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Mike McGiffert’s Voice by Christopher Grasso

Mike McGiffert served as Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly at the Omohundro Institute from 1972–1997. He also taught at the College of William & Mary.

Mike McGiffert’s Voice by Christopher Grasso

I first met Mike McGiffert about twenty years ago. I was the token “younger scholar” on a panel of luminaries convened at the AHA to mark Mike’s retirement after twenty-five years as editor of the William and Mary Quarterly. A few earlier, as a graduate student, I had submitted an essay to the journal, and after going through two rounds it had been accepted. I spoke about Editor McGiffert as I had come to know him through his correspondence about my essay. I didn’t actually meet the flesh-and-blood McGiffert until a few moments before I delivered the remarks. My comments were subsequently published in in 1997, and now, with Mike’ s passing, are worth a second look:

When I agreed to do this, I knew that the distinguished scholars on this panel would be very capable of speaking to the ways that the Quarterly has shaped our understanding of early America. I’d like to talk a little about the experience of trying to get an article published in this journal—the experience from the point of view of a first-time author and grad student, which is what I was when Mike McGiffert accepted an essay of mine back in 1991. I’m referring to the process that begins with hopeful submission of a manuscript and ends either with rejection or acceptance. While the commentary of the peer reviewers is of course central to this process, the exchanges between the editor and the author will be my particular focus, and for that I’ll be using my own correspondence with Mike and also the editor’s work with a friend of mine whose essay never made it to the promised land of publication.

I think that Mike is going to speak today about editing as a kind of teaching. This isn’t really how my grad school friends and I imagined the process. Anxious about the job market and with some self-doubt, perhaps, about our real abilities, we thought of journal editors and their double-blind referees as inscrutable gatekeepers, as keepers of the keys to the professional kingdom. When friendly advisers told us that particular dissertation chapters might make good journal articles, we feverishly revised and sent them off and waited for a joyous yes, a bitter no, or the purgatory of “revise and resubmit.”

The Quarterly, though, had a special reputation. Some of the hipper-than-thou cultural theorists in American Studies thought the journal about as exciting as its black-and-white cover, but nearly everyone spoke with almost hushed reverence about the process of review and commentary. “Even a rejection from the Quarterly,” one of my mentors said, “will help you, because you’ll get comments from Mike McGiffert. Few editors can work over a manuscript the way he can.” But this sounded suspiciously like “whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” I thought of my prose being “worked over” by the sharpest red pencil in the profession and had flashbacks about a sadistic junior high school English teacher. But I mailed the manuscript, figured out where I’d send it after the Quarterly rejected it, and dived back into the dissertation, trying not to think about the article.

The commentary I received, and that my friend received on his essay, was a model of constructive criticism. As all of us who struggle over student papers know, constructive criticism is a difficult art. The phrases that the editor used to praise and yet point out weaknesses were carefully crafted. Here was a reader who was truly engaged with my work, really concentrating, really rooting for the text in front of him to make sense and say something interesting, working as hard as I had to push the work-in-progress towards greater clarity of expression and sophistication of thought.

With a few short comments about key words and phrases, the editors made me reexamine the relationship between my language, the language of my sources, and the language of the historiography informing my approach. The word “discourse,” he argued, “is a currently modish term that can betray historians into anachronism.” Was I slapping jargon on the eighteenth century and distorting what was going on? No, damnit, and I made my case. But sometimes, yes, I had to admit I was, and I hit the delete key. The editor had similar reservations when I borrowed a formula about the transformation of the public sphere: he found my language, in part because I was learning on someone else’s rhetoric, “sludgy and opaque,” and he was right.

Mike’s acute attention to questions of style simply prove that he has what a colleague calls the “gizzard” of an editor—that special organ giving one a facility with language, a patience to work over someone else’s written page, and a dexterity with a sharp red pencil or its modern equivalent. Yet even more important to Mike’s editorial art, I think, is his ability to establish a tone that creates a positive climate for revision. Those of us who return student papers with “awk awk awk” filling the margins, as if the grading were done by a flock of geese, should listen to how the editor commented upon my friend’s paper: “You write well. You usually write very well, with noteworthy verve and grace as well as clarity and fluency. You clearly take pains: you give second and even third thought to points of style. So do I, and to give you something further to think about I’ve flagged an occasional sub-par passage with that irritating little signal ‘awk.’”

Mike establishes that tone from the outset. Here’s how his letter to my grad school friend began. “The good news—very good indeed—is that the three referees like the piece, think it has distinctive quality and genuine potential, and engage with it in a critically constructive way. They want to see it ultimately in print. So do I.” What follows is the explanation that all articles published, without exception, need revision of some sort and that peer review provides the expert critical engagement that “can lead to a happy ending in print.” So here we have, at the beginning of a letter that might be read as a rejection, this prophecy of happy endings—the idea of this team of experts, the Quarterly editors and the three wise men or wise women, eager to help the essay fulfill its destiny.

When I received a similar letter I imagined its writer as a sort of Franklinesque fellow, adjusting his bifocals, pointing out errata, but always with a genial smile, as if to accompany each criticism with a wink that says, well, writing is hard, after all, and nobody’s perfect. At that time of my exchange with the Quarterly, by the way, I was hip deep in the Works of Jonathan Edwards and frankly found this avuncular, Franklinesque judgment of my good works quite comforting.

This is not to say that, when we get down to the specifics of the manuscript, the editor pulls his punches. Here is how he nails an author who was trying to state a thesis but leave himself a little wiggle room: “You yourself seem to recognize the awkwardness of your claim here—while still trying to resist it—when you use such suicidal indeterminacies as ‘not necessarily’ and ‘if.’” When addressing the major weakness of the whole piece, he cuts to the quick: “You’ll see from my (I hope not peevish) note on your page 7 that I find myself, if not absolutely at odds with [your thesis here], at any rate not persuaded. I can’t help noting, for example, that there is not one shred of direct evidence….In a word, I don’t buy this part of your argument, and if you can’t sell it, you will simply have to find another way to explore [your topic]….I must say, in all frankness, that until p. 7 made me stumble, I was planning, on the basis of the referees’ affirmatives, to accept the paper on condition of revision. But…[the problem here] blocked that expectation.”

Well, this is pretty bleak. The sunny hopes for the happy ending have become clouded, and the journey towards publication will have to go through the dismal swamp of page seven. But the editor does not leave the author alone, not just yet. Not before offering several alternatives, several paths that might be taken around or through the swamp.

In letters encouraging resubmission after revision, the editor provides a close reading of a portion of the manuscript and then urges the author to continue in the same vein: “Look sharp for opportunities to polish and prune language,“ he exhorts—“a word here, a phrase there—and to clarify substance. Be in every sense your own best editor.” He challenged me to be “keen” and “ruthless” as I went back over my bloated footnotes. In short, the letter of qualified rejection became a rousing half-time speech, and my friend and I dashed from the locker room to win one for the McGiffert.

By the second exchange of letters, the signature on the bottom of the page shortens to simply “Mike.” Again, the Ph.D.—less young author is lifted to the level of colleague, and the relationship offered extends beyond the particular work. For me, the process continued until the narrow gate finally opened with the words “please send a disk to Ann Gross.”

My friend would receive a different last letter. “Thank you for being patient with a review process that has taken far longer than it should,” it began. “Having been through it myself, I know all too well the painful sensations of an author in suspense, and I hate to be a party to inflicting such pain on others…”

Then an ellipsis. Three dots, as the opening line trails off, three more as the next paragraph begins: “Especially and above all when, at the end of the waiting, I have to send a message the author didn’t want to hear, and I didn’t expect or desire to send.” Although two of the three referees recommended publication on the second go-round, Mike still gets stuck in the swamp on page seven. His manuscript comments are very direct, but he doesn’t summarize them in the letter. “Least said, soonest mended is not a bad rule,” he writes, sounding Franklinesque again. “You may quite naturally dissent from the decision,” he tells the author. “But I want you to know that it wasn’t easy to make and that I share your disappointment. You may find effective ways to address or finesse the critiques; if so the Quarterly’s loss will be some other lucky journal’s gain….Looking ahead, I also want you to know that I would be pleased to consider other, future samples of your work….I know intelligence when I see it, and I know style. Your work exhibits both these qualities, and they promise strongly for its future.”

He encloses more than two pages of additional commentary—single-spaced. He continues to play with the ideas, probe them, offer suggestions for where the essay might go in future revisions, even though he has already banished the piece, once and for all, from the pages of the Quarterly. This process is clearly more than just about what goes into WMQ. As Mike McGiffert has practiced the editorial art, it is also about generosity, a devotion to cultivating good work. For authors young and old, published and unpublished, I’d like to thank him for that.

Christopher Grasso, St. Olaf College, 1996

Postscript, 2016:

After the conference panel honoring Mike, I returned to my office on the snowy campus of a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. I had put a little sign on my office door: “St. Olaf Institute of Early American History and Culture.” It was a joke—I was the only early Americanist on campus (Bugs Bunny in colonial garb was my Institute’s mascot). I never would have dreamed that just a few years later I’d be sitting in an office at the actual Institute, in Mike’s chair, as the editor of WMQ. Life can take some unexpected turns.

And I got to know Mike better. In those days a group of us met each week for “Institute Lunch” at once of Williamsburg’s fine eateries. Mike was a regular, along with the retired Institute Director Thad Tate, Jim Axtell from the William and Mary History department, Kevin Kelley from Colonial Williamsburg, and the latest crop of NEH postdoctoral fellows. The conversation ranged from politics and current events to academic or departmental gossip to comments on the latest colloquium paper. What I remember most about these lunches was Mike’s sense of humor, on display in his big smile and ready laugh.

On occasion, of course, Mike and I talked about editing. As preparation for the job, I read through old files and got an even fuller appreciation for Mike’s talents. Reading his old letters, at least as I remember doing so now, was more inspiring than intimidating. I knew I could not write letters to authors the way he could—I could not be the next Mike McGiffert. I lacked his facility with language. But I could devote the time and attention that each piece required, and maintain the high standards for which the journal had long been known. If I lacked, say, Mike’s expertise in Puritanism, I knew I brought my own particular set of skills and interests to the table, as every editor does. Mike and I spoke about the pleasure of the process, of sitting down with an essay and a set of readers’ reports and then helping an author find a path toward a more persuasive argument and a more felicitous expression of his or her ideas.

Mike often talked about editing as a kind of teaching. Had Professor McGiffert, renowned mentor of younger scholars both in his capacity as Editor and as faculty member, offered to mentor me, I certainly would have accepted. But Mike never sat me down as Old Lion to Young Cub and gave me advice. He let me find my own way. And in retrospect, I’m grateful he did.

When in later years I visited him at his home, we spoke less about the Quarterly than about the project that kept his intellectual fires burning through his retirement: his magnum opus on Puritan covenant theology. I knew enough Puritanism to keep the conversational volley going, but in truth the talk was really about our shared joy of trying to make sense of difficult material through writing. The covenant project really seemed to be what got him out of bed in the morning, especially after the death of his beloved wife Genevieve. Even toward the end, when he started having memory problems and sometimes had difficulty tracking a conversation, he could jump back into the 17th century and the details of Reformed theological argument.

Before meeting him for what turned out to be the last time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He had finally finished the long book on the covenant, which he once said he’d like to keep writing up to the day he died. At the previous visit, too, his memory problems had been worse. But this time he greeted me and the new Quarterly Editor, Josh Piker, in high spirits. We talked about the journal, and about editing. He was delighted with the continued vibrancy of the early American field, and place of the Quarterly and the Institute within it.

I’ve read some of the chapters of his Puritan covenant book. Mike’s distinctive voice is right there on the page, still right there in my ear. Supple, almost musical, at once literary and informally relaxed. Soft and onfiding one moment, booming the next, punctuated by a wry turn of phrase or a raised eyebrow and a mischievous grin. It’s the voice in his editorial letters, at the Institute Lunch table, and in that last conclave of Quarterly editors at his retirement home. I will miss it.

Christopher Grasso, College of William and Mary, 2016