A reader recently let me know that Charles Newman — novelist, critic, and founding editor of TriQuarterly magazine — passed away on March 13 at age 67. Newman has been somewhat forgotten in recent years. Just last October, in fact, I noted this exchange in Robert Birnbaum’s interview with Stuart Dybek:
RB: I know TriQuarterly from the Charles Newman and Elliott Anderson days.
SD: I go that far back. Sure. And now Susan Hahn.
RB: Where are they now?
SD: I don’t know. Elliott Anderson ended up in Hawaii, which is not a bad place to end up in, but I’m not sure where Newman is.
As it happens, Newman was teaching, as he had for many years, in the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis. Last spring, the program’s newsletter featured a conversation with Newman in which he discussed growing up outside Chicago; his 10 years at Northwestern; his experiences at the magazine; his tenure as head of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and subsequent experiments in agronomy; and the novel trilogy he left unfinished at the time of his death.
Newman published four books of fiction: New Axis (1966), The Promisekeeper: A Tephramancy (1971), three short novels in the volume There Must Be More Than Death (1976), and White Jazz (1984). His best-known book, however, was The Post-Modern Aura (1985), which divided contemporary novelists into “formalists” and “realists” and lamented the failure of literary fiction to compete in the contemporary cultural marketplace. You can get a sense of Newman’s style (and sense of humor) in this review he wrote for the New York Times in 1988.
His chief distinction was his role in the creation of TriQuarterly. One memorable issue that he edited (together with Alfred Appel) was a festschrift for Vladimir Nabokov on the occasion of Nabokov’s 70th birthday in 1970. Among the contributors were Robert Alter, George Steiner, Simon Karlinksy, the Proffers, Stanley Elkin, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Alfred Kazin, John Barth, and many others, including Newman himself. (Newman recounts carrying a rolled-up copy of Pale Fire in his pocket through Army basic training.) You might enjoy Nabokov’s written response to this issue, which includes some kind words for Newman’s contribution. (Other contributors, like Steiner, weren’t quite as lucky.)
TriQuarterly had been knocking around Northwestern for years as a student and faculty publication before Newman took the helm. But in Newman’s time it became one of the truly great literary journals of the 20th Century. I just thought it made sense to mark his passing.
Addition 3/24: A New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox appeared on March 22. She describes how Newman’s novels were received: “Critical response was divided, often within a single review. Perhaps this was the point: he succeeded in atomizing even the individual critic, who fractured and flew apart with the effort of interpretation.”
Addition 4/10: Another good obit at LA Times.