Six Decades A: Brief History of Academic Publishing at Xavier University of Louisiana

 

A version of this article first appeared in Louisiana Literature volume 13 #1, Spring, 1996,
and is reprinted with the permission of the editor

 

Although Xavier University of Louisiana is a relatively young historically black university, it is one of the few such schools to have a continuous history of publication. During the worst years of the Great Depression, Xavier established its own university press, which published three different works before wartime paper shortages forced its premature closure

One of the highlights of that brief venture is Charles Barthelemy Rousseve's groundbreaking study, The Negro in Louisiana : Aspects of His History and His Literature. Adapted from Rousseve's master's thesis in history, the book was widely and positively reviewed and gained the plaudits of a broad cross section of African-American leaders. In his work, Rousseve draws attention to the then little-known, but highly significant piece of African-American literary history, Armand Lanusse's Les Cenelles. This collection of poetry by free men of color, published in 1845, was the first of its kind in America and has since been recog­ nized as an important literary and cultural landmark.

In 1941, the press published a collection of creative writing by African­ American poets from across the South. Edited by New Orleanian Peter Wellington Clarke, Arrows of Gold is, in its own way, a literary extension of the writing in Les Cenelles. Among the poets collected are the multitalented Charles Rousseve and Mohammed Shaik, father of contemporary poet/novelist Fatima Shaik.

There was little in the way of organized publishing at Xavier during World War II, and it would not be until 1961 that a band of Xavier faculty conceived of, and began to publish, the university's first journal devoted to the arts, humanities, and social studies. Even though the journal had a stated interest in "Negro American culture," Xavier University Studies broadcast a wide spectrum of scholarship and creative writing in the ten years of its existence. Among the highlights of that period are scholarly essays on Andre Gide by Catharine Savage, on W. E. B. Dubois and Richard Wright by Richard Kostelanetz, and on Thomas Nelson Page by Moody L. Simms Jr. Although not, strictly speaking, a journal of creative writing, Studies became a forum for both poets and dramatists. The premier issue featured translations of Rilke and poetry by Oscar Bouise. Later issues would include poetry by Michael Whalen, Peter Simpson, John Knoepf{es, and Sybil Kein. Playwrights were very much a part of the journal, too. In its brief span of years, Studies aired several works each by Hamilton Avegno and Charles W. Longue.

Although the journal editors ceased operations in 1971, literary publishing continued to flourish at Xavier during the next ten years. Five different books would be pub­ lished, featuring a significant body of work by nationally known African-American writers. Parachute Shop Blues and Other Poems by New Orleans Poets, edited by Carl Senna, was released in 1973. The most notable feature of that book was the debut of Fatima Shaik. Shaik, who would later receive some critical apprecia­tion for her collection of novellas The Mayor of New Orleans Just Talkin' Jazz, pub­ lished five original contributions in Parachute Shop.

The following year, under the guidance of Glenn Godfrey, Xavier would launch a series of chapbooks called Aftermath of Invisibility that would feature the work of a number of mature African-American artists. The first Aftermath, released in 1974, includes poetry by Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, and Al Young. Aftermath II, released the following year, included fiction by Hunt Hawkins, Felicia Hernandez and Don Paul. The final Aftermath, published in 1976, con­ tains fiction by Felicia Hernandez and Glenn Godfrey. Of particular impor­ tance in this issue are two poems by legendary New Orleans poet Everette Maddox, who was then serving as writer-in-residence on the Xavier campus.

Maddox would be the focus of another Xavier book released that year, The Thirteen Original Poems. Including artwork by Celia Maddox, the collection includes such well known Maddox poems as "Lines on His Thirtieth Birthday," "The Sense of Decorum in Poverty," and "The Substance of a Late­ Night . Phone Call."

In 1980, ending the university's nine-year hiatus from serial publishing, African-American poet Charles Fort and English professor Thomas Bonner Jr. initiated a new journal, which they called Xavier Review. Unlike Xavier University Studies, the Review would be a journal devoted entirely to literary and cultural discussion. In his introduction to the premier issue, Fort wrote, "Future contributors to Xavier Review should take notice that as a poet, teacher, and editor, I acknowledge the spiritual, magical, and visionary proper­ ties of literature, pages where the arc of human color and the psalms of lan­ guage are carved into flame, and the cold element where the shadows of the dead and the passions of the living become unexpectedly fused, how both are thrown together like a cruel moment of history emerging between thin webs of ice, and while walking among the fervor of the. mountains gather form, pages where, in living, these dangers remain calm fiction in front of mirrors."

Although the journal was originally intended as a semiannual publication, struggles with funding sometimes reduced the Review to an annual. However, the edi­ tors still managed to attract the work of regional and national figures. Early issues would include the work of Andrew Salkey, Al Young, Tom Dent, Gordon Osing, Peter Cooley, Jerry Ward, Lenard D. Moore, and Jan Villarrubia. Of particular note in these early issues are the interviews. Nationally known authors such as Alex Haley, Ernest Gaines, Walker Percy, James Baldwin, Andre Dubus, and Elmore Leonard appeared in the pages of the Review. In later years, younger Southern writers, such as Rick Barton, Robert Morgan, David Madden, and Christine Wiltz, would be featured interviewees.

An unusual facet of the Review's history would be the publication of spe­ cial issues devoted to the work of a single person. The subjects of these special issues would be diverse and sometimes unusual. The earliest such issue, which appeared in the early 1980s, is dramatist Retta Taney's lo, Catharine. This two­ act drama, performed by Taney in Great Britain and filmed for television, depicts the life of Saint Catharine of Sienna. Later in the 1980s, editor Thomas Bonner would publish Jacqueline Pattison's young adult novel Jordan B. Noble: General Jackson's Drummer Boy and R. Baxter Miller's The Southern Trace of Black Critical Theory.

On rare occasions, the Review provided the springboard to both newer tal­ents and new directions by established writers. In the 1990s, Bonner published the first short story by New Orleanian Patty Friedmann, who later produced a critically acclaimed first novel, The Exact Image of Mother. Robert Morgan, a North Carolinian on the faculty of Cornell better known for his poetry, twice published stories in Review publications and has since gone on to greater fame as a novelist with The Hinterlands,The Truest Pleasure, and Brave Enemies. Jazz musician Delfayeo Marsalis made his fiction debut during this time and has published another story in the Review since then. New Orleanian Christine Wiltz and Louisiana State University writer-in-residence David Madden each published work in progress during 1995.

In 1993, almost fifty years since the demise of the original Xavier University Press, the staff of the Review, by now composed of staff from the English Department and the University Library, launched Xavier Review Press. The intention of this new venture was once again to publish book-length works in the arts and humanities. Building on the foundation of a previously published Review book, Bard South: Teaching Writing at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the press began a series of occasional publications.

The second book, and first work of creative writing in this series, was Above Ground: Stories about Life and Death by New Southern Writers. The collection includes new and previously published work by Alvin Aubert, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, Martha Lacy Hall, Patty Friedmann, and others. Succeeding books in the series included Borders of Culture, Margins of Identity, the proceedings of the seventh colloquium of the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth- Century Studies Association; Blackrobe's Love Letters, poetry by Leo Luke Marcello; and Immortelles: Poems of Life and Death by New Southern Writers, a poetry companion to Above Ground. A two-act drama by Jan Villarrubia and a new biography of Jean Toomer by African-American critic Ronald Dorris were published during 1996. Later books would feature an overview of black New Orleans poet Marcus Christian, poetry by Lee Meitzen Grue, Biljana Obradovic, and Patricia Ward, two volumes devoted to short fiction master Andre Dubus, and poetry by Stella Nesanovich and Carol Boston Weatherford.

Xavier University is relatively small as academic institutions go, but the urge to publish work that draws on the literary heritage of the, Deep South , African America, and the Gulf/Caribbean Basin has remained strong for almost sixty years. With the renaissance in belles lettres that the Gulf South has experienced in recent years, it seems clear that there will be no shortage of new and developing talent to draw on in the future.