In December 2022, Sudip Bose was named the new editor of The American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, the arts and sciences, and culture published by Phi Beta Kappa since 1932. Bose had previously served as the magazine’s managing editor under Robert Wilson, who retired in March 2022 after editing the Scholar for more than 17 years. Recently, Amy Mulnix, Phi Beta Kappa’s interim associate secretary, spoke with Bose about the challenges of the job and his vision for the future.
AMY MULNIX: Robert Wilson and the editors who preceded him created an award-winning magazine. Can you remind us of some of the well-known authors who have appeared in the Scholar over the years?
SUDIP BOSE: It’s both astonishing and humbling to sit down with the entire run of magazines dating back to 1932 and to gawk at the luminaries who have appeared in our pages. There are critics of the first rank, such as Jacques Barzun and Helen Vendler, but also the likes of Albert Einstein and Joan Didion, W. E. B. Du Bois and Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan and Oliver Sacks, Aaron Copland and John Hersey, Alice Walker and Saul Bellow. Speaking of Bellow, he is, as far as I know, one of only two Scholar writers who refused to have their articles edited before publication. The other was Nadine Gordimer, as I learned after acquiring a short story of hers, not long before she died. It was a brilliant story, but it had a problem at its heart, and I’d spent much of my Thanksgiving holiday coming up with what I thought was a clever solution. Well, when I proposed the change, the author’s agent firmly informed me that “Ms. Gordimer accepts no editing of her stories.” Well, I suppose if you’re going to refuse any editing, you’d better have won a Nobel Prize!
AM: As a new editor, you no doubt have a vision that takes the Scholar into the future. What are you prioritizing in publishing choices?
SB: The most important things for me in constructing an issue are balance and rhythm. We want our pages to reflect a wide range of subjects and styles, from reported works of journalism to historical narratives to personal essays. Lately, we’ve been devoting considerably more space to visual art, and we’ve also been commissioning more illustrations for our pages—it’s all part of my desire to make the magazine as elegant and beautiful as it can be. Having said that, I think that the contents of a magazine will always reflect the personal interests of its editor. And so, you’ll find plenty of pieces on art and music and literature. It’s no surprise that the cover stories for my first issue as interim editor (Summer 2022) were devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I’ve been obsessed with ever since I took an undergraduate seminar on it back in 1994.
AM: I’m glad you brought up your emphasis on the visual feel of the magazine. I think it’s emblematic of a publication celebrating the liberal arts and sciences. Tell us more about why it makes sense for Phi Beta Kappa to publish The American Scholar. How does the Scholar accomplish ΦBK’s mission?
SB: The way I see it, the Scholar embodies the values that Phi Beta Kappa holds dear. If you want to know how the liberal arts and sciences can touch a person’s life, how a devotion to lifelong learning can enrich both an individual and the culture at large, then read an issue of the Scholar. If you look at our spring issue, for example, you’ll find articles on the mid-century art trade, the animal rights movement, the marine life of John Dos Passos, the importance of the guitar in American culture, and the haunting late lieder of Franz Schubert. You’ll find pieces on George Balanchine and The White Lotus. You’ll read about Bruno Schulz, the scourge of poverty in America, the experiences of Indigenous Americans in Europe, and the challenges of living with tinnitus. It’s a wonderful tour: like sampling a four-year liberal arts education in the span of 128 pages.
AM: The Scholar has grown into more than the just the magazine. Tell us about its many online offerings.
SB: Although I am at heart a print guy (and I suspect I always will be), I’m committed to developing our digital iterations as much as possible, not just because it would be foolish not to, but also because different stories can be effectively expressed in multiple modes. And because a quarterly magazine can never be as timely as we might like, our website takes on crucial importance. In addition to our online offerings, we produce two podcasts every week: Read Me a Poem, which is exactly what it sounds like—a poem read aloud by the wonderful Amanda Holmes—and Smarty Pants, a lively discussion of new books hosted by my talented colleague Stephanie Bastek. We’re also committed to social media, and within the last year, we’ve made a foray into the world of Instagram. Next on my wish list is video storytelling on social media channels. I know that each of these iterations has a distinct audience—reflecting the diversity of ΦBK members as well as our nonmember readers—and it’s my hope to cultivate and engage each of these audiences.
AM: What are the challenges of producing a hard-copy magazine of long-form journalism in a digital/sound bite-oriented world?
SB: Well, I’d be lying if I said that the challenges weren’t significant. And I won’t give you a sanctimonious answer about how everyone’s on a phone these days, and reading seems to be a dying art. I find myself addicted to my phone, in acutely perplexing ways, and I’m sure that, as a consequence, my own attention span isn’t quite what it used to be. When I was in my 20s, I could sit down and read large chunks of, say, The Brothers Karamazov in one sitting, with complete attention and without distraction, fully immersed in that fictional world. I don’t know if I could do that now. I really worry about my son’s generation—he’s 15. Which is to say, I’m all the more committed to championing the written word and the art of storytelling. Visual modes of storytelling may take precedence in our current time, and they are, to be sure, beguiling, but there will always be a place for long-form journalism and thoughtful, moving personal essays. The audience might be smaller, but that audience is no less hungry for the kind of nourishment that great magazines and books can provide.
AM: Anyone who talks with you will instantly hear your passion for what you do. Where does that passion come from? What is it that is so fun and rewarding?
SB: After working in this business for 27 years, I’m still completely in love with magazines and the power of storytelling in all its guises. I feel passionately about the work we publish, and I want others to feel something of that passion, as well. It’s a thrill to put an issue together, to balance fiction and poetry with long-form reporting, personal essays, and articles on history, the arts, and sciences—articles that help us understand the world in which we live. I’m also amazed by the number of talented, top-notch writers who want to publish in the Scholar—despite the embarrassingly low fees we pay. But I’ll tell you what never gets old: the actual work of editing. For me, the most exciting thing about this job is sitting down with a manuscript that has all the promise in the world but might need work—and I’m old-fashioned, so I still work with paper and the pen—and taking it to a state of polish and elegance, all the while remaining true to the voice of the author. And then, collaborating with the writer, with the secondary editors, art director, copy editor, proofreaders, fact checkers, over-readers . . . I still draw immense satisfaction from the process and seeing a piece transformed from first iteration to last. My colleagues feel the same way, and it’s both an honor and a pleasure to work with them.
AM: The 250th anniversary of the Society is coming up in 2026. Do you have ideas for how The American Scholar might contribute?
SB: Yes, the national office staff has already begun envisioning ways to mark the anniversary. As I’ve said, I see the Scholar as an embodiment of the values that Phi Beta Kappa holds dear. We’ll most certainly be publishing a series of articles that explore the importance of the liberal arts and sciences in a thriving culture and a functioning democracy. I’d like us to look to the past but also imagine, in a rather bold way, what the future might look like in that realm. It’s an exciting anniversary to look forward to, one that is fortuitously linked to the anniversary of our nation’s birth.
AM: Sudip, as is always true when I chat with you, your passion and commitment for the innumerable ways that the liberal arts and sciences enrich our lives are contagious. I encourage our members, if they haven’t already, to check out the website for a sampling of all the Scholar has to offer. But readers be forewarned: you’ll want to hold that elegant print version, with its balance and rhythm, in your hands.
Photo at top: Sudip Bose at home with his dog, Roscoe. In December 2022, he was named the new editor of The American Scholar, a magazine he has worked for since June 2011. Bose has previously worked for publications such as Civilization, The Wilson Quarterly, Biblical Archaeology Review, and Preservation.