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THE NOBLE SAVAGE

Jim Burns

 

       Little magazines flourished in the 1960s, with literary, political, and other publications found everywhere. Most of the scrappier items were short-lived, it's true, and even some of the better ones soon disappeared. The usual problems of finance, distribution, and attracting sufficient worthwhile material on a regular basis, could soon sap the energies of editors, many of who were writers themselves and found that editing affected their own work. Little magazines rarely, if ever, make money or even balance the books, and editing one is a labour of love that eats up time and doesn't pay the rent.

       The noted American novelist Saul Bellow has, over the years, been prepared to put some of his time and energy into magazines, and in 1960, along with his friends Keith Botsford and Jack Ludwig, he launched The Noble Savage. Plans for the magazine had started as early as 1955 and Bellow said that he wanted "to get writers into the world again," in the sense of encouraging them to engage with contemporary concerns. The Noble Savage was to be "a move against the cold companionless boredom of the writer's life" and Bellow aimed to "make it possible to let off some steam, to write in the good old ranging way that was natural to novelists in the 20s." These were high hopes of the kind that little magazine editors often have and the realities of filling the pages don't always lend themselves to complete achievement of such aims.

       In addition, having three editors didnít lead to the smooth running of the magazine. Bellow was the dominant partner, but Botsford and Ludwig didn't get along with each other, and in the words of Bellow's biographer, James Atlas, "devoted as much energy to keeping each other out of the magazine as to getting new talent into it." However, the first issue appeared in the Spring of 1960 as a neat paperback under the Meridian imprint, which assured it of some financial stability. By the standards of many of the publications then appearing on both sides of the Atlantic it was, of course, something more than a little magazine, though it still came within the framework of the tradition.

      James Atlas said that the "contents page reflected Bellow's editorial dominance," with the first issue including several people who were friends or acquaintances. This was not unusual, the reason behind it being that editors naturally approach those they can rely on for material for a first issue. The novelist Harvey Swados covered the boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, something he'd been asked to do by Bellow as part of his programme of having writers "engage with contemporary concerns." Herbert Gold, best known for novels like Therefore Be Bold and The Prospect Before Us, but also a lively essayist, wrote a witty piece, "How to tell the Beatniks from the Hipsters" which neatly ridiculed aspects of the then-popular Beat movement. And Harold Rosenberg, art critic and social commentator, also contributed an essay. Rosenberg's radical attack on much of the literature then in circulation is perhaps represented by the following quote from his piece: "Revolt today has no more content than buying a bus ticket; any genuine attack on society must occur on the level of abstraction, that is, must be directed not against people and their manners but against the system of power and its mystifications." I'm not sure if anyone other than students of art history or the rise and fall of the New York Intellectuals bothers to read Rosenberg these days, but his collections of provocative essays, such as The Tradition of the New and Discovering the Present, are well worth searching for.

Possibly the most memorable contribution was Josephine Herbst's "The Starched Blue Sky of Spain," a memoir of the Spanish Civil War. Herbst had been a prolific novelist, short-story writer, and journalist in the late-1920s and through the 1930s, but her career began to falter in the 1940s and she suffered discrimination because of her left-wing political views and associations. She was at one time married to John Herrmann, a minor writer and member of the Communist Party who had links to the Ware Group which was suspected of passing classified information to the Russians. By 1960 the ageing Herbst had fallen on hard times and Bellow provided some financial support and encouraged her to write her memoirs.

       Bellow obviously had an interest in fiction and used stories or excerpts from forthcoming novels by Arthur Miller, Ralph Ellison, and Wright Morris, along with a long prose work by his co-editor, Jack Ludwig. Their friendship would later break down when Ludwig had an affair with Bellow's wife and wrote a novel, Above Ground, about it. Bellow, for his part, portrayed Ludwig in a bad light as a character in his novel, Herzog, though it seems that the unabashed Ludwig was happy to acknowledge this fact in conversations at parties. But all that came later and when the first issue of The Noble Savage was in the shops they were still good friends.

       Poetry had a place in the magazine but was not a priority for the editors. The issue had some of John Berryman's "Dream Songs" and a poem by Howard Nemerov. But prose dominated. It was probably Bellow's idea to look at the past by reprinting work by what he described as "ancestors," and Samuel Butler's "Rambling in Cheapside" originally published in the December, 1890, issue of Universal Review, was used perhaps because it illustrated Bellow's notion of the writer responding to the world around him. This was not a bad idea in itself, though the revival of an overlong and not very interesting piece by D.H. Lawrence for the second issue showed how it could easily go wrong.

       The second issue was generally good, though, with contributions from Nelson Algren, the tough-minded Chicago writer (Bellow's own loyalties to that city are well-known), and Sol Yurick, who was making his first appearance in print. Non-fiction was represented by Dan Wakefield writing about the Newport Jazz Festival and George P. Elliott discussing critics and common readers. Elliott's views no doubt appealed to Bellow, especially when he said: "Perhaps it is true that modern times have so fragmented and troubled us that nearly all actual readers have been made into specialists of some kind, or else use literature as a drug for killing time and dulling anxiety." And as Elliott added: "Even so, the ideal of writing for the mature, experienced, cultivated Common Reader ought not to be allowed to perish." I would guess that Bellow's, if not the other editors' views were that the magazine was aimed at the kind of reader described.

       Poetry again took a back seat, with just eight pages out of two hundred and fifty and none of it particularly memorable. I think it's true to say that the editors were, on the whole, much more interested in prose, and one of them, Keith Botsford, had a long article about his love of all things Russian (history, art, literature, etc.) in this issue. As Jack Ludwig had been so well represented in the first issue perhaps giving Botsford twenty-five pages or so was a way of easing the tension between them? Interestingly, Bellow was not featured, though it's possible that some of the anonymous commentary at the front of the magazine, published under the title of "Arias," was by him.

       Despite differences among the editors the third issue came out on time, but with Jack Ludwig demoted to contributing editor. It wasn't just a case of Bellow being angry because of his wife's affair. He also considered Ludwig to be almost useless as an editor and described him as "too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organised, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with." Strong words, though it should be borne in mind that Bellow could also be forceful when dealing with Keith Botsford. The Noble Savage was very much his magazine and poor judgement by co-editors reflected on him.

       Josephine Herbst made another appearance with a second excerpt from her memoirs. Despite receiving grants to enable her to complete the manuscript she never did submit the full work for publication before her death in 1969. A third excerpt was published in New American Review in 1968, and a book combining the three pieces with a previously-unpublished fourth was published in 1991 under the title, The Starched Blue Sky of Spain. The quality of the writing fully justifies Bellow's faith in Herbst.

A short story by Isaac Babel filled the "Ancestors" section, and contemporary fiction was represented by a Yugoslav writer, Jara Ribnikar, and the Americans, Charles Simmons and R.V.Cassill. The tatter was a novelist and short-story writer who could turn put pulp novels with titles like Lustful Summer and A Taste of Sin but also produced a body of more-serious work, though to be fair the line between the two could be blurred at times. Some of the writing in his paperback novels, with their lurid covers, was often sharp and marked by a skilled way of telling a story without too many frills, whereas he could overwrite when aiming at a more literary readership. His piece in The Noble Savage was an excerpt from Clem Anderson, a large novel that he probably considered his major work. It does have good passages, it's true, and it was favourably reviewed when it was published in 1961 but few people remember it now and it has been out-of-print for years.

       Before leaving the third issue of the magazine it's worth mentioning Seymour Krim, a Greenwich Village writer, whose fast-moving memoir, "What's This Cat's Story?" was a thought-provoking reminder of how dangerous it is for would-be novelists-and short-story authors to be seduced by the relative easiness of getting into print as critics, reviewers, and journalists rather than as producers of creative work. It still has relevance today. But the fact of The Noble Savage having printed Krim's essay didnít save him from being savaged in the next issue, his arguments and excuses for failure and surrendering to the lure of non-fiction being held up to ridicule. Little magazines have always been places for differences of opinion so the magazine was only following an established tradition by letting one contributor attack another.

       The fourth issue had more poetry than usual (an Associate Editor, Aaron Asher, had been taken on board and perhaps influenced things) and included twelve short love poems by Tony Connor, described as "a young Lancashire poet whose first book, With Love Somehow, will be published in autumn, 1962. He left school at fourteen and has been a textile designer, a Dragoon Guardsman, a teacher of cake decoration in a bakery, and a lecturer in liberal studies." I'm not aware of Connor's poetry being circulated much in this country in recent years and I wonder if many people remember him? He lived in Manchester in the early 1960s and I can recall visiting him in, I think, Victoria Park. He published a number of books and went to live in the United States, where he became a university professor. The last time I saw him was six or seven years ago when he turned up at a poetry reading I was giving in London. He still had a broad Lancashire accent, insisted on drinking pints of bitter when we went to the pub, and mocked me for ordering lager. His Northern, working-class roots were obviously a badge of identity for him.

       That Bellow and Botsford didn't see The Noble Savage simply as a platform for new American writing was clear from the range of contributors in the fourth issue. G.V.Desani ( India), Dan Jacobson (South Africa, though writing about arriving in London), Elemire Zolla (ltaly), Louis Guilloux (France), and Antoni Slonimski (Poland), all made appearances. Slonimski's contribution was a wonderful memoir of growing up in Warsaw in the early-l900s, and pointed to Bellow's belief in the past informing the present. And the "Ancestors" slot was allocated to a little-known poem by Alexander Pushkin. With the magazine holding to its size of approximately two hundred and fifty pages per issue, and with fiction by adventurous American writers like B.H.Friedman and Robert Chapin Coover, The Noble Savage was becoming a major voice in the literary world. Or so it seemed.

       Arguments with co-editors, the increasing amount of material submitted as the magazine became established, Bellow's personal fife, which could be chaotic, and the need to get on with other work, if only to pay the bills, were increasingly causing problems. The Noble Savage was also losing money and the backers, Meridian, said that it needed to sell thirty thousand copies of each issue just to break even. And which little magazine, no matter how well-produced and widely-distributed, is ever likely to do that? The final issue came out in 1962 and had no indication that it would be the last, but Meridian presumably closed it down. It was a shame because the fifth issue showed that it was maintaining a high, if sometimes quirky standard. The contributors, as usual, included a number of Bellow's "friends and girlfriends, past, present and future," as James Atlas described them. Even the ancestor, Isaac Rosenfeld, who had died in 1956, was an old friend of Bellow's from his boyhood days in Chicago. I donít think the fact that Bellow knew many of the writers meant that sub-standard work got into the magazine. Stories by Ruth Miller (later author of a book about Bellow), Bette Howland (a woman from a poor district of Chicago who was snobbishly described as his "working-class queen" by one of Bellow's associates at the University of Chicago), and Arthur Miller were worth reading, as were non-fiction pieces by Louis Simpson, Nelson Algren, and Marjorie Farber. Simpson's essay was about being a poet in America and had some sound, common-sense views that could easily apply now: "Those who hope for a 'renaissance1 of verse, to be measured by gate-receipts or the number of volumes sold, expect what simply cannot be." And he wryly quoted another writer who said that he was always being lectured about artistic integrity by people who then went to work in advertising. Not much changes.

      Five issues of a magazine published over a period of two years may not seem a major achievement, but The Noble Savage maintained such a high standard that it is still worth reading forty years later. And I think it was Bellow's insistence on a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and a scattering of poetry, which helped keep the magazine from becoming the province of a few ambitious literary types. Likewise, the fact that it had no direct academic links meant that the articles and essays it published were not directed towards specialists. The idea that there ought to be a broad, literate non-specialist audience for good writing, and especially for writing that tried to get to grips with contemporary concerns interpreted in a wide, non-partisan sense, was one of the driving forces behind The Noble Savage. No little magazine ever achieves its high aims but Bellow and his associates got quite dose to theirs.

One final point. I'm always fascinated when reading little magazines from the past by the now-forgotten names that crop up. What happened to Oonagh Lahr, who had a poem in the fourth issue and lived in London? The notes said that her father published D.H.Lawrence and once had a bookshop in Bloomsbury. And did Sarah Brady Shaw, who had her first published story in the fifth issue, ever appear elsewhere? And how about Leon Rooke and J.R.Chowning and Hymen Slate? Where are the snows of yesteryear?