Austerity, Now and Then

Greetings! I’m Sheila, nonfiction editor here at NDQ, and I’m taking over blog responsibilities for the next few weeks while Bill Caraher, our editor and publisher, is off doing field work in Greece.



“I propose” (the thing took all his strength) “oh what the hell” he cried; “what’s stopping us? I propose we have the God damn Magazine.”

These are the words of Bruno, a character in Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed, which fictitiously documents, in a loose and majestic sort of way, the rise of The Partisan Review. Slesinger’s novel centers on a tribe of New York City-dwelling intellectuals, dreamers, and lotharios who take it upon themselves to form a magazine, and under circumstances that feel all-too-relatable today. I’m talking, of course, about austerity.

“We’ll need money,” the character Miles tells Bruno, “and plenty of it.” In time, though, the little band’s search for the funds that are to set their project afloat leads them to commit all manner of sins (including sexual infidelity — one of them goes about seducing a wealthy benefactress). It all comes to a head some hundred pages later, when Bruno delivers a drunken, elliptical speech at a benefit event for the magazine.

“‘Are we as intellectuals going to remain sitting on the fence … are we going to twiddle our thumbs and stew in our juices while the world is on the breadlines, the redlines, the deadlines? …” He tottered, swayed…. He recovered and straightened …  “The answer is: ‘WE ARE.’” The laugh broke out, relieved, the merry cocktail laugh, the self-indulgent, self-effulgent upper-class champagne laugh….

“…in short we are bastards, foundlings, phonys, the unpossessed and unpossessing of the world, the real minority….”

This novel has been a favorite of mine for some years; I even attempted (disastrously) to teach it once, as part of an undergraduate seminar on women writers. But I was reminded of it some weeks back when Bill Caraher and I, along with some other members of the current editorial board, were batting some ideas back and forth via email. These exchanges of ours were ostensibly about the future of this here magazine (what it should be; what it could be; where it might be headed) but, like so much these days, they were really about austerity. It’s no secret to regulars on this blog or on this site that NDQ was hit hard by a series of budget cuts that were introduced in North Dakota a few years back. Today, we have only collective scrappiness and, arguably, belligerence to thank for its continued existence. Which gives us (or me, at least, though Bill reports that he is currently reading Slesinger’s The Unpossessed) the impression of having one or two things in common with characters like Bruno, and with much of the contemporary “lit mag” community. After all, NDQ is not the first publication in recent history to fall victim to austerity, which is why, in a forthcoming issue, we’ll be tackling the subject itself directly (look for it this fall!).

In revisiting Slesinger’s novel in this context, though, I started to wonder what kinds of topics were on the minds of NDQ editors and contributors back in the early 1930s. This was the era, after all, that saw the rise of publications like The Partisan Review amidst the bleakness of Depression-era austerity, and the era that inspired Slesinger’s own writing on the subject. My curiosity led me to the “First Series” archives and, in particular, to Volume 23 (1932 / 1933). This volume leads with a special note which reads thus: “We regret to announce that owing to drastic cuts in our University budget we shall be unable to continue The Quarterly Journal through the coming biennium.”

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Sound familiar?

Reading on in Volume 23, I discovered a book review (p. 321) that, like the note above, offered a subtle window into a wider landscape of 1930s-era austerity. The book in question is economics text called Salaries and the Cost of Living in Twenty-Seven State Universities and Colleges, by Viva Boothe. (Boothe, according to her New York Times obituary, was an economist and sociologist, back when such disciplinary combinations dared to exist, and hailed as one of the “nation’s leading authorities on business research.”) The review remarks on the timeliness of Boothe’s book, “owing to the widespread present movement for the reduction of salaries in universities and colleges” and to “the attempts of state legislatures to deflate higher education.” While it observes that the University of North Dakota itself was not included in Boothe’s study (due to its having <2000 students), the reviewer, Jacob Perlman, appears to be on familiar ground in reading about institutions like Ohio State University. He observes, vis-à-vis Boothe, that few faculty members at such institutions earn enough to outpace costs of living and that “it is only through additional sources of income” — like extra teaching, part-time work, or inherited wealth — “that faculty people are able to have a surplus over expenditures.”

Perlman’s review thus paints a grim picture of austerity-style suffering, and of its effects on American institutions of higher learning. And, of course, it subtly corroborates that regretful note that appears at the start of Volume 23. NDQ stopped publishing in 1933, one year before The Partisan Review started publishing, though it eventually relaunched again in 1959.

In that forthcoming issue I mentioned, we’ll be discussing these and related topics in greater detail. In the meantime, though, if any of this feels a little too familiar, we can at least take solace in the fact the we are totally nohow not in any way in a depression like we were back in 1933, so at least there’s that.

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