The Writer was founded in April 1887 by two newspapermen, William H. Hills and Robert Luce, and the magazine has routinely commemorated this anniversary in five- and 10-year increments ever since. It’s always such a delight to see how the magazine celebrated the special April anniversary issue over the years, such as when President Kennedy sent a congratulatory letter for The Writer’s 75th year in print in 1962. (“You have performed a real service, particularly to the younger and more hesitant writers,” Kennedy wrote. “Each generation has its blazing geniuses, but the advancement and enrichment of our culture is made equally by those whose talents develop slowly, tentatively, and only with encouragement.”)
In 1977, longtime “Off the Cuff” columnist Lesley Conger reflected both on the magazine’s 90th year and the timelessness of its contributors’ vocation:
I look forward in hopes of becoming myself a nonagenarian, someday. (Why do I say someday? – it will be, precisely, March 25, 2012.) Had I some other calling, however, I might wonder if the achievement would prove to be a curse or at best a mixed blessing. But one of the splendid things about writing as a career is that it has no compulsory retirement age. No one can tell a writer when to stop writing. No one can put you on the shelf – except, in that agreeable other sense of the phrase, a librarian or a book owner. No one can come to you, insist that you leave your typewriter, and force you to face the horrors of bingo. Younger writers moving up need not depose you. As long as you can hang on to your health and keep your wits about you, you and your talent can survive together, down to the wire.
(Conger nearly became a nonagenarian, too: She “passed away peacefully,” as her obituary notes, on November 26, 2010, just 16 months shy of her 90th birthday.)
The more I look through the archives, the more names like Conger’s stand out to me, their familiar bylines a print equivalent of seeing a friendly face in a crowd. Conger’s articles often make me laugh (“F is for free-lance. It sounds marvelous, but what it means is that you don’t get paid regularly,” she quipped in 1977), as do Faith Baldwin’s, which coupled her razor wit with blisteringly blunt advice. (“If you are now saying that I am discouraging you, you’re right. I intend to discourage you. Because only if you can overcome discouragement will you become a writer,” Baldwin wrote in 1952.) Later in the century, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Katherine Paterson frequent our archives. The names become small, comforting constants in the magazine’s ever-changing contents, from the boom in wartime material in the 1940s to the siren song of television scriptwriting in the late ’50s to the sudden surge of sci-fi articles in the ’80s. Because, as another “Off the Cuff” columnist, Allen Marple, wrote for the 70th anniversary issue in 1957: “A magazine is not really print and paper – it is people.”
It’s a sentiment Luce and Hills knew well in 1887, as they addressed readers of their new “monthly magazine to interest and help all literary workers” for the very first time.
They admit their own faults with candor: “Anybody who thinks that because The Writer aims to help writers do better work and use better English its editors claim infallibility makes a solemn blunder. No one ever wrote English perfectly. Probably no one ever will write English perfectly.”
And they commit to learning each issue alongside their audience: “It is believed that everyone interested in literary matters can learn something from a periodical like The Writer; and its editors intend to be students just as much as anybody else. Its editors are simply the conductors of it; they depend a great deal on the help of other people to make it as useful as it can be made.”
This remains profoundly true to this day, which is why I’ll close the same way Luce and Hills did 135 years ago: “If you have an idea, then, regarding any kind of literary work, send it in.” Submit your story ideas, pitches, insights, and success stories via [email protected]. We’d love to hear your thoughts for our 135th year and beyond.