History of SAMLA, 1990-1994

Robert Bell, University of Alabama

It must have been 1968, my first year at the University of Kentucky, when Paul Whitaker and Norman Binger of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures there practically drafted me to ride along with them to the SAMLA meeting in Atlanta. Attending SAMLA—this was the impression I had from them—was what a professional in the field of language or literature did as a matter of course in November. I still remember the excitement of experiencing for the first time the somber pine trees standing sentinel around the approach to Atlanta, the red Georgia clay, and the venerable Biltmore hotel, with its elevators transporting guests to the meeting rooms at a leisurely pace. That first of many SAMLA conventions—just the right size to offer the ideal mixture of a familiar structure, diverse collegial contacts, stimulating speakers, and impressive exhibits—must have worked its magic on me because, since that time, attending the annual meeting of SAMLA has seemed to me, too, what you do in early November—and look forward to eagerly the rest of the year. I am deeply grateful to Paul Whitaker and Norman Binger for taking me to that first SAMLA convention, as I am to Wayne Wonderley, the department chair at that time, who was also instrumental in my becoming more actively involved in SAMLA.

Shortly after coming to the University of Alabama, I was elected to a term on the Executive Committee of the Association (1974-77). The Executive Secretary of SAMLA at that time was Edward W. Bratton of the University of Tennessee (Department of English), a paragon of efficiency and one of the kindest and most likable men I have ever known. Surely SAMLA owes much of its enviable stability to Ed Bratton’s foresight and reliability during his lengthy term as Executive Secretary. (I also appreciate greatly the long and unselfish service of Frank Duffey [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], Editor of the South Atlantic Bulletin, who published one of my earliest articles.) Toward the end of my term on the Executive Committee, SAMLA’s headquarters were moved to the University of Alabama, where, from 1976-83, it enjoyed the distinguished, vigorous, and imaginative leadership of Donald Kay (Department of English), first as Executive Secretary and then as Executive Director and Editor of the Association’s journal, which was reconceptualized and entitled South Atlantic Review (SAR). Mentored by Donald Kay, my wife, Christel A. Bell, gained valuable experience and insights into the functioning of the Association as Administrative Assistant (1976-83), Deputy Executive Director (1982-83), and Managing Editor of SAR. Christel and I remained active SAMLA members at the University of Alabama while SAMLA and SAR continued to flourish with extraordinary vitality under the sound and skillful stewardship of our esteemed colleague in German, Siegfried Mews of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In her May 1990 SAR article bestowing deserved praise on Siegfried Mews for his accomplishments at the helm of SAMLA, Lieselotte E. Kurth commends him for his "first important decision . . . , not to fix what did not need fixing . . ." (5). Similarly, as the foregoing will have indicated, when my wife and I became part of a team seeking to bring the office of Executive Director and Editor to the University of Alabama, our observations over the past several years did not predispose us to see SAMLA as an organization needing to be "fixed"; rather we hoped to put our long experience with SAMLA at the Association’s disposal and to continue to manage the daily business of the Association and to edit its journal along much the same lines as had the eminently successful predecessors whose work we had observed with so much admiration. We were also motivated, at some level, by a certain pride in bringing SAMLA back to the University of Alabama, where it had prospered from 1976 to 1983. Our proposal to the University of Alabama and to SAMLA centered on a plan that Siegfried Mews characterized in the May 1990 issue of SAR as a "novel team concept" (191). This plan involved released time for, and shared responsibility among, three persons. Owing to her extensive experience with the broad spectrum of Association activities that she had acquired during the Executive Directorship of Donald Kay, Christel had a wide range of acquaintances in the Association and was excellently prepared to negotiate with representatives of hotels and scholarly book publishers and to cope with the myriad details of the Association’s daily business, including the scheduling of convention sessions. As Deputy Executive Director and Managing Editor of SAR, shewas almost constantly on the telephone. I do not know how she found time to do her work in the English and German departments (and, for a time, in both). Mary Gray Porter, Professor of German at the University of Alabama, was Associate Editor of SAR. In addition to dispensing sagacious advice in many conversations about SAMLA and SAR, and generally making SAMLA a more enjoyable place to work by virtue of her humor and her splendid skills as a raconteur, she was our expert on languages (not just German) and played an important role in the proofreading of the journal and the final preparation of the journal for press. Her expertise was particularly valuable in insuring that the many reviews and articles in foreign languages and the foreign-language entries in the convention program issue and the annual bibliography of theses and dissertations written at southern universities appeared in as immaculate a condition as possible. Although I took a lively interest in both of my "hats," that of Executive Director and that of Editor of SAR, I devoted the bulk of my SAMLA time and effort to editing SAR, and, largely because I took a rather hands-on approach to my responsibilities as Editor, there was plenty of work to do in the spacious office looking out on the quad that the university generously provided us ("us" would include the highly talented research assistants furnished by the Department of English). I also spent many an hour in the cafeteria of the Student Center pretending to be a Viennese café habitué while doing SAR business: inspecting readers’ reports, writing letters to authors, and copyediting manuscripts. As to those readers’ reports, I cannot adequately express my gratitude for the willingness of first-class scholars to serve as members of the Editorial Board or as specialist readers (and, before we were finished, Karen Gardiner, one of our fine Assistant Editors had turned the process of manuscript placement into a science).

Perhaps a few details about our publishing operation might be of interest. It was of course impossible to publish everything that was submitted; I do not have the figures at hand, but I believe we received roughly sixty to eighty-five manuscripts a year, and one year we categorized only three manuscripts as official acceptances. This was misleading, however (I would say that we published eighteen to twenty articles a year); we had a manuscript classification called "revise and resubmit," and, as a consequence, there were generally a number of manuscripts in circulation that had been previously submitted. I think my intuitive philosophy as Editor was to treat manuscripts as works in progress, during the evaluation process and even after they had been accepted. I operated according to a pretty simple principle: if I did not follow a passage , I would tell the author so and ask if he or she could clarify it. I must confess that I sometimes felt that I was being obtuse or presumptuous in taking this approach, but most authors were very cooperative, and the chance to enter into dialogue with them was one of the most enjoyable experiences that I have had in academic life. I also enjoyed the variety of articles I had the opportunity to deal with as Editor; I have nothing against a healthy eclecticism and indeed am inclined to favor it; it would seem the perfect antidote to boredom. In fact, I think eclecticism was a concomitant of my understanding of SAR as a journal whose primary function was to publish quality manuscripts submitted voluntarily by members of SAMLA on subjects of interest to them. (I do believe special-topic issues can be stimulating, however, and attempted to group articles with related themes together whenever possible; furthermore, we did publish a few solicited articles—exclusively, I think, versions of presentations delivered at the annual meeting, such as the presidential addresses, James Dickey’s "Lightnings or Visuals" [January 1992], and J. Hillis Miller’s "Derrida’s Topographies" [January 1994].) As regards submissions of articles, I believe that SAR’s policy of blind reviewing continued to have a positive effect during my tenure as Editor, as demonstrated by the large number of fine articles published by young scholars (an effect already noted by Siegfried Mews, if my memory serves me correctly). When I refer to "my tenure as Editor," I should note that one of SAR’s greatest strengths has long been its substantial book-review section and that I was blessed to be able to work with three superb book-review editors: John Burke of the University of Alabama (English/American) and Raymond Gay-Crosier and George T. Diller, both of the University of Florida (foreign languages). John Burke, the very archetype of a conscientious editor, retired at the end of our term, leaving SAMLA with the unenviable task of finding a suitable replacement. How satisfying it was to us in the Tuscaloosa office that the Executive Committee chose as his successor Iain Crawford, who, with his manuscript evaluations that combined tact with insightful thoroughness, had proven himself an expert reader and Editorial Board member with few peers.

By and large, then (with the possible exception of depending so heavily on released time in our administrative structure), I think that our team concept was successful. We endeavored to publish a sound quarterly journal, cultivate cordial relations with the members, and, in cooperation with the President, Executive Committee, and the membership, to mount stimulating and smoothly running conventions; one of our chief concerns came to be the facilitation of access to the convention program, in particular by adopting as encouraging an attitude as possible toward special and expanded sessions within the bounds of SAMLA’s time-tested structure. (A highlight, for me, was the 1992 Knoxville convention, where Galway Kinnell and Stephen Greenblatt gave successive presentations; Knoxville was also the scene of a wonderful general reception given by the University of Tennessee.) Other annual meetings during our term took place in Tampa (1990), Atlanta (1991, 1993), and Baltimore (1994).

SAMLA faced difficult problems from 1989 to 1994, among them pressures of a financial nature (including decreasing availability to the membership of travel funds) and competition from an increasing number of smaller, specialized conferences and seminars. Such problems were confronted by our always gifted and congenial Executive Committees, headed by Presidents Enrique Ruiz-Fornells (1989-90), Edward W. Bratton (1990-91), Siegfried Mews (1991-92), Paul Hunter (1992-93), and Raymond Gay-Crosier (1993-94). All of the Presidents and Executive Committees with which we were privileged to work made important contributions —for example, a special committee under the chairmanship of Enrique Ruiz-Fornells was named to study ways of marking the quincentenary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage to America, and special events were scheduled at the 1992 convention, including Stephen Greenblatt’s "Columbus Runs Aground: Christmas Eve, 1492"; the SAMLA Studies Award was discussed extensively, and a special committee chaired by Stephen Manning was appointed to study issues surrounding the award, with the ultimate result that, by November 1993, an agreement had been reached with a new press, the University Press of Florida, to publish the award-winning studies; a new $250 prize for the best paper given by a graduate student at the annual meeting was created, and the first prizes were presented at the 1994 Baltimore convention to Nathalie Schilling Estes (North Carolina State University) and Christine Eydt-Beebe (Pennsylvania State University) for their papers read at the preceding year’s convention; demonstrating SAMLA’s attempt to keep abreast of the times, the Baltimore convention also featured a preconvention computer workshop organized in cooperation with Duke University-based CALICO.

The computer workshop at the Baltimore convention was not SAMLA’s first brush with modern technology, however. Siegfried Mews had already computerized SAMLA, and we continued the process, converting SAR operations to desktop publishing during the course of 1990 (the September 1990 issue was the first we published by this method). This process consumed quite a good deal of time and energy, but I think it likely that desktop publishing allowed us to economize somewhat in preparing the journal for press and, above all, gave us greater flexibility and control over the production of the journal than we would have otherwise had. I would particularly like to express my appreciation here to Assistant Editor Lisa Hammond Rashley for her yeoman service in entering and converting to desktop-publishing format hundreds of book reviews and scores of articles. She and Karen Gardiner were with Mary Gray Porter, Christel, and me during most of our term, and each of the two would be capable of managing SAMLA or a similar operation on her own. Along with our other excellent Assistant Editors, Marcia Warren, Margaret Davis, Sharon Devaney-Lovinguth, and Candace Ward, they helped make the SAMLA office at the University of Alabama from 1990 to 1994 a special place to work. It was a privilege for all of us to take part in SAMLA’s mission: to further the love of literature and celebrate the bonding power of language.