In the world of letters, The Paris Review is a precious institution. A quarterly magazine, it was founded in Paris in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton. In its inaugural issue, the wonderful stylist and writer William Styron set out the magazine’s aims:
“The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines. […] I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.”
One of the magazine’s most valuable long-term contributions is a series of interviews over the decades with some of the best writers in English, titled ‘Writers at Work’. Here are two interviews from that series, with African-American writers, that are no longer behind the magazine’s paywall. The first is an early interview with Ralph Ellison, published in 1955, soon after the magazine was established, and the second one is with Edward P. Jones, published relatively recently, in 2013.
A third article from the magazine is about music, about the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane’s piece, Alabama, which is his take on Martin Luther King Jr’s speech following the bombing of a church patronised by the black community, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
The situation of African-Americans in the US is now in sharp focus, with nationwide protests against police brutality against members of the community — protests of the kind not seen since the Civil Rights movement, which began in the 1940s and ended in the late 1960s.