The Origins of Critical Inquiry

Because of Jean’s leap of faith, because of Morris Philipson’s support, and because my blueprint for a new journal with that perplexing name passed the stringent press vetting and approval process, I could enter the exhilarating world of Critical Inquiry.

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[ Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm/ Unsplash]

To steady my memories of the origins of Critical Inquiry in Chicago in the 1970s I consulted a magisterial book, John W. Boyer’s The University of Chicago: A History (2015). It reminded me of the acute, even dangerous, financial pressures on the university then and in preceding years. Yet, the university neither trashed nor forsook its devotion to intellectual excellence and the formidable activity of reason.

Indeed, had the faculty not recruited Sheldon Sacks from Berkeley in 1966? Shelly had earned his doctorate from Chicago but had left Illinois to build a superbly vibrant reputation as a scholar, critic, and teacher in Texas and California. Had the university not hired Morris Philipson, a well-regarded publisher, as the director of its historic university press in 1967? Serving until 2000, Morris would become the legendary model of a modern press director.

Moreover, had Morris not encouraged the career of Jean Sacks at the Press? A University of Chicago graduate, she immediately entered into what she would sardonically call her “suburban housewife period.” In 1962, as a “re-entry woman,” she returned to the university. An astute businesswoman who was alert to new intellectual developments, she became manager of the journals division and assistant director of the press. Jean had been divorced in 1965. Shelly’s first wife had died shortly after they returned to Chicago. In 1967, Jean and Shelly married.

In 1974, the press and Shelly and his colleagues, Arthur Heiserman and Wayne Booth, launched Critical Inquiry. Jean said that after she had overseen the birth of CI, she thought “we ought to be doing something for women.” She set out to find an editor and found me at a lunch table at Barnard College where I was helping to organize an early rendition of the “Scholar and the Feminist” conferences. Newly tenured in English at Barnard, I was living in a loft at 352 Bowery in New York. Jean asked around about me, decided to take a chance, and pluckily invited me to be the founding editor of an academic journal explicitly and unapologetically about women. The initial group of editors eventually called it Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. It appeared in 1975.

Because of Jean’s leap of faith, because of Morris Philipson’s support, and because my blueprint for a new journal with that perplexing name passed the stringent press vetting and approval process, I could enter the exhilarating world of Critical Inquiry. I could be in the company of such citizens of that world as Tom Mitchell and, later, Alan Thomas. I had never studied at the University of Chicago but had respected its aura of excellence.

Moreover, I immediately loved Shelly and Jean. When they came to New York, they would summon me up from the Bowery. I would put on one of my limited number of better outfits. We would dine in a fine restaurant. We talked. We gossiped. I would make my way back to the Bowery, a fortunate woman who learned quickly how limited her capacity for Martinis was. Shelly and Jean enjoyed their marriage; they were bon vivants with a conscience and a strong consciousness of the indispensability of ideas. We all cared passionately about our journals, every detail about them.

A few days ago, I reread Shelly’s editorial for the first issue of Critical Inquiry, “A Chimera for a Breakfast,” a reference to Oliver Goldsmith and the nature of good criticism. I saw, more deeply than ever, how much his hopes, and those of his coeditors, overlapped with mine for Signs—that it be a “reasoned inquiry into the human spirit,” that it be interdisciplinary, that it “formulate fruitful and exciting questions,” and then attempt to find the best possible answers to them.” CI and Signs had very different reasons for being but not that much of method.

Shelly also edited the first of the four essays I have published in CI, “The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein” (1977). I had stumbled into Stein scholarship during a year at Yale in 1975-76. He saw merit in my discoveries and interpretations. He also understood the promise of the emerging feminist criticism and women’s studies. Since then, CI has taken three more of my essays: “Zero Degree Deviancy,” an early theory about lesbian literature (1981); “Nancy Reagan Wears A Hat: Feminism and Its Culture Consensus,” deliberately sassy before the colon, more soberly explanatory after it (1988); and finally, “Texts in the Wind,” a proposal for six questions that CI should address in its next decades (2004). Glancing through these pages, I realize how much I wanted to push both myself and intellectual boundaries as I wrote for CI, but simultaneously, how bound I was to “reasoned inquiry.” That commitment cautioned me against talking through my hat.

Shelly was to die prematurely in 1979, a hard loss. Jean was to die in 1996 in Memphis, Morris in 2011 in Chicago. The invaluable criticism that CI has fostered helps to provide necessary equipment for mourning. Part of that equipment is to question, fruitfully, why some chimeras, the cruel bogey men and vicious phantasms, must wrench our most bitter griefs from us.

Catharine R. Stimpson

Catharine R. Stimpson is a university professor and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science New York University. She is on the editorial board of Critical Inquiry.

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