Oxford American, the quarterly magazine of Southern writing, has just released a fantastic 25th anniversary issue. It includes photography by Jack Spencer, poetry by the late Margaret Walker and a short story by Glenn Taylor. But the highlight is an excerpt from Jesmyn Ward’s upcoming novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which will be published in September. (Two more excerpts from the novel are planned for the summer and fall issues of Oxford American.)
Securing those pieces by Ward, who won a National Book Award in 2011 for her devastating novel “Salvage the Bones,” is yet another reason to pay attention to this regional magazine that defies the regional label. Last year, Oxford American won a National Magazine Award for general excellence, and the momentum is clearly continuing. All good news for an organization that sometimes seemed like it was acting out its own Southern gothic plot.
First published on a shoestring budget in 1992 by Marc Smirnoff, Oxford American has been snuffed out several times despite publishing work by such giants as John Updike, Richard Ford and Eudora Welty. Best-selling thriller writer John Grisham kept the magazine alive for a while, but it still ran out of money, suffered a crippling embezzlement, got hit by a huge bill from the IRS and endured a sexual harassment controversy that divided its staff.
Fortunately, the nonprofit magazine, now housed at the University of Central Arkansas, seems to be enjoying a much-deserved period of stability.
Editor Eliza Borné, appointed in 2015, says Oxford American is “thriving,” despite the general shift away from paper and toward the Web. “ We remain focused on creating a quarterly print magazine with great writing and gorgeous design,” she says, but her staff also posts Web-only photo essays, maintains an Instagram feed and distributes a weekly e-newsletter. The online archive remains a rich trove of articles by well-known writers such as Charles Portis, Larry Brown and Lauren Groff. And the website lets poetry fans listen to audio recordings from poets .
Donors continue to make an important contribution to Oxford American, which has 13,500 subscribers and an average of 9,000 single-copy sales per issue. The magazine raised more than $25,000 just during Giving Tuesday on Nov. 29, 2016.
Borné insists that “the South is much more than a geographic or cultural monolith,” and she’s determined to make sure Oxford American reflects the region’s complexity. She writes via email, “The South is host to so many different communities, from so many backgrounds, that I have never found it limiting to focus our coverage on the region. In the past year, we have published stories about Burmese refugees in rural Georgia; coal miners who are struggling to make ends meet in Harlan County, Kentucky; anarchists in Palm Beach County; and migrant workers who died in the little-known Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia (the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history).”
The rise of Donald Trump and his “America First” rallying cry have drawn new, sometimes pejorative attention to people living in the middle of the country, but Borné rejects any easy characterization of Southern voters. “By allowing Southerners to tell their own stories,” she says, “we fight against the myth of it being a homogenized region.”
For instance, long before the president promised to “build a wall,” Oxford American had published stories about transpeople who live along the Mexican border and about immigrants risking their lives to cross into Texas.
Here’s to the next 25 years of great writing and striking photography from a tough magazine that refuses to fade away.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.