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A Brief History of RE: Arts & Letters

In the spring semester of 1968, the School of Liberal Arts at Stephen F. Austin State University published the first issue of REAL, regarding: arts & letters. The first editor, Edwin Gaston, and his associate T. J. Kallsen set a goal to “publish creative, critical and documented writings that stress the unifying elements of all art and knowledge;” not a simple goal for a literary journal. “The Use of a Review” by Nicholas Joost, the first essay appearing in Vol. 1 No. 1, served as the journal’s manifesto, reminding readers of “the interrelationships of all fields of artistic and intellectual endeavor.” The essay clarified that REAL meant to break away from “the confinement of specialization.” Critical articles on literature appeared alongside articles on music, painting, and dance. A discussion of the importance of individual word choice within narrative appeared near new works of poetry. The journal was intentionally interdisciplinary, and it sought “provocative material in great variety of forms and over a wide range of subject-matter.” Reading through the early years of the journal, highlights for me included an essay by George Lyon on the underground music scene in Austin (Vol. V No. 1, 1971) and an entire issue (Vol. VI No. 2, 1972) devoted to African criticism.

After a short hiatus in 1973, the journal reappeared in the fall of ’74 with a new name: RE: Artes Liberales. The editors still wanted broadly interdisciplinary material of relevance to their readers. They included an invitation for contributions from anthropology, geography, history, languages, literature, and philosophy. They reminded readers of Nacogdoches’ Hispanic cultural heritage along the Camino Real and of the meaning of the Spanish word real: highway. Whether pronounced real or real, the journal remained grounded. In an editorial note, Gaston and Kallsen wrote, “The primary aim of RE:AL will be to stress the relevance of scholarship and creative writing to life.” From 1974 through 1988, through changes in editors from Gaston to Neal Houston to Leonard Cheever, back to Houston and then to Lee Schulz, REAL persevered, celebrating its twentieth anniversary true to its aim. Schulz’ editorial note marked the beginning of REAL’s third decade: “Moving across that threshold is a humbling experience. Though tradition weighs heavily, we will try not to let it define our efforts during the next decade.” And they didn’t. Each new editor moved the journal closer to where we are today. As W. Dale Hearall wrote in his first editor’s note (Vol. 27 Nos. 1 & 2, 2002), Schulz moved the journal in a “more artistically centered direction,” on a path editors have continued to follow. W. Dale Hearell, Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Andrew Brininstool—each made changes to stay current with their times and to remain true to the artistic vision of this long-standing journal. Twenty-seven years later, the newest editor, Michael Sheehan, takes his place, asserting his vision of twenty-first century relevance while respecting the forty-seven years of tradition preceding him.

Looking through nearly eighty issues, REAL’s archive, the articles and the editorial notes tell me a story. Each issue of REAL responded to the issues of its day. I see the first issue with an ISSN, the first issue to have photographs, the first translations REAL published, and REAL’s transition from critical to creative writing. Through the pages of REAL and through the eyes of the writers published there, I see a history of the times but also a chronicle of the modern literary journal. I see minor trends and major reactions. I see schools of thought rise, the waxing and waning of ideas, the transition to the next Big Thing. I see gaps in the journal’s publication. I see drastic changes in publishing technology. I see a history in brief of the struggle university presses and the faculty who edit them experience in order to maintain the literary tradition. I see the shrinking budget, low-budget, no budget struggle to find a way to keep publishing through the twenty-first century and whatever might come next.

What shines throughout is the passionate engagement of mind in art: the critical thought engaged in making it. It’s REAL.

– Karen Perkins, Editorial Assistant