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Literary Landmark: The Missouri Review celebrates three decades in

Literary Landmark: The Missouri Review celebrates three decades in

Thirty years ago, a few University of Missouri-Columbia English professors made a brazen decision. They would start a literary review featuring original fiction, poetry and essays penned by some of the most distinguished authors in the world as well as a selection of talented but little-known writers.

The first issue appeared in spring 1978 with the name The Missouri Review. It included a poem by Joyce Carol Oates, already a winner of numerous literary prizes but not yet a household name. It featured original work by accomplished writers such as Robert Bly, Philip Levine, William Stafford, Gerald Stern and James Tate, setting a standard that would carry the publication over the next three decades.
Considering the typical fate of new periodicals—which see a failure rate exceeding 50 percent—founders Larry Levis and Marcia Southwick, a husband-and-wife pair of professors in the MU English Department, had little reason to be optimistic. But later in 1978, a second issue appeared, with another contribution from Oates and a story by Paul Bowles. Maybe, just maybe, The Missouri Review would gain a toehold in the world of quality literature. Other MU English professors enlisted as editors, including William Holtz, Timothy Materer, Thomas McAfee and a spirited but unknown novelist named Speer Morgan.

Fast-forward to 2007. A letter signed by Speer Morgan arrives in select mailboxes around Columbia and across the United States, asking recipients to subscribe to The Missouri Review in celebration of its 30th anniversary.

A 30th anniversary of a literary review is a rarity. Obstacles abound: the so-called nationwide “death of reading” (a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll reports one-fourth of Americans read no books last year), competition from hundreds of other literary (and not-so-literary) magazines, an un-sexy location (Not New York City/East Coast/West Coast), and a never-ending quest for a survival budget.

But The Missouri Review has done more than survive. It has served as a career-making publication outlet for some of the finest novelists, short-story writers, poets and essayists of the past three decades, enriching literary life internationally. It has provided employment for local lovers and producers of literature and has spiced up the cultural ambience of Boone County. And it has become one of the highest-quality literary magazines anywhere.
Morgan at the Helm
Speer Morgan has not only guided every issue of the magazine for 30 years but also has become an accomplished novelist himself (The Freshour Cylinders, Brother Enemy, The Whipping Boy, Belle Starr)—perhaps better known for his fiction in New York City than in Columbia. Morgan’s commitment to The Missouri Review has never wavered, not even in the most uncertain times. Born during 1946 in Fort Smith, Ark., Morgan, whose spoken cadences give away his geographical roots, earned a degree from the University of Arkansas. He decided around age 20 that he would become a novelist and broadened his horizons while earning a doctorate in literature from Stanford University. After writing about books for Rolling Stone magazine, Morgan decided to try classroom teaching and ended up at the MU English Department, arriving just as a cohort of uncredentialed writers aspiring to greatness came together.

When poets Levis and Southwick divorced and departed Columbia in the early 1980s, Morgan ended up with the top slot at The Missouri Review because, he says, “no one else would do it.” A valued mentor said to Morgan, “Who would ever have guessed you’d become an editor?” He certainly harbored no expectation that he would remain the editor into the next century.

At many, probably most, literary reviews of the time, the editors emphasized poetry and short stories. Essays and other nonfiction seemed sparse, and headline-making features almost never appeared. Because writers usually received no payment, the quality varied wildly and tended toward the mediocre. There is an adage that you get what you pay for.

Morgan’s vision was different. He wanted to pay writers as soon as it was practical. While he could not match the fees of The New Yorker or Reader’s Digest, he hoped to pay at least a few hundred dollars per manuscript. Morgan did not want to rely on mediocre writers—or, for that matter, on famous writers pawning off secondary pieces or permitting reprints from familiar texts.

“We had a natural sympathy,” Morgan recalls, “for others who were at a point early in their careers, and we consciously looked for those new writers. We shared certain preferences in fiction—for styles based on an authoritative voice, for variety of subject matter, for characters engaged in situations with real consequences.” The spiritual father of the young writers on The Missouri Review staff, MU English professor William Peden, added another element: memorableness. According to Morgan, “In many an editorial meeting, one could hear Bill say, ‘It’s an entirely competent story. But I won’t remember it next week.’”

Morgan sought quality nonfiction. He also sought headline-making features such as unpublished letters or manuscripts from famous established writers, including Tennessee Williams and Mark Twain, or from untapped collections, such as Native American repositories.
Monetary Barriers
The resources to sustain the magazine came primarily from the University of Missouri. In the early years, outside grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines helped. Private-sector donors such as the First National Bank of Columbia and local journalist-turned-businessman Jeff Viles showed up.

Despite all those positives, by 1982 it appeared the magazine would die. Expenses annually had topped $25,000, about $7,000 more than the university was providing. Subscription income would not close the deficit completely. Certainly no fund-raiser by inclination, Morgan found the will to ask University of Missouri System President James Olson and campus Provost Ronald Bunn to increase their budget amounts. They both said yes. As part of the package, Morgan worked with area business leaders and philanthropists to establish a trust fund, the capital from which would generate interest. The trust fund slowly grew to $250,000.

Although the money worries never ceased, by the mid-1980s Morgan could occasionally put the budget out of his mind while focusing on quality. He shed his shyness about stating The Missouri Review regularly discovers “the best writing published today. Sure, a lot of literary magazines may make that claim, but we have history as proof.”
Great Discoveries
Morgan has read thousands of unsolicited manuscripts during The Missouri Review’s existence, and, he says, “the ones that haunt me find their way” into print. One of those manuscripts showed up in 1985, from Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer. “I couldn’t put the story down and published it in the next issue,” Morgan recalls. Three years later, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1980, a young writer named Bob Shacochis, with two degrees from MU, submitted a story called “Hunger.” Morgan published it. The New York literati discovered Shacochis as a result, and five years later, he won the National Book Award for the story collection Easy in the Islands. Shacochis now contributes money to The Missouri Review in appreciation. Other easily recognizable writers published by The Missouri Review early in their careers include Wally Lamb, Daniel Woodrell and Robert Olen Butler. Because of such successes, the magazine staff is flooded with submissions, about 15,000 annually. Only about 1 percent of the submissions make it into print.

Today, fiction and nonfiction pieces first appearing in The Missouri Review soon show up in prestigious anthologies such as Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Travel Writing.
The Missouri Review offers material not found in most other literary magazines. Morgan likes to highlight the “found text series,” including previously unpublished letters of beat writer Jack Kerouac and confessional poet Robert Lowell. What Morgan terms “full-color art features” have offered the visuals of artists George Barbier and Egon Schiele. In-depth interviews are presented masterfully.

The publication holds a special place for Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist E. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain.” When she receives media requests, she sometimes points the requesters to her Missouri Review interview, which, she told Morgan, was her best ever. v

[University of Missouri School of Journalism students Melody Adams, Diana Babayan, Lori Brookhart-Schervish, Emily Halonen, Gwen Heasley, Becky Kifer, Dan Michel, Frances Romero and Katrina Tauchen conducted research for this story.]
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