NDQ at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

If you’re from our neck of the woods and planning to attend the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo. Drop by our panel on the “State of the State’s Journals” to hear me talk about the “state” of North Dakota Quarterly at 10 am. 

If you’re not from ’round here, I’m posting a copy of my paper below. It tries to provide a tidy summary of NDQ’s long and recent history while hinting just a bit at its future.

The State of North Dakota Quarterly

William Caraher, Editor

First, I want to thank Suzzanne Kelley for bringing this panel together today and giving the state’s and region’s editors and publishers as chance to share notes with one another and provide updates on their current situation with our community. My talk today is going to going to sketch out the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly and to foreground the role of the remarkable regional humanities community in ensuring the Quarterly’s survival into the third decade of the 21st century and on the verge of its 90th issue.

As many of you undoubtedly know, NDQ is the state’s “little magazine.” Founded in 1911 as a literary and public humanities magazine, it published continuously until the Great Depression and then from 1956 to the present. Faculty and staff at the University of North Dakota edited and published nearly all of the 90 volumes that have appeared over this time. For the first decade or so, most of the contributions came from on campus contributors, but by the 1920s, the journal had come to consistently feature contributions from regional authors. These contributions tended to focus on issues of contemporary interest and concern, from the role of the region in World War I to the state of North Dakota’s school, the region’s economy, and various thoughts about history, geography, economics, and geology. The rebirth of the Quarterly in 1956 saw the magazine’s slow pivot toward its current “literary magazine” format and the gradual increase in the number of pieces drawn from outside the state and the region. Under Robert Wilkins’ editorship from 1968-1981, the magazine emerged as a national journal of essays, scholarship, fiction, poetry, and reviews where regional authors and concerns intersected with national contributors and content. From 1981-2012, Bob Lewis transformed NDQ into a national platform that featured emerging writers — particularly Native American authors — and developed a reputation for publishing significant recent research on Lewis’s research specialty, Ernest Hemingway, and the work of Tom McGrath. Lewis’s death in 2013, left the Quarterly with a firm sense of direction but without Lewis’s sage and accomplished leadership. During this difficult transitional time, Sharon Carson stepped in not only to become the first woman to lead NDQ, but she also started the process of recruiting a new editorial board, started our work to explore a more digital presence for the Quarterly, and provided a key link between what the Quarterly was and what it could be. Her leadership enabled the Quarterly navigate the political and practical complexities associated with the loss of our long-time editor, and provided a Quarterly with solid and savvy foundation from which to change. [For anyone interested in the diverse history of NDQ, we have made almost the entire run of the Quarterly from 1910-2007 available free for download from our website ndquarterly.org]

Lewis’s and Carson’s leadership endowed NDQ with a strong sense of collective commitment not only among people formally affiliated with the journal, but also among its contributors and readers as well. And this sense of commitment helped the Quarterly find its footing in the ten years since Bob’s passing. In fact, this became all the more crucial as the journal faced a series of unexpected challenge brought about by budget cuts at UND and the changing expectations of various university administrators. I joined the editorial board in 2013 in part to help Sharon Carson’s effort to expand the journal’s digital footprint and transform the Quarterly into a “sustainable” project. Within a few years, this pressure had metastasized into a full fledged crisis with budget cuts leading to the loss of our subscription manager, then the retirement of our longtime managing editor, Kate Sweeney, and finally, the loss of course releases or contract time for the journal’s editors. In these conditions, the burden of managing, editing, and publishing the journal became so large as to be impossible and Sharon Carson and I, who Sharon had recruited as co-editors, came to the painful conclusion that the journal should be shuttered for good.

Then community happened.

As last-ditch effort to explore our options before we closed the Quarterly, Sharon and I started to meet with various people and groups in the Red River Valley and beyond to understand how we might save the journal. First, we met with Brenna Gerhardt at Humanities ND and she patiently discussed with us her view of the humanities landscape in the state. Suzzanne Kelley, at NDSU Press, helped us to understand the challenges facing any publisher who would take on the Quarterly. Patrick Alexander at Penn State University Press saw potential value in the Quarterly for a university press and his words of encouragement emboldened us to reach out to the University of Nebraska Press with whom I had worked (along with Suzzanne) to get Elwyn Robinson’s iconic History of North Dakota made available for free. UNP also recognized the potential of NDQ and agreed to publish the journal.

While this was going on, the long-tail of budget cuts and editorial change had meant that our fiction editor, poetry editor, and art editor had left UND and our editorial board was depleted. Once again, the remarkable community and spirit of collaboration and support cultivated in the Red River Valley rose to the challenge.

The UND diaspora stepped into the breach.

Gilad Elbom, a UND PhD now at Oregon State, agreed to be fiction editor, Paul Worley, who taught at UND from 2009-2014 agreed to be poetry editor, Sheila Liming, who was at UND and is now at Champlain College in Vermont, agreed to read essays for the journal. Ryan Stander, at Minot State, became our new art editor, and Sharon Carson agreed to stick around as our reviews editor. Suzzanne Kelley brought her decades of publishing and editing experience to our editorial board, she was joined by Richard Rothaus, former NDUS vice chancellor, who is now Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Central Michigan University, and a number of new colleagues to fill out an expanded editorial board. Most importantly, for me as a new editor, is that Kate Sweeney, despite having retired, continued to offer advice, encouragement, and critique as I learn the ropes as journal editor.

Starting with volume 85, NDQ emerged from the challenges of austerity with editors, a new publisher, and a new lease on life as the material embodiment of Tom McGrath’s hackneyed axiom that “North Dakota is everywhere.” As we now work to bring double issue 89.3/4 to press (it’s due to Nebraska on October 1st!), we can look back on the last 5 issues and see even more clearly how the survival of NDQ depended upon the creative energies, experience, and generosity of our community. In the very first issue with Nebraska, Wyatt Atchley, now an NDSU MA student in History, provided a dramatic cover photograph from the now destroyed Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus. The very next issue featured a special section edited by Prof. Crystal Alberts at UND that honored the memory of the great post-modern novelist, critic, and teacher Bill Gass (who, incidentally, was born in Fargo). From down here in Fargo, we’ve been fortunately enough to publish manuscripts from local writers: Sarah Beck (whose essay “Ymir’s Blood” appeared in 89.1/2 and documents the experience of the 2009 Red River flood), poetry from Emil Vieweg and Anthony Albright (an NDSU PhD) will appear in a forthcoming issues, and John Cox from NDSU has not only published translations from across the Slavic speaking world in NDQ, but we’re excited to welcome — very soon, in fact — his translation of The Cherry Tree, a German-language novella by the leading contemporary Sorbian writer, Jurij Koch, which we’ll publish next month in collaboration with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This will be the second book length work of fiction published by NDQ, the first being Tom McGrath’s This Coffin Has No Handles, from 1984. Lest the Red River Valley acquire undeserved prominence in my litany, we have also featured authors from Bismarck, Minot, Dickinson, Jamestown, The Cities, and various other communities across the region. As importantly and in keeping with the tradition of little magazines, the work of regional authors appears alongside writers of national and global status and this serves to both amplify these local voices and situate our communities within a global context.

The enduring stature of the Quarterly is another legacy of past editors, contributors, and readers. Its inherited status as a leading journal ensures that it still attracts thousands of submissions annually from which we accept fewer than 5% for publication. Our subscription numbers remain decidedly more modest, but we do hope that the same community who so doggedly supported our recovery from our recent crisis will also support our future health!

My litany today gives you a sense for the state of NDQ in the present as well as a sense for how NDQ’s survival represents both the region’s and its ”diaspora’s” commitment to the journal and the willingness of both institutions and individuals to step into the gap created by the changing administrative and budgetary commitments at UND. I also hope that my description of the state of NDQ demonstrates how a “little magazine” found stability in a small but determined community of writers here on the Northern Plains.


If you want to help ensure NDQ has a future, do consider subscribing to the Quarterly, submitting your work, or tag us on Twitter or Facebook when you like what we do!

One Reply to “NDQ at the Northern Great Plains History Conference”

  1. I’m happy to see NDQ embraces a great communist, Thomas McGrath. When I joined the party in 1978 I received a welcome letter from him that I still treasure.


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