Robert Boyers can discuss politics and literature with the best and brightest of his colleagues. Put those two topics together and you could argue that he’s in a class by himself.
“The big thing for me, which has been a passion all of my life, is the relationship between politics and literature,” said Boyers, 73, who is beginning his 47th year of teaching at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where he is an English professor, and celebrating his 50th year as editor-in-chief of his own literary journal, Salmagundi.
“I’ve written books about it, I’ve taught courses about it. It’s what you see running through our magazine.”
Boyers was a graduate student at New York University when he created Salmagundi in 1965. Since then some of the best minds in the country, including well-known authors like Christopher Hitchens, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates and William Kennedy, to name just a few, have crafted a wide range of articles for the magazine, all of them substantial essays that fall under the realm of cultural criticism.
A quarterly publication, Salmagundi (the term refers to a mixture or medley) has also produced theme-related issues such as “Art & Ethics,” “Fear and Trembling: Slouching Toward November 2012” and “Jihad vs. McWorld.”
“The thing I wanted to do from the beginning, and we have maintained it, is to be very miscellaneous in terms of subject matter,” said Boyers.
“We cover a very broad area, but I would call all of it cultural criticism. We do original poetry and fiction, interviews, film, we cover the visual arts, and of course politics and literature. We have special issues of our magazine devoted to themes and topics like race and racism, the clash of civilizations and the culture industry.”
While Boyers considers himself a “man of the left,” Salmagundi does offer its readers conservative viewpoints.
“When Christopher Hitchens was doing a lot of his writing for Salmagundi, he was promoting what I would call a very hawkish, right-wing line with respect to the war with Islam,” said Boyers.
“A conservative figure who has contributed many times to the magazine is George Steiner, senior book critic with The New Yorker who has long been a cultural conservative.
“Still, it’s quite clear that we are a left-of-center magazine, and predominately most of the attacks on Salmagundi have come from the political right. And I welcome those. I feel delighted when they bother to notice.”
People began noticing Boyers and his writing early, but even earlier he was a highly sought-after child singer.
“They tell me I was very good, but what do I know,” said Boyers, who grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn.
“I sang in a large temple, a congregation of more than 1,000, and soon people began asking me to sing at their weddings, bar mitzvahs, private house parties and so on. I loved singing and I loved the attention.”
What he didn’t realize was that he was building the nest egg that would create Salmagundi.
“No one in our family had ever gone to college, and my parents were poor people who saved every nickel,” said Boyers.
“When I graduated from Queens College my parents gave me $25,000. It completely surprised me. I had no idea. The whole time I was singing no one ever said a word about money. But my father would make all the arrangements and he held on to the money. In 1963 that was like a fortune. The only pocket money I had all through college was from working at the family store on Saturdays.”
Boyers was working on his master’s in English literature at NYU when Henry Pachter, an older friend at The New School for Social Research and founding editor of Dissent, suggested he start a literary magazine.
“I had won a English department prize at Queens, and I was a smart guy and a good writer,” said Boyers. “He told me, ‘you’re exactly the kind of guy who should start a magazine.’ If he hadn’t been there, if he hadn’t encouraged me, I never would have started a magazine with that money.”
The magazine immediately developed a following, and within three years after the first issue Boyers was getting offers from a number of colleges and universities.
“By 1968 I had basically gone through all my money, but I was getting inquiries from quite a few schools,” he said.
“At that moment in time, 1968, I think a lot of college provosts and presidents were looking for little magazines. It was a good way to get their school’s name out there, and I picked Skidmore. I just liked the town, and they offered me a job in the English department.”
Boyers’ work with other magazines — he had begun writing reviews for The New Republic and Harper’s soon after getting his master’s — helped him attract other writers to Salmagundi, and the magazine quickly found traction.
By 1986, Salmagundi was enjoying its 20th year of publication when it received an unexpected boost. Boyers had been named director of a brand new entity: The New York State Writers Summer Institute.
Although he never thought of himself as an administrator, Boyers couldn’t say no to Kennedy, who three years earlier had created The New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1983 novel “Ironweed.”
“It turned out to be the greatest thing because it brought writers to Skidmore who weren’t already contributing to Salmagundi,” said Boyers. “It was great for us and great for the school.”
And he was the perfect man for the job.
“Everybody knew who Bob was because he founded the magazine, and under his direction the institute quickly became one of the finest summer writing programs in the country,” said Kennedy.
“He’s a very energetic and organized guy who also did an outstanding job with what is a very high-level journal. It’s been going for 50 years and that’s remarkable. That’s quite a testimony of Bob’s work.”
When The New School for Social Research holds a special event Nov. 12-13, “Little Magazines & The Conversation of Culture in America,” Boyers will deliver the opening address, “The Fate of Ideas Today.”
“It’s a way to honor Bob and celebrate the 50 years of the magazine, and it’s our way to launch our new master’s program in creative publishing and critical journalism,” said Jim Miller, an author and professor at The New School since 1992.
“He’s an incredibly loyal and loving person and that’s a big part of his success. There’s an element of family around the magazine’s operation, and he is capacious in his capacity to build relationships. He is an amazing person.”
Family is indeed an element in the Salmagundi story. Boyers’ wife, Peg, a student in his freshman English class back in 1971, is listed as executive editor. The associate editor is Marc Woodworth, another student of Boyers’ from the Skidmore class of 1984.
Boyers, who survived two bouts with cancer just last year, walks from his Spring Street home in downtown Saratoga Springs to the college each day, and says retirement is still a long ways off.
“I’m going to do this for another seven years or so, and then when I turn 80, if I’m still healthy, I’ll think about retirement,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys who could ever retire to my house and just read and write. I’m too energetic for that.”
He continues to wear his hair in a long ponytail, he says to pay homage to the man he was in the 1960s.
“My hair used to be down to my waist when I was young, and occasionally I’ll chop it off, but only occasionally,” he said.
“My kids are constantly making fun of me, but when I look in the mirror I want to remember that guy from the ’60s. The anti-war movement, all of that kind of stuff. I was a part of it, and it still means a lot to me. I’m still that guy.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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