Robert Langenfeld Editor & Publisher
Updated January 2015
PURDUE UNIVERSITY, with its comfortable red brick and familiar Gothic spires, was a serene place in the late 1940s. So was the American academy at large. Professors lived in their own special class of genteel poverty. The canon, the struggle to publish or perish, and the bureaucracy of professional administrators were mostly unknown. Change was nearby, however. A few rebellious sorts with intriguing names like Crowe Ransom and Penn Warren had begun to agitate the tranquil air, floating renegade ideas on how to interpret literature, advancing something called "New Criticism." It all seems like centuries ago from the perspective of 2014.
Another kind of resistance to established views was also forming at Purdue. Two members of the faculty, Hal Gerber and Maurice Beebe, were questioning conventional judgments about literary history. They were displeased with the historical divisions of literary study devised by the Modern Language Association. Their late-night discussions encouraged them to try and influence matters by editing new literary magazines. Beebe founded Modern Fiction Studies and, later, the Journal of Modern Literature. Gerber had an unusual idea for a journal. It was linked to his teaching of Victorian and modern British literature.
He asked himself what now seem elementary questions. Why were Thomas Hardy's novels taught in a nineteenth-century novel course, Hardy's poetry in a twentieth-century literature course? Don't the works of Conrad, Yeats, and Shaw, to mention a few, present similar dualities? "Apparently," Gerber said, "some writers have dared to bridge the centuries and defy the neat calendar division of literary periods in the MLA bibliography." What of those other writers: Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Grand, Arthur Symons, Olive Schreiner, George Moore? They were well known in their day. Little attention was given to them in the 1940s and 50s, even though the letters, notebooks, and autobiographies of figures such as Yeats were filled with conversation about them. The conventional wisdom ignored their influence on modern literature. Said Gerber:
Gerber selected twenty-five people who had written dissertations on some aspect of the literature published between 1880 and 1920. He asked if they would be interested in petitioning MLA for a session on writers of this time. To his surprise the response was unanimous. The session that ensued in the fall of 1957 was attended by a small but enthusiastic group of scholars.
Gerber wrote an article that reviewed the MLA discussion and solicited responses from those who had attended. He, his wife Helga, and several Purdue colleagues typed the text onto stencils, mimeographed, hand-collated, and then side-stapled a forty-three-page issue of what was called English Fiction in Transition.
The first issue went to about forty scholars. Word got around. The next issue was mailed to about 175 people. Interest continued to grow. Gerber had to charge $1 for volume 2, subscribed to by 400 individuals and institutions, some from overseas. By 1969 the journal was more accurately titled English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920. Gerber considered "British Fiction in Transition" but deferred when someone quipped that a wag at the ready would call it BLT. It was printed in a new format, photo-offset, stitch bound, and distributed to 600 subscribers.
Gerber assembled an Advisory Board of scholars to peer review articles. He also nurtured a different kind of editorial philosophy. ELT declined university, government, and private foundation funding to ensure its independence. The editor's name was clearly printed beneath the masthead. He was responsible for the final decisions and the tenor of the journal. Scholars and their essays were given close attention; their submissions were not numbered and filed by some anonymous person. Gerber managed all the correspondence and day-to-day duties. Personal letters with evaluative comments by readers from the Advisory Board and the editor were included with rejected essays. Whenever possible, Gerber would try to guide an author through revisions if he thought that might produce a publishable article. I have continued all of these editorial practices.
The journal should have "something of the human touch of an autobiography," Gerber said. Each issue included a brief essay called the "Editor's Fence," an informal meeting place where the editor could lean comfortably and talk to his neighbors: "My fence affords the opportunity occasionally to talk of cabbages and kings, sour grapes and sweet."
Other things followed that first MLA session in 1957. Gerber organized nineteen more ELT Seminars at MLA. Eventually MLA created the Division of Late-Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century English Literature. Gerber also started a special series of ELT issues to make available previously unpublished manuscripts; he helped prepare a three-volume series of period texts on the short story, drama, and poetry (published by Pegasus). He became general editor of a series of annotated bibliographies (published by Northern Illinois University Press) on Transition figures such as Pater, Gissing, Hardy, Conrad, and Galsworthy.
Hal Gerber died of a heart attack in April 1981. He was gone suddenly; the enthusiasm and loyalty he instilled in his graduate students was not. Helga Gerber wanted us to carry on with the journal, and so did Hal's colleagues. I became editor and remain faithful to his editorial vision.
But changes in ELT were to be expected. Some reflect the evolution in personal computers and the advances in print technology. For many years ELT was prepared with an electric typewriter for photo-offset printing: there were no page proofs and a predictably pedestrian look, and unfortunately too many typos. Since our funding is based on subscriptions the cost of the precious craft of the typesetter was always prohibitive.
In 1983 I purchased our first computer, an Osborne "portable"; it weighed 30 pounds and today would be an odd museum piece. I ran page proofs on a dot matrix printer and final copy was done with a daisy wheel printer. I had to tote the computer to one place or another on Arizona State University's campus to find an available printer since we couldn't afford one. The next substantial change came with the introduction of the Apple LaserWriter, fall 1985.
It is a cliché now but wasn't at that moment in the history of printing technology: "Roll over, Mr. Gutenberg." In March 1986 we produced our first "desktop published" issues using an IBM PC (which cost Arizona State University $5,000) with the now long-defunct word processing program WordStar. I could only print six or seven pages at a time; they had to be transferred through a special program to the LaserWriter. The tedium was worth it. Volume 29: 1 and 2 (1986) wouldn't win any awards in typography but at the time they seemed gorgeous.
Other things changed. The coverage in ELT broadened to include generous book review sections. Readers find them helpful in assessing the scholarship. Some 1,500 books have been reviewed in the last twenty-eight years. The length of a volume went from 300 to 500 pages. We began printing drawings and photographs of our 1880–1920 authors. Some drawings I've commissioned from contemporary artists; others were from the artists of the 1880–1920 era.
And then came the internet.
Our first website appeared in 1996 or 1997. I'm not sure. What an amusing artifact that would be to see. Little did anyone in academic publishing know the extent of what was going to unfold. The online revolution has made the hard-won changes I've summarized so far seem inefficacious in comparison. I used to take pride in saying ELT had approximately 900 subscribers in forty countries—very respectable indeed. ELT is now online with Project MUSE, EBSCO's Periodicals for Public Libraries, and ProQuest to cover a range of readers in research, college, community college, and public libraries. It's what I call "the new audience": not just scholars but general readers in greater numbers than we've seen in many years who go directly to the online format for searchable PDFs and HTML versions of the articles and reviews, preferring this kind of reading to the "noninteractive" print ELT.
Like so many of you I love dark black ink on bright reflective white paper, the touch of it, and the typography with its centuries-old aesthetics. One of my favorite moments continues to be when new issues come to the office from the printer: the powerful aroma of fresh ink and paper. Once we had 900 print subscribers. That has all changed and in my view for the better. We still have several hundred print issues going to readers here and abroad. However, the online versions overwhelm print in readership. There are 2,700 subscribers through MUSE alone, thousands more with the other online venues.
The micro press has had its part to play. ELT Press was founded in 1988 . Its 1880–1920 British Authors Series is an extension of ELT. University presses have become more trade-oriented; they've had to do so. Like the journal, then, ELT Press was created to fulfill a need for a community of scholars. Our cloth-bound and paperback books—runs of 400-500, printed on acid-free paper—are distributed throughout the United States and Europe. In 2001 we created an ebook, The Editions of Dorothy Richardson's 'Pilgrimage'. With the publication of Helena Kelleher Kahn's Late 19th-Century Ireland's Political and Religious Controversies in the Fiction of May Laffan Hartley we "reprinted" Hartley's novel Hogan, M.P. In 2007 we added another e-book to the website, Professor George Thomson's final contribution to Richardson scholarship, Dorothy Richardson: A Calendar of Letters.
More recent highlights: 2012 saw the publication of three very good books on very different Transition era subjects: Stanley Weintraub's Farewell, Victoria! British Literature 1880–1900; South African Border Life: Tales of Unrest, wonderful stories by Ernest Glanville edited by Gerald Monsman; and Bernard F. Dukore's Bernard Shaw: Slaves of Duty and Tricks of the Governing Class.
In 2015 we are publishing No. 29 in the 1880–1920 British Authors Series, Stanley Weintraub's Shaw Before His First Play: Embryo Playwright.
On a broader front, a new phase in scholarly e-book publication also began in 2012 with Project MUSE's University Press Content Consortium, an impressive collection of university press e-books. Our new books and all back list titles in our 1880-1920 British Authors series are available at UPCC.
No recollection such as this would be entire without comment on the people associated with the journal and the press. To be successful, any publishing venture remains people-oriented. That has been especially true of ELT. It began as a friendly gathering place for a community of scholars interested in writers whose work had fallen into neglect. Over the years that spirit has continued. People here and abroad have always shared their fascination with the period. Members of the Advisory Board (some have joined recently, some have served for many years) give freely of their time and expertise to read essays and offer me advice. Book reviewers evaluate the scholarship and share their specialized knowledge. New readers and long-time readers continue to advance the reputation of the journal.
The support many of you have offered me since I became editor is much appreciated. I've made my share of mistakes but always tried to attend to authors diligently and be fair-minded. I enjoy the work as editor very much, bringing close scholarly attention to each article and review, working through the detailed process of editing and publishing, and then seeing a new volume appear in print and online.
In my 32nd year as editor, 2015, I look forward to the work ahead.