Photo by Mary Henebry
The Paris Review, a quarterly literary magazine founded in Paris in 1953, is a small operation with a big objective of publishing fresh voices. Based in New York since 1973, the Review is famed for publishing emerging writers, from Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth to Alice Munro and Yiyun Li, and for running exclusive interviews with writers such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and more recently Andrea Barrett and Paul Auster.
Prominently, however, the Paris Review was known for the vibrancy of editor George Plimpton. Paper Lion author and larger than life Manhattanite, Plimpton, who died last September at age 76, was known for his roaring parties and passion for good literature.
"To be in this office now, without him, is inconceivable," wrote Review editors in his last issue, the fall 2003 50th anniversary edition. But their answer to this loss is Brigid Hughes (WCAS94), the new woman in charge at the magazine.
As executive editor of the Paris Review — she declined to take Plimpton's title "in part because George actually shared the title of editor with a long list of people" — Hughes works with a core staff of seven. They toil in the same Upper East Side office, one floor below Plimpton's former apartment, where "we could usually hear the floorboards of his office creaking above our heads," as Hughes and the staff wrote in the anniversary Review. Plimpton's bicycle still hangs upside down from the ceiling, along with a lion tamer's chair indented with teeth marks. And about 1,200 covers of the Review line the office walls — artifacts recalling the beloved editor who set precedents with his discerning literary tastes, flair for fundraising (resuscitating the bank account from $1.16 in 2001) and constant solicitations for subscribers (the magazine now has 5,000).
"He was deeply committed to the magazine," says Hughes of Plimpton. "But what I've come to realize these past months is how many other people share that commitment — his fellow editors (there are some 100 names on the masthead), the writers, the subscribers. The magazine is a real community.
"I feel lucky to have been in his presence," Hughes continues. "I feel lucky to have learned from him, lucky for how he prepared me for this position. Even when I started, it was an honor being included in the editorial meetings and being part of that conversation."
Her colleagues concur that Hughes is the right person to follow in Plimpton's footsteps. "She has a track record for putting out the magazine. To some extent, Brigid has been doing this job for a very long time, although with a very prominent boss," Elizabeth Gaffney, editor-at-large and board member of the Paris Review Foundation, told the Associated Press.
Previously managing editor since 2000, Hughes agrees most of her duties have remained the same, but she has found herself "looking at the magazine in new ways in terms of making decisions about whom we publish," she says.
As before, Hughes' new position at the helm of the Review entails a lot of reading ("I wouldn't have taken the job if it hadn't," she notes), and she finds that anything she reads for pleasure — currently novelists Marilyn Robinson and Edward Jones — somehow connects to the magazine. Hughes credits Northwestern for teaching her to be a "professional reader."
After growing up in Buffalo in "a house lined with books," Hughes attended Northwestern, where she rowed with the women's crew team and worked with Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences professor Mary Kinzie (WCAS67), the director of the English major in writing. Kinzie recalls of Hughes' work: "There's a freshness not lightly won in Brigid's poems.. The freshness comes not only from the execution, which always requires tact, but from control in the forming of the idea — which has to do with the work done before the poem begins."
Hughes also cites the emphasis that her Northwestern classes placed on analyzing literature in preparation for the writing process. "What I most liked about writing as an English major is that you not only do a lot of writing, but you also learn how to read a poem or a work of fiction," she notes.
Almost immediately after graduating from Northwestern in 1994, Hughes wrote a letter to Review poetry editor Richard Howard, with whom she had worked at Skidmore College in a summer writing workshop. She joined the Review as an intern in 1995 and spent two months in a basement reading the so-called "slush pile," which holds more than half of the 20,000 manuscripts the magazine receives annually. Hughes was hired as an assistant editor later that year.
But even during her initial time at the Review, Hughes was uncertain as to where her career path would lead. "For the first two years here I sent away applications for pre-med programs, and I even thought about graduate school," Hughes says. "But then I realized anything I would learn about literature in grad school, I was learning here at the magazine in a better and more interesting way."
Northwestern English department chair Reginald Gibbons thinks Hughes made the right decision. "I am proud that one of our graduates has risen to success in such an important position in contemporary literary culture in America," says Gibbons, former editor of Northwestern's literary magazine, TriQuarterly. "It's a wonderful mark of Hughes' own accomplishments and abilities."
And both colleagues and contributors agree that Hughes has proven a devoted and capable match for the prominent publication she heads.
"Back in 1953, when the magazine was founded, the principle was disarmingly simple: to publish good writing," says Hughes. "That principle seems just as important today as it did 50 years ago. Along with the attention to the craft of writing is an endless curiosity — which I think is reflected in the work we publish — that sense of never knowing quite what you'll find in the pages of the magazine."
In his last issue, No. 167, Plimpton notes that the Review 's current editors' "spirit, dedication, and enthusiasm surely match that of their predecessors 50 years ago."
Hughes' primary goal now is to further pursue the magazine's original premise of publishing good writing no matter the author's name attached to it, and to maintain the reputation of what Time magazine called "the biggest little magazine in history."
"It's our pledge, above all, to continue this tradition," Hughes says.
Kate Johnson (J05) of Pendleton, Ind., is an editorial intern at Northwestern magazine. She recently interned in New York City at New York magazine and the recently folded Book magazine.