Harvard Lit Mag Showcases A Mix of Accomplished Writers
Harvard Review is published by the Houghton Library at Harvard, making it the only literary magazine I know that is put out by a library. Begun as a book review in the eighties, it eventually developed into a journal of new writing. Nowadays the critical material resides on the website—one book review a week, covering fiction, poetry, and nonfiction of literary interest—while the print journal is all creative work, including visual art. It is officially published twice a year, although from what I can determine, the spring 2016 issue is still the most recent one.
This publication is not shy about presenting itself as a serious literary journal. Perfect-bound, with over two hundred pages of material and a card stock cover, this is not the kind of lit mag that aspires to be called a magazine. The contributors are an accomplished group of writers and artists: almost all of them have published books, won prizes, and have teaching or curating jobs in their bios, with publications in places like the Kenyon Review and AGNI. There were multiple authors here whose names I recognized not from journals like these but from bookstores. Both the contributor list and the provenance of the journal are so prestigious that it's surprising to me I hadn't heard of this journal before.
There is no particular theme, but the issue is unified somewhat by the influence of a guest editor, fiction writer Paul Harding, who tells us in his introduction to the issue that his first two published stories were picked up by Harvard Review in the mid 2000s. Harding edited the prose in this issue, and helped to solicit submissions from his former students, colleagues, and so on; it seems that the role of the guest editor is largely to bring the magazine into connection with writers who would not otherwise have submitted to it.
Even though the prose editor is the guest star, this issue seems dominated by a poetic sensibility. There is very little emphasis here on narrative. Some of the visual art in this issue suggests a story, but much of it is abstract in the extreme, explorations of lines and shapes. There may be a practical element here: the magazine is printed in black and white, so it’s a better venue for sharp distinct lines than color photography or paintings. In any case the artwork reinforces the sense that single moments and sensations are of greater interest than forward motion.
In fact, there is a poem in the issue, by Catie Rosemurgy, called “Poem That Blames Narrative.” Here an unidentified person seems to interrogate the narrator, repeatedly interrupting: “What?” “But what happened?” “Then what?” The narrator responds with stubbornly non-literal answers: “Finally, the earth confessed,” or “Well, the real heat and its superior colors roared right in, / the big blood of outer space.” The poem seems to be describing an incident in a genocide—my mind went to the European settlement of North America, mostly because that is where I live—and does not want to render it in a beginning-middle-end form.
Meanwhile, Erica Funkhouser’s essay “One Salt Marsh, One Hawk, One Swimmer” is explicitly about escaping from the narrative strictures of life as a working writer, “the necessary imperialism of creation,” to the sensory and un-analytic world of nature. And Tim Horvath’s short story “The Ship of Theseus Sextet” is about a classical concert, an event that was supposed to follow a set schedule and have an ending, but somehow evades that prescribed procedure and makes an attempt to skip out on the passage of time.
Continuing the emphasis on messing with time, Elizabeth Powell’s “The Repetition Game: The Moment is a Tricky Fucker,” which I think can best be identified as a prose poem, describes two people trading off lines of speech and repeating them back to one another in an act of prayer and self-invention: “We are engaging in an energy event. I am dissociating into you. God is an actor acting on us: You are inventing me and I am inventing you.” Narrators and characters in these pieces press up against the limitations of living within linear time and attempt to save things that would tend to pass away; the past and future are of secondary concern.
While these works are in an interesting dialogue with one another, the magazine as a whole is not strictly defined by one aesthetic project. Magogodi Wamphela Makhene’s short story “The Virus” is told in a rollicking futuristic South African English, liberally sprinkled with words from Afrikaans, and while it flashes frantically between different events, places, and times, it also proceeds with some urgency toward its climax.
Matthew Neill Null’s “All Was Fine” and Ben Shattuck’s “Edwin Chase of Nantucket” are both examples of a more classical type of American short story writing, emotionally reserved but richly descriptive, their narrators moving through landscapes of America’s past with a sense of melancholy inevitability. The surface of Shattuck’s story is as serene as a Vermeer painting, and the narrator feels the passage of time as both a part of his body and a cycle going nowhere: “My life then was comfortable, I think. Secure. I would have enough tea for a few cups a day. . . . Sadie would get fleas again. The sheep would lamb. The seals would continue to stare at us from the waves. This might last another sixty years.”
Elizabeth McCracken’s essay “The Container & the Thing Contained” is all about time, and grief, focusing on the detritus left behind after a death as the narrator takes her late father’s jars of coins to a machine to convert them to cash and reflects, poignantly and helplessly, on the things that people save and everything else, the dust and grit that surround a life. It is difficult to find a pull quote from this piece but the whole hangs together so beautifully that when I was finished with it I had to read it again, out loud.
Truthfully, it is a little difficult to know how to categorize this magazine. It bears the most impressive academic name in the country, but it doesn’t seem to be in the same weight class as a journal like Ploughshares or the Paris Review. Perhaps this is because it comes from an institution without an MFA program and is not connected to that world; or perhaps it’s because, as far as I can tell, Harvard Review does not pay contributors. It is full of professional writers, but it’s not a place to earn a living. It would probably be a good place to submit for writers who want to stretch toward that next, professional level of publication. For readers, although this isn’t a journal of the cutting edge in American letters, it is playing host to a conversation between prominent, accomplished writers, and it’s not a bad place to dip into that conversation.