Essays from an Editor Who Delivers
- Review by Meredith Davies Hadaway

The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values by Robert Stewart
Serving House Books -- July 2014
ISBN: 978-0991328154

The notion of an editor who "cares" may be as out-of-date as newspaper "boys" and the milkman, but the wisdom Robert Stewart serves up in The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values, shows us the essential role an editor can play in putting our collective thoughts together. These short essays, composed as "Editor's Notes" for New Letters, the literary/art journal Stewart has edited since 2002, give us a glimpse of both value and values, in prose that is lyrical and also wise. Each reads as a little benediction for the issue to follow, linking some aspect of a featured poem or painting to a larger question, providing context for the selections and a glimpse of the editorial mind that made them.

Stewart reminds us of a time when editors were visionaries, rather than aggregators, when they mentored, nurtured, recognized writing that was honest and fresh, rather than seeking out the fashionable and safe. Stewart's essays address concepts as old-fashioned as intuition, hope, engagement, citizenship, gratitude and faith—and attempt to make them meaningful in the fractured world of contemporary art and literature.

"If literary art does not ultimately relieve us of hopelessness and cynicism, then I don't know why we bother," says Stewart. Sounds like a tall order—but Stewart has help. The nineteen essays in this slim volume conjure the voices of the myriad who have preceded him—Saint-Exupéry, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Orwell, Cervantes—as well as those of his contemporaries in this quest. The results are worth reading in full but you will find yourself making note of some aphoristic gems:

"When writers step off the paved walkways of conventional prose, stories happen to us."

"Literature slows us down."

"Theoretical writing, full of concepts and ideas, softens experience into tidy abstractions. Writing of direct experience—no matter how distasteful or unusual—enlarges our stature, gives us life."

Particularly fitting, given Stewart's lifelong commitment to literary citizenship, is this reminder from a short essay on service:

"To provide service means that you stand publicly for something you believe to have fundamental, intrinsic value."

If you didn't already believe that the arts have value, Stewart's essays would certainly persuade you. But the notion that we, as artists, have a responsibility to sustain and support the work of others flies in the face of the perception of art as a solitary and perhaps even solipsistic activity.

"Please don't diminish the notion of literary service by invoking conventional pieties," Stewart warns. "I even now can hear someone whisper the phrase 'labor of love.' Let's call this real work. It's a labor of determination, labor of acceptance, labor of transcendence."

Without the labor of editors like Robert Stewart, it's hard to imagine how we would stumble on transcendence or recognize it when we did. Read the essays in The Narrow Gate for their meditative wisdom and when you are done, re-enlist in a literary community that is broader, deeper, and richer for the labors of Robert Stewart.