Interview #1346
MEYER, KARL (1928-)
Undergraduate student; Editor of the Athenaean
At UW: 1947-1951
Index by:
2012 (1 session)
W. Lee Hansen
Jill Slaight
40 minutes
Abstract: In his June 2012 interview with W. Lee Hansen, Karl Meyer recounts his
involvement with the Athenaean and other campus publications while an undergraduate
student in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Meyer and Hansen recollect various friends and
colleagues who contributed to the literary magazine during their tenures there. Meyer
describes editorship as a family tradition and briefly discusses some of his current work.
This interview was conducted for inclusion into the UW-Madison Oral History Program.
Key Words: Athenaean literary magazine; Daily Cardinal; Wisconsin Idea; Athenaean
Society; W. Lee Hansen; Jim Haight; Joe Dermer; Tom Devine; Shareen Blair Brysac;
Wisconsin Alumni Association; editorials; Max Otto; college athletics
First Interview Session (June 15, 2012): Digital File
00:00:00 Start of Interview
00:00:03 Hansen (WLH) and Meyer (KM) discussed whether they had met as undergraduates
in the 1950s. Both recalled names of former classmates and colleagues.
00:00:59 Hansen described rediscovering papers from his college years which in turn kindled
his interest in the Athenaean literary magazine and its history. Jim Haight referred
him to Meyer.
00:02:55 KM briefly mentioned his latest book, Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity
Suceeds, co-authored with wife Shareen Blair Brysac. He described the book’s focus
and the particular places it covered (parts of Germany, Russia, France, India, and
New York). KM gave his contact information to Hansen to send a permission form.
00:05:53 Question: What brought him to the University? Answer: KM was born in Madison
and various family members attended the University. He opted to take a year off
Karl Meyer #1346
before college and worked as a copy boy at the Wisconsin State Journal. He won a
legislative scholarship that earned him in-state tuition ($60/semester). KM lived with
family members in town. He recalled published a column in the Capital Times that
described hitchhiking to Madison. Follow-up: Where were you living before?
Answer: He went to Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York.
00:07:37 Question: Major? Answer: History. His advisor was Paul MacKendrick (Professor of
Classics). KM felt influenced by Merle Curti and Bill Hesseltine, and remarked on
the outstanding history faculty at that time. Follow-up: Courses with Max Otto?
Answer: He had retired. KM was present at retirement ceremony. His father had been
Otto’s student in 1917.
00:09:17 Question: When did he join the Cardinal staff? Answer: He wanted to be editor of the
Daily Cardinal and sought advice from Bob Lewis, 1940-41 editor, John McNelly,
wartime editor, and Dick Leonard, another former editor. KM wrote a column for the
paper for four years. Hansen and Meyer discussed Lewis and McNelly.
00:11:00 Question: Paid as editor? Answer: Yes. $75/month. Follow-up: Octopus editorship
paid? Answer: Yes, and Badger Herald as well. KM became editor at the end of his
sophomore year and remained editor throughout his junior year.
00:11:54 [No question.] WLH and KM discussed Joe Dermer as a columnist and later editor of
the Athenaean . Hansen described his background in the Athenaean Society after its
re-inauguration in 1948. Members did not want to debate, but to publish a literary
magazine. Their plans largely met with approval from both faculty and students. The
editors hired Dermer based on his connection to others with literary aspirations. The
first issue was published in November 1949.
00:15:26 [No question] Hansen noted early contributors and positive press for first issue. In the
previous year, he and others had debated the focus of the Athenaean. Jim Haight and
Tom Devine aimed for a traditional literary magazine, whereas Hansen and others
wanted to model the publication after Harper’s or The Atlantic. Dermer’s focus was
literary, which met with no dissatisfaction. Meyer came into the picture at this point.
00:18:32 Question: How did he get involved in the Athenaean ? Answer: KM lived in the same
building as Haight. He had also befriended Tom Devine. Haight and Devine asked
him to edit the magazine. At the time, he was writing his column for the Cardinal and
contributing to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a student correspondent. He father
had edited a literary magazine on campus in 1917-1918 and was then telegraph editor
for the New York Daily News. KM thought he could “continue in the family
tradition.” His grandfather edited Germania, a German-language Milwaukee
newspaper. KM later asked his father to write a memoir for Athenaean about his own
00:20:52 [No Question.] KM drew on a network of friends for reviews, fiction and
“provocative commentary.” His final issue contained an essay entitled “Generation of
Karl Meyer #1346
Jellyfish,” a criticism of his peers’ political apathy that soon created a stir on campus.
KM recounted an incident during which he provoked the Wisconsin Alumni
Association by threatening to elect a “rebel slate of candidates.” He called this his
“crowning episode as a trouble maker.”
00:24:04 [No Question.] Athenaean offices were on Park Street across from a Pizza place.
They shared space with the burgeoning National Students Association. KM recalled
Theodore Schwedenberg, who wrote a piece on Kafka for the magazine. He
commented on Schwedenberg’s background, study of mental illness, and eventual
00:27:23 Question: Bob Burkert? Answer: KM did not remember Burkert. Hansen gave a brief
account of Burkert’s career and mentioned his editorship of the Wisconsin Idea
magazine. WLH described a failed 1954 revival of the same publication. He
wondered whether any current magazines fill this gap and commented briefly on the
problem of money.
00:30:05 [No Question] KM asked whether Tom Devine was still alive. WLH spoke about
other people involved with the magazine and their whereabouts.
00:31:15 [No Question] Hansen suggested the need for a history of literary magazines on
campus. KM offered to look through his papers for information about the Athenaean.
He and Hansen discussed various people who worked on the magazine and illustrated
00:33:36 [No Question] WLH returned to the question of the Athenaean’s aspirations. KM
thought he fulfilled these goals. He asserted Jim Haight’s influence on him later in
life. WLH mentioned his oral history interview with Jim Haight.
00:36:04 Question: Anything to add? Answer: KM remarked on his contact with the
Department of Economics, which was “very lively” in those days.
00:37:15 [No Question.] KM mentioned his efforts to take college athletics down a peg. He and
other colleagues wrote editorials about the “skewed values” of the University
regarding the salaries of coaches versus professors. Hansen and Meyer exchanged
closing comments and Hansen thanked Meyer for his time and help.
00:40:35 End of First Interview Session
End of Oral History #1346

Karl E. Meyer (1346), Index