Editor’s Notes & Cover Art

About the Cover

Our cover design by John Pickard features a silver-gelatin photograph by André Kertész, titled “A Window on the Quai Voltaire, 1928.”

Kertész often captured whimsical, quiet moments on the streets of Paris.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, on July 2, 1894, then moved to Paris in 1925 to pursue magazine photography.

His unconventional approach to camera angles was not appreciated until he joined with other immigrant artists and the Dada movement to gain wider critical success. Because of German persecution and the threat of World War II, Kertész decided to immigrate to the United States in 1936. He worked at House & Garden magazine for many years. By 1962, he left the commercial magazine business to pursue his own art. At the time of his death in 1985, Kertész’s work was honored by artists, collected by major museums and galleries, and studied by scholars who recognize his many contributions to the art of photography.

© Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures.

Special thanks to the International Center for Photography for their assistance.

Editor’s Notes

In November 2011, the trustees of The Kenyon Review honored Simon Schama with their annual Award for Literary Achievement. This was something of a departure, given the authors thus honored in the last decade. For Mr. Schama is recognized as a historian, a cultural critic, and as a writer and presenter of television documentaries. In other words, he is neither a novelist nor a poet. (Though I will happily argue that he writes some pretty dandy fiction in Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations.)

Surely historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to Gibbon and Churchill have entertained literary aspirations. They were telling stories meant to move the reader, to bring scenes and characters to life, to enchant with their language, not just to convey logistics and chronology. This may remind us just how narrowly in our own generation we’ve fenced the ambit for things literary.

It’s equally true, moreover, that once one begins reading most anything by Simon Schama, from the history of the slave trade to the minute recollection of aromas in his mother’s kitchen, his ambitions reveal themselves. One quick example snatched at random: “The kitchen intrigued me for it seemed some sort of battlefield in which my mother laid about various ingredients until they surrendered and accepted their fate in a long, hot oven.” This is delightful, full of strategic little grenades that detonate in behalf of the larger vision of the essay.

This demonstrates, of course, that an author’s aspirations are signaled in part by the performance, the style that embodies itself in writing. By this I mean all the constituent parts: word choice, rhythm, metaphor, and so on. For these to be literary there needs to be a combination of the playful and the precise, the surprising and the suspenseful. In Schama’s example above it’s the kitchen as battlefield; his mother laying ingredients about; their ultimate and inevitable and entirely surprising surrender to her unsubtle oven.

The banal, the mechanical, they are always with us. That is what most writing amounts to. Indeed, most prose aspires to nothing more. Whether it’s the unreadable manual for the scanner/fax/printer at the side of my computer, or magazines for sale at the supermarket checkout, such writing chugs along laboriously, conveying information and even the occasional thrill, often redundantly or oxymoronically or littered with internal contradictions. No matter. What this may point us toward, however, are issues of purpose and audience. What is a given piece of writing attempting to accomplish, and for whom?

Manuals are always manuals. Likewise the penny romance. But what about history? Why should Simon Schama’s literary ambitions strike us as exceptional? This I find more troubling, and it parallels the evolution of literary journals, of “creative writing” in general, over the past thirty years or so. Scholars and theorists, largely based now in the academy, pursue their trades within a narrower circuit even than that of literature. Be it literary criticism and scholarship—and the separate, discrete camps within those fields — or history or political theory or philosophy, members of these guilds increasingly write only for each other, a handful of enlightened acolytes scattered hither and yon across the globe but sharing a rarified code, a jargon rather than a vocabulary. Sadly, it seems to me, they have abandoned any notion of writing for a generally well-educated reader.

It is precisely that reader who appreciates the literary — writing that aspires to achieve more than mere titillation or the conveyance of raw information, on the one hand, or the rigidly arcane mysteries of academic discourse on the other. Such a reader reads for the pleasure of the experience — the surprise and delight of artful prose — as well as for ideas, insights, meditations that carry us beyond the banal present.

No surprise, then, that we should honor Simon Schama. Perhaps doing so opens us instead to the possibility of recognizing literarily significant achievements outside the narrow channels that recent decades have hollowed for easy passage.

— D. H. L.

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