A Brief History of the Brooklyn Rail

by Theodore Hamm

When playwright Emily DeVoti named the Brooklyn Rail in the fall of 1998, our intent was to create a broadsheet containing a short series of slanted opinions designed to be read on the L train back and forth to Manhattan. Along with three other original editors (filmmaker Joe Maggio, art critic Christian Viveros-Faune, and writer Patrick Walsh), we started publishing a double-sided, Xeroxed sheet on a weekly basis. Five years hence, I defy anyone to read an entire issue of the current Rail on a single train ride, even an F from Jamaica to Coney Island.

The original goal of the Rail was to provide an open forum for criticism of the arts, politics, and the world around us. Our cast has grown exponentially, as our masthead suggests and the paper’s content reflects. Phong Bui, one of the first to come aboard, has now taken on the role of publisher, and without his energy and talent as an artist and impresario we simply would not have a full publication to speak of. Here on the editorial side, I can say that even as the size of the paper has grown, our mission has remained the same: to provide an open forum for criticism and free expression.

All well and good, you say, but what of the pudding? Well, on the local, national, and international fronts, we’ve printed mini-manifestoes, hard-edged position pieces, and telling interviews. In our art and culture coverage, we’ve run extended critical treatments, in-depth analyses of the offbeat, as well as the occasional hatchet job. In so doing, we are clearly out-of-sync with PR-driven journalism.

But when one is surrounded by minds as lively and insightful as those of our Local editors Williams Cole and Meghan McDermott; or Express editors Christian Parenti and Heather Rogers; or Art editor Daniel Baird; or main Arts editors Emily DeVoti, Alan Lockwood and Ellen Pearlman; or Fiction editor Donald Breckenridge; or Poetry Editor Monica de la Torre, one just doesn’t tell these people to “tone it down.” Nor does one ask them to share a singular artistic, political, or, for that matter, world view.

This makes for a heady mélange of perspectives, which is our ideal, though by no means a universal one. Yet, personally, I find that criticism written in one voice becomes too predictable. The last time I checked, there were also several hundred magazines doing PR. As for any sort of specific agenda, aesthetically or politically, the Rail hasn’t one: the editors control the content of their sections as they please. The Rail covers arts and politics, but makes no demands that the twain must meet.

There are creative tensions that do arise for us, as they naturally should for any project of this size. In terms of models, Phong likes the mid-century Partisan Review, and the New York Review of Books; I prefer the Masses and the London Review of Books. We find common ground on the American Mercury and the early Village Voice, during its literary heyday. Lowbrow material, rest assured, also crosses our respective tables.

In terms of the politics of many of the Rail’s editors, sure, they do tend to lean leftward. Some readers may find this troubling. But we hardly apply a litmus test to prospective writers, as we’ve published work ranging across the political spectrum. We’ve run pieces critiquing major left intellectuals, and have had as many pieces pro-development as con. Of course, very few people knock liberal or conservative publications for not publishing left writers; such rejections, after all, are based on a distaste for “didactic,” “doctrinaire” or “dogmatic” viewpoints.

The Rail’s real commitment is less to a program than to a place, or better yet, to a set of traditions that place represents. We originate from, and declare ourselves to be in some way representative of Brooklyn, so we must pay homage to a more than estimable literary heritage. And often, though not always, that tradition has been sparked by unlikely matches of aesthetics and politics. Walt Whitman was an anti-slavery newspaper editor as he began to chant democratically, and Marianne Moore, modernist that she was, eventually wrote odes to Muhammad Ali.

Though Brooklyn has indeed had its share of heavyweights, I’m by no means suggesting that the Rail is yet entitled to be thrown into the same ring. What I am pointing out is simply that we originate in a borough that has long been a “Crucible” of artistic and political democracy, and that we are obliged to work in that tradition. Jackie Robinson, to be certain, never played for the Yankees.

My reason for saying these things is that our fate is not tied to the market. Our cover price is still nil. We are a nonprofit organization, for the moment funded almost entirely by private donations. Unlike other nonprofit publications, we do not have one particularly well-heeled investor greasing our wheels. This is starting to sound like a pledge break, so I’ll stop.

Caution: here come my bottom lines. In the first, and last analysis, and in this, the last paragraph of this editorial, I suggest that the following remains the ideal to which the Rail aspires—slanted opinions, artfully delivered. Criticism is our way of life.

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