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Jewish World Review
July 24, 2012/ 5 Menachem-Av, 5772
Tale of the South
The Oxford American is a peripatetic journal of Southern culture whose checkered past has been a series of crack-ups. It got started back in 1992 in Mississippi, deepest of the Deep South states, where the soil seems to bring forth literature as naturally as cotton and kudzu. In Oxford, Miss., naturally -- Faulkner's town and shrine. By now, the magazine has shut down four times, not counting suspensions. At one point, it took refuge in Arkansas, where it found shelter at the University of Central Arkansas.
Now both its founding editor and managing editor have been fired in circumstances not yet completely clear. The one good thing you can say about its latest crisis is that at least it's more interesting than anything the magazine has published in years. The combination of mystery, scandal and general confabulation surrounding the OA's latest misadventure has all the makings of a good second-rate Southern novel.
Naturally, this potboiler comes with the usual talk of a lawsuit. The magazine is called the American, after all, and litigation is our common national plague North or South. This latest scandal out of the OA comes with an admixture of speculation, aka gossip, and what could be more Suthuhn than that?
It's all enough to give any faithful follower of cheap fiction, or even cheap non-fiction, the vapors. Aunt Amanda would be just thrilled to death, while old Colonel Ambrister would probably just snort, and dismiss the whole matter in a word. ("Typical!")
A publisher's dream the OA has never been, though its various collapses might qualify as an accountant's nightmare. All through its ups and downs, or rather downs and further downs, the magazine has remained what it was at the start: a great idea. But one that has never fully blossomed -- or taken root.
It's a great dream, to resurrect Southern writing in the spirit of Faulkner or at least Thomas Wolfe, but the magazine has never had what made Thomas Wolfe a great writer: a Maxwell Perkins as his editor and amanuensis, someone who could take his logorrheic chaff, run it through a fine and discerning mill of a mind, and make great or at least semi-great literature of it.
Instead, it's been left to a glossy latecomer like Garden & Gun to combine both of those in fine Southern and commercially successful style.
Who ever thought the South would have anything to do with commercial style? Wasn't that sort of nouveau thing fit only for Yankees, carpetbaggers and scalawags? One can imagine Rhett Butler at a fashionable magazine's helm, but never the noble Ashley Wilkes, who was too good for anything as mercantile as journalism.
Granted, there have been all those New South types who promised to industrialize us from time to time. They've kept coming along since The War destroyed the old one. Even if some of us refuse to believe it's gone, and try to keep it alive as a kind of tourist attraction.
But the New South types always gave way to Newer South types who proved just as ephemeral. Nothing lasts in these latitudes except dreams. And it's the pillared past we dream of, not some glass-and-chrome future. For a prettied-up South wouldn't be the real one.
Ah, the South, the South, the South.... We never tire of talking about her. And how, like the Oxford American, we keep failing to bring back her Faulknerian glory. Let's put it this way: The OA remains the magazine of the future in these Southern parts and, sadly, may always be.
That's very Southern, too -- the dream never fulfilled. Issue after issue, this little magazine set out to answer the question every Yankee keeps asking: "What is life really like down there?" But, bless its heart, the OA got so caught up in its self-absorption, it never seemed to have sufficient time, talent, money or perspective to really answer the question.
The magazine did succeed in personifying Yankee editors' idea of what an interesting Southern literary/cultural journal should be. Which is scarcely the same as the real thing. You might as well trust a German to say what Russia is really like. The South, like any great lady, remains elusive, especially to Southerners.
Now that its Founding Editor has been cleared away, like an old plantation being cleared of underbrush, the Oxford American may yet find itself. Though it may be too much to hope that it will ever find the South.
Yet someday, who knows, the OA might fulfill its potential. It could still happen. The way The New Yorker started to sound a bit more like its old Harold Ross self after it had freed itself of the awful Tina Brown, the editor who was going to modernize it. But modernize the South? Then it wouldn't be the South anymore.
Good luck, ever new, ever displaced, ever shook-up Oxford American. You've still got a great future, kid, the danger being that that's all you will ever have -- and never a great present. For a great magazine requires a great editor.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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