Ascent was established by Dan Curley, one of the editors for Accent, a literary magazine at the University of Illinois, edited by Kerker Quinn, that operated from 1940-1960. Fifteen years after Accent closed shop, Curley decided to restart the magazine. Unfortunately, a backer who had promised to pay for everything disappeared right as the first issue was ready to go to press. With funding from the Illinois Arts Council and the Dean of the University of Illinois, Curley took a felt tip pen and changed one of the c’s in Accent to an s, and Ascent was born in 1975. 

With the magazine reestablished, Curley focused on publishing writers who were just starting their career or weren’t household names. Call it luck or a sharp editorial eye, the story “The Boy who was Astrid’s Mother” by Mae Briskin that appeared on the first page of the first issue of Ascent was selected as one of the best short stories of the year and published in Best American Short Stories 1976. Since then, pieces published in Ascent have appeared regularly in the Best American series. 

After Dan Curley’s death in December 1988, his wife Audrey Curley ran the magazine until, in February of 1996, she turned it over to W. Scott Olsen. In 2009, Olsen retired the print editions and took the magazine entirely online. On January 1st 2020, after 23 years as editor, Olsen passed the editorship onto its current editor, Vincent Reusch.