Bennington Review: the Past is Present

Bennington Review: the Past is Present

In honor of the arrival of the second issue of the newly re-launched Bennington Review, Literary Bennington is publishing this dispatch from a panel discussion on the journal’s history that the College hosted during alumni and parents’ weekend back in September. You can subscribe to Bennington Review here. LB

On a Friday in late September, as a part of Bennington’s first LAB (Life After Bennington) weekend, the Deane Carriage Barn hosted a panel with past editors and staff of Bennington Review, the national literary magazine that has just been resurrected for the second time. (I was an assistant prose editor, along with ten other students, and another dozen or more editing poetry, all throughout the fall 2016 semester.) The guests were Laurence Jackson Hyman ‘66, the original editor during’66-’72; Salmagundi magazine executives Robert and Peg Boyers, who worked on Bennington Review from ’77-’83; and Alex Brown ’74, who was managing editor. Also onstage were Michael Dumanis and the Review’s current managing editor Chelsea Hodson MFA ‘16.

The guests were mild-mannered and thorough in their reminiscences about the beginning of the magazine, the great submissions from giants like John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, how different the printing methods were, how technologically limited their generation was in designing layouts, and how they were first introduced to the college-on-the-hill, talking about all the past faculty, the students, the eccentric College presidents. In other words, these stories were off the cuff anecdotes about the heyday of the Bennington ethos, that sensibility we all celebrate and, simultaneously, mourn. I sat in the front row, legs crossed, just like my three literature friends beside me, each of us moaning, whimpering, laughing at the tenderness of these stories. Every time I let out some guttural reaction, Robert Boyers made eye contact with me. His gaze seemed as sacred as it was reprimanding.

Of the four invited guests, Laurence Hyman was the only speaker with a speech written and prepared, which made for an interesting dynamic with the audience—Hyman delivering his polished, compact treatise with a striking authority, as if to students long graduated. The current students couldn't tell if they should listen with a literary ear, or if it was story time. I couldn’t help but read into the contrast between the casual presentation of current Bennington literature guests and Hyman’s carefully studied manner. There was an air of formality to his recitation, as if he were there to represent an older, seemingly purer, literary generation.

Publisher Alex Brown, on the other hand, was casual and humorous, making a point to highlight the disparities in graphic design technologies between then and now, especially printing and distribution. She mentioned that she used to have to wait for pages of the journal to dry before printing again on the opposite sides, versus the ease of 21st century tools like digital design programs and supersonic inkjet printers. Brown’s first assignment with the Review was formatting work by Helen Frankenthaler, a project she believes the rest of her career was founded upon.

Robert and Peg Boyers sat side by side in the middle of the group, distinguished and impressive: Robert in all black, a collar-less jacket, and his hair tied up in a big ponytail; Peg smiling softly, but authoritatively, almost dissociative, looking like an ultimate poet-professor. Robert spoke about Salmagundi, and being invited via phone call in 1977 to a dinner in New York with then-president Joseph Murphy, who had wanted to pick Boyers’ brain for his publishing and curating knowledge.

Boyers then reached into his red tote bag and pulled out two issues of the Review, flipping through (reminding himself) all the disciplines his generation had represented: fiction, essays, poetry, critiques, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and photography.

Once the reminiscences were done, Michael Dumanis had the last words of the talk: about the growth of each generation in the Review, Bennington, and the literary world at large. The guiding principle of this new wave is that our published works are “birds, not birdcages.” That means that they are distinct, pure lifeforms which are as reckless as they are graceful. It’s exactly the sort of wholehearted sentiment one would hope Bennington’s literary legacy would produce. 

After the short talk, we had food and drinks at a catered reception, with sushi, fancy aged cheeses, and artisanal crackers—all of which are Aramark rarities, so it seemed there was some nice funding for this event.

While we schmoozed, waiting for President Silver to arrive, students and faculty, trustees, administrators, and alumni waded into the collective nostalgia of the occasion. But the class geography of the crowd made for an undercurrent of generational discord—me and the other undergrads eating and drinking and talking about responsibility for Bennington’s reputation, the college’s trustees chatting and laughing with administrators, faculty huddled together, seemingly the most uncomfortable of us all. Everyone stood in their groups; the most we shared was brief eye contact, followed by adjusting our shirt collars or sipping drinks.

By the time our President showed up, I’d had enough of a chance to think on Bennington culture and make short, awkward eye contact with superiors. I reminisced with friends about the times we didn’t have, in the sixties and seventies, and we ate some cheese. Mariko welcomed our guests and rang in the celebration of our glory days. But it’s important, she said, that we stand together as we venture into the future, to navigate this promising field of new thinkers, and discover our generation’s greatness. It’s our turn. And thus, I felt like we really did deserve our artisanal crackers and rarified snacks. We were worthy.

When the speech was finished, there was raucous applause. Then, a few Bennington students recited excerpts from the inaugural issue of the Bennington Review—a few poems, some by Dorothea Lasky, and a longer nonfiction piece, “Golden Friendship Club,” by David Stuart MacLean, about a road trip he took in California that recreated the last route travelled by his favorite writer, Nathanael West, before his death in 1940. MacLean reasons out his feelings about West, humbly drawing similarities between their lives. Along the way, he struggles with his age, his wife and newborn baby, and his self-consciousness about the trip: how purposefully literary it is, maybe absurd, and how conflictingly sentimental he finds the conceit of his project.

While the reading was going on, a hierarchy of interest had arranged itself in the room—students and alumni listened intently in the front, a few faculty stood in the middle, occasionally sharing words with a neighbor, and in the back, trustees and administrators were laughing and chatting together.

Why was it then, surrounded by these founders and trustees and donors, that I felt so out of place? I sat on the sidelines with about ten other students, and there was a collective sense that we’d focus on the poetry, the art, the substance, and ignore the spectacle of it all. But scanning the faces of faculty, the ones who were listening intently, I was able to see some remnant of that gorgeous, mythological Bennington attitude, that peak creative sense we were all there for.

By Wesley Haaf ‘18

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