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  • The Author Resurrected:The Paris Review's Answer to the Age of Criticism
  • Usha Wilbers (bio)

When the American literary quarterly the Paris Review came to life in 1953, its editors actively sought to wield influence over and shape the direction of American and—to a lesser extent—European letters. They nurtured aspirations to supply the American and European reading public with undiscovered high quality literature and aimed to do so without aligning themselves to any political or critical stance. During what has been called "the Age of Criticism," the Paris Review rejected literary criticism and the political bias of literary quarterlies such as Partisan Review and The Kenyon Review. Instead of assigning critics to appraise literary publications, the editors created an interview series in which the author was invited to reflect on his or her own work. Paradoxically, it can be argued that with its renowned interview series the Paris Review generated a new form of literary criticism. Furthermore, by consulting authors about the theory and practice of writing, the editors countered critical developments that had challenged the position of the author. In the Paris Review interview the author was given the opportunity to assume the role of the critic and create an often confessional self-portrait. As the following article argues, these texts are essentially performances in which the authors present themselves as they want to be viewed by the reader. Moreover, since each interview went through an extensive editorial process—comprising three stages—it can be argued that the Paris Review editors also influenced the way that the interviewee was portrayed. Despite this, the interviews have been received as unique critical documents and authentic statements from the authors.

This article, which is based on extensive study of the Paris Review archives, charts the impact of the Paris Review interview. It also uncovers the editorial process preceding its publication, which will provide insight into the position of the author in these texts. The focus [End Page 192] will be on the period between 1953 and 1973, when the Paris Review was edited and produced from Paris. During these formative years the magazine's interview section developed into the prestigious series it is today.

The Paris Review's Origins

The Paris Review was founded by two Americans, Peter Matthiessen and Harold Humes, who during the early 1950s settled in Europe to further their writing careers. Absorbing the artistic currents in Paris, they aspired to create a literary magazine that would represent both American and European talent. In the process of founding the Paris Review and getting the first issue published, Matthiessen and Humes enlisted help from fellow American expatriates whom they had met mostly during their studies at Harvard and Yale. Among them were William Styron, Donald Hall, and George Ames Plimpton, who would run the Paris Review for exactly fifty years as editor-in-chief.

By seeking exile in Paris, the editors of the Paris Review followed the footsteps of illustrious predecessors such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had settled in the city during the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of the writers who inhabited the Parisian writing communities in the 1950s longed to escape the conservative climate in the United States and identified with European intellectual currents, such as Sartre's Existentialism. However, Paris also attracted writers of the so-called Silent Generation, who declined to commit themselves to any political, cultural, or social discourse. The editors of the Paris Review belonged to this group, as Irwin Shaw—sometimes referred to as the pater familias of the Paris Review crowd—explains:

It was that comparatively serene time when America, at least, was not engaged in any war and the phrase, The Silent Generation, was used to describe the young men and women of the era. While my friends talked a great deal and were unaggressively in favour of Adlai Stevenson, they bore President Eisenhower no malice and the description, unfair as it was, was perhaps as fitting for them as any other. They went off on no crusades, they did not seem to be tempted by the Left, either French, American or Russian, and if, for want of...


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pp. 192-212
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