a subject she wanted to read more about? Had she pursued that? No one knew.

In 2012, the Wilson Quarterly released its last print issue. It was to become a digital-only publication, they said. The decision was surprising, and the Wilson Center said little about the abrupt move other than that the quarterly would be available through Apple’s Newsstand and be compatible with the usual devices. A writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab wondered, “If WQ’s readers are print purists—and the cerebral, dense content in the magazine suggests they’re more likely to carry AARP cards than fake IDs—then how likely are they to follow the quarterly into a digital realm?” The North Carolina group stopped reading the magazine. “They lost us,” Patricia Plaxico told me. “We are from the school that makes notes and highlights,” she said. The group does still meet, however; members just select articles from other publications. My wife and I weren’t people of the tablet either. Hadley elected to transfer the balance of her subscription to another magazine, called Pacific Standard, published by a Santa Barbara-based think tank. The magazine seemed all right—I flipped through it once or twice—but it just wasn’t the same. It’d be like if you planned to meet your old friend, and instead her second cousin showed up.

I RSVP’d that I’d attend the happy hour and then tried to figure out what had befallen the magazine in the last couple of years. Some searching turned up an article in the Washington Post, which reported that the Wilson Center was “exploring selling or ceasing publication of the Wilson Quarterly.” That was in September. The specter of lost funding was mentioned as a possible reason—the Wilson Center depends on Congress for “about a fourth of its budget.” Still, the final spending bill, which later passed in the House of Representatives, showed that the Center did in fact receive all the money it asked for: $10.2 million.

The party was nice, considering. It was Friday, and the bartender was mixing Hemingways, but the entire staff at the magazine had been fired. The following Monday would be their last day. I talked to my old editors and paid my respects. I said how sorry and surprised I was. They’d known this was coming; they’d known for a while. I browsed a table of books they were giving away, review copies for reviews that would never be written, and then walked back to the Metro.

Over the weekend, the new issue went up on the website, including a last letter from the editor, Steven Lagerfeld, who had worked at the magazine for thirty-three years and had been its editor since 1999. “The WQ,” he wrote, “will assume a new form with different leadership.” And that was all he said about the change to come. He focused instead on the past. “My predecessor, Jay Tolson,” he said, “once wrote in this space that the Wilson Quarterly is a magazine that moves forward by looking backward, like a rower in a scull.” What comes next is anybody’s guess.

On Monday, I contacted the Wilson Center and eventually spoke with Andrew Marshall, its vice president for external relations. He was, to put it in other, less opaque words, the head of PR. He was also to be the new editor, Marshall told me. He wasn’t ready to talk in any specific way about what the future held for the magazine, if it still would be a magazine, even. Maybe it’d just be a website, or a blog, a vehicle for publicizing goings-on at the Center. Marshall said, if it helped, I could think of it as somewhere “between a rethink and a relaunch.” After going around and around with him, just trying to understand, I realized he had told me all I needed to know.

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