Like Cincinnatus before him, who twice heeded the despairing call of Rome, Frank Elam, Noble / Gas Qtrly’s former editor-in-chief (2003–2014), agreed to be interviewed for this page, thereby setting high the bar for civic virtue. The text that follows is from his interview, edited only for coherence.
This is what I was told: Percy Birdwhistle started the journal in New England¹ in 1813. He worked as a civil engineer by trade, blueprinting and building lighthouses up along the coast there. He might have kept them, too. I do know he died near one during some big damn hurricane that made landfall and killed a lot of folks². He had handed off the journal years earlier, of course. One of the editors³ cut the fat off the journal’s name around that period. Percy Birdwhistle’s Noble Gas Quarterly Review for the Purveyance of Fine Literature—by the time you finished the title page you were too tired to read. Is it any wonder circulation suffered?
What I want to know is why—how, I mean—not a single one of those early editors—for as shrewd as many were—had a trace of business acumen. Niche markets today can thrive. You can set up shop online and say, Our company binds each issue by hand. You can get away with that. Pocket a little cash on the side. Back then, though, the editors had zero ambit for advertising and a backyard market that wasn’t fully literate. Those conditions—plus the long, long process of putting together each copy of each issue by hand, alone . . . The nineteenth-century boys had no clue, no clue. There was a rut so deep and stubborn and . . . needlessly steadfast that the twentieth-century editors couldn’t unstick it. They didn’t know it could be unstuck.
Case in point. Yannick Slora⁴ moved the journal down to Texas right on time to be annihilated by the Galveston storm. Ten thousand people died. He should be wide-eyed and penitent. He should have a . . . new lease on life. What did he do? Nothing—nothing different. He went west to San Francisco. A few years go by. Then the 1906 earthquake hit. Fire turned everything to ash. The city was razed to the ground—eighty percent of it, gone, flattened, blackened, smoldering. This wasn’t bad luck, it was fate putting a . . . bullhorn to his ear, shrieking, Look! The archive—the very last connection you have to how things were done—is coating the tongues of another three thousand dead. You’re free.
He didn’t change a thing. No one did. I say this all in hindsight.
¹ Kittery, Maine.
² In October 1849, a hurricane first detected off North Carolina’s coast killed 143 Massachusites. Reports indicate that Percy Birdwhistle, by this time a septuagenarian, fell into the baleful Atlantic near the lighthouse on Billingsgate Island, which fittingly no longer exists due to acute coastal erosion. A conflicting report suggests he got caught out in the storm, contracted pneumonia, and soon after yielded to a death bereft of Romance.
³ Two years into his 25-year editorship, Horace McCaa revised the journal’s title. He called it Noble Gas Quarterly Review.
⁴ Yannick Slora edited Noble Gas Quarterly Review from 1899 to 1922.