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Charles Newman, 67; Started Literary Magazine

March 26, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Charles Newman, a novelist, critic and founding editor of TriQuarterly, one of the country's preeminent literary magazines, died March 13 at a St. Louis hospital after a long illness. He was 67.

Newman transformed what had been a student and faculty publication at Northwestern University into a literary journal with international reach. As editor from 1964 to 1975, he championed writers as diverse as Sylvia Plath and John Barth and introduced the vanguard of Latin American and Eastern European authors, including Jorge Luis Borges and Czeslaw Milosz, to TriQuarterly's discerning readership of American writers and intellectuals.

"The quality of his editorship was really astonishingly high and wide-ranging and inventive," said novelist and essayist William Gass, whose avant-garde fiction found an early home in TriQuarterly's pages.

Newman, who at his death was a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, was known as a writer of experimental fiction who published four novels and a collection of short stories.

He edited books of criticism on Plath, Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.

He also published original literary criticism, including "The Post-Modern Aura: the Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation" (1985). A bleak assessment of postmodern literature and the publishing industry, it argued that no age was "less sure about what a novel is, or more skeptical of the value and function of 'imaginative' literature."

New York Times reviewer Eric Gould called the book "a very idiosyncratic interpretation of the current artistic scene" that should be read for its "marvelous hyperboles and scathing wit."

Newman was born in St. Louis on May 27, 1938, and moved frequently as a child, because his father was in the Navy. When he was 13, his family settled on the outskirts of Chicago, where he attended a progressive private school. He earned a bachelor's degree in American studies at Yale in 1960, then studied politics and economics for a year in England at Oxford University's Balliol College.

After a brief stint as an aide to an Illinois congressman, Newman was drafted and served as a medic in Vietnam. When he completed his service, he returned to Chicago, where he lived on welfare while writing his first novel.

His fortunes changed in 1964, when he was hired as an instructor at Northwestern and became editor of TriQuarterly.

He quickly reshaped the journal into a national magazine that showcased sophisticated and innovative fiction, poetry, essays and graphic art.

Newman assembled occasional special issues to spotlight what he considered important developments in literature, such as "New French Writing," "Contemporary Israeli Literature," "Latin American Literature" and "Literature and Culture of Russian Emigration."

"Charlie used the little magazine to educate himself and his readership," said Peg Boyers, executive editor of the intellectual journal Salmagundi. "He believed that the little magazine had a vital role to play in our culture, much in the way the little magazine did in Victorian times, when figures like [John Stuart] Mill and [Thomas] Macaulay poured their souls into argument and passionate discourse in the pages of magazines."

TriQuarterly became such a force in its rarified world that it was soon receiving 500 unsolicited manuscripts a week. Newman devised an unusual system for sorting the chaff from the wheat.

"We commandeered a room, built some boxes ranked 1 to 10, as I recall, put in some chairs and invited anyone who wanted to have first crack at the 'slush pile' to rank manuscripts and make any comments they wished," he said in a 2005 interview for a Washington University publication, Ars Poetica. "To my amazement, that room was always full of students and some of the faculty.... I was further astonished to discover the degree of unanimity about the quality -- this from a group ranging in years from 18 to 65, from every conceivable background."

He concluded that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that aesthetic taste is cultivated or "constructed," "here was evidence that there is something like a recognizable universal aesthetic quality."

Much of what he chose to publish rejected traditional notions of plot and character development; this was particularly true in the writing of postmodernists such as Robert Coover, John Hawkes and Barth. Often the work was controversial, as exemplified by Gass' scatological novella "Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife," which incorporates photographs and typographical inventions.

Such pieces were expensive to publish because of the complexity of the text, but Gass said Newman "beat the bushes to find the funds."

Newman's own highly imaginative fiction has been compared to the work of Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut.

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