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Oxford American 25 Year cover

WEATHERLY: The magazine life and the death of a writer

JACK WEATHERLY

The Oxford American was founded 25 years ago. Which doesn’t mean this is its silver anniversary.

Not that there is anything dishonest about the current issue proclaiming a quarter-century of publication.

It has been down some bumpy roads as it traveled the South to collect what it considers the best writing of the region.

So the magazine missed some issues and even, if memory serves, a couple of years along the way.

Such is the literary life.

Marc Smirnoff, a Californian, stumbled across that magic place, Lafayette County reinvented by Faulkner as Yoknapatawpha.

There, Smirnoff decided to take his stand. And he did for about a decade, until John Grisham said he just couldn’t foot the bill any more.

Meantime, it earned accolades as The New Yorker of the South.

The magazine moved editorial operations to Little Rock for a while.

Then up Interstate 40 a ways to Conway.

Disclosure: I have some connections with the OA. I won a fellowship to a “Workshop for Ambitious Writers” in 2011 at the Rockefeller Center on Petit Jean Mountain.

It was stimulating and encouraging. My writing, I believe, showed it.

I have never been published by the magazine. I have submitted a couple of pieces, which were rejected. A friend is now a senior editor there.

The University of Central Arkansas became the benefactor of the magazine and things settled down in a fiscal sense.

But a college is a political thing. And what isn’t these days?

Then Smirnoff was either A.) railroaded or B.) got what he deserved. He was accused of sexual harassment by two women, a disgruntled former editor and an intern.

He was fired five years ago. The quarterly printed in full color on glossy paper is now on its third editor, under whose direction the OA won the National Magazine Award for Excellence last year against the stiffest competition in magazinedom.

Before I really knew anything about the magazine, I met a young man with talent. John Hester was living the writer’s dream in the Mississippi village of Sallis in Attala County and working on a novel.

I was editor of The Star-Herald in Kosciusko, the Attala County seat. His mother, who worked in the chancery office, told me about him.

John had written a piece in 1994 for the OA about the Bosnian war. It was one of those things you do if you are a young man wanting adventure and danger. Like Hemingway.

I did a profile of John for the paper. And he said that he liked it and so did people at the magazine. I felt a chemistry with John – a bright guy who seemed unusually optimistic for a serious writer – and hoped we could become friends.

On the night of Dec. 30, 1996, John was killed. Not on a battlefield in a far off country.

It was a head-on wreck on I-55. He was headed north from Sallis, presumably to Oxford to spend time with his friends at the magazine office.

An elderly driver was headed south, on the wrong side of the interstate.

While Smirnoff was editor, John’s name and dates of his birth and death were run on the masthead in small, unobtrusive type.

With Smirnoff’s departure from the masthead, John’s name disappeared.

The marker was personal, meaning nothing to most people.

It’s the difference between literature and life.

Just ask Marc Smirnoff.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

About Jack Weatherly

One comment

  1. Marc Smirnoff got shafted. And the new people have the audacity to continue using the name “Oxford American” after Smirnoff is gone. BTW: There is virtually NO defense for a male accused of “sexual harassment.” I have followed the magazine and this double-cross of Smirnoff for years.

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