LARZER ZIFF | 1940s

[Editorial Associate, 1948]

My days on the Review, the days of its infancy, were the days of the enormous influx into the university of veterans returning right after the war. So long were the queues that registration took place in Bartlett Gym. You went there, picked up a number, and returned later in the day when your number had been reached. While there were many veterans with literary interests and some even with literary gifts, nevertheless the general intellectual atmosphere was one of wanting to get on with an education that had been interrupted in order to get on with one’s life and so the Review was run principally by striplings, such as myself, too young to have been in the service, or women, such as Bunny (Violet Rainey) Lang, by far the finest literary intelligence among us. The university provided office space but little other support, advertising was hard to come by, and with the exception of a few such as Elder Olson and Milton Hindus the faculty was not heard from. One might suggest that faculty indifference allowed us greater liberty—maybe so—but we felt it to be a sign of their embarrassment if not their downright disapprobation.

Covers were silk-screened in Bunny Lang’s basement apartment and then hung to dry on clotheslines strung over the furniture. Even that economy didn’t save us from sinking lower financially and for a period we went to a newspaper format albeit on glossy paper rather than newsprint—the shiniest we could afford on the budget. Decades ahead of the New York Review and the London Review, then, the Chicago Review came out in folded news sheets. We used to go over to the printer’s on the West Side to do the layout on his table, trying to make it fancy so that the review despite its being on newspaper sheets wouldn’t be taken for anything other than a highbrow literary endeavor. The resulting fanciness can now, I’m afraid, stand as an example of really bad design.

George Steiner, a very young undergraduate but already projecting the wunderkind persona he carried well into middle age, was a haunter of our office in the glass cubicle over the stairwell in Mandel Hall. He then used his full name, Francis George Steiner, and submitted long poems in Popean couplets. I vividly remember the moment when in a conversation we were having about our writing he told me that he envied T. S. Eliot. It was one thing to have the ambition some day to be a great poet and critic, as most of us did, but to “envy” Eliot was to regard yourself as already his equal in everything save the recognition that had enviably come to him in greater measure than to you. George awed me with the assured tone of his envy. In the event he had a good shot at acting upon it.

When we went out in search of material and wrote asking established writers to give us something although we couldn’t pay we sometimes received interesting pieces. We also, of course, read unsolicited manuscripts and published those that attracted us but I feel there was always too wide a gap between the quality of the two groups and so an unevenness amounting to an uneasiness in our pages. Occasionally at the moment of finaly layout we would discover that we were short a page or two (or, in the newspaper format, a column or two) and so inserted a book review. Since no publisher sent us books for review this meant one of us writing on a book he or she had read recently. Caught short of copy in the print shop once, I remember I wrote a review of an Australian novelist whom I invented on the spot. Perhaps the most prominent works we published were pieces by Louis-Ferdinand Celine; I believe we were his first American publisher. These came to us thanks to arrangements made by Milton Hindus who had a deep interest in discussing Celine’s work and sanely recognized that before one could comment on a text the text had to exist. I’m not so sure that’s still true.