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When I was in high school, Southern literature was old and seemed mostly dead. English teachers spoke of Southern writers the way our uncles spoke of daring Civil War cavalry campaigns (with a kind of woeful, reverent embarrassment). Giants had once walked among us, they seemed to be saying. It was almost more than they could bear. Yes, the teachers said, the greatest literature ever written in America was written here, in this place where you live. We looked out the windows and could hardly believe it. It was mighty strange to imagine that one could live in Mississippi and spend one’s life writing books.
Our teachers showed us the books. The Wide Net. Light in August. Look Homeward, Angel. We tried to read them. They hurt our brains. Caused internal bleeding. An entire wing of the CDC, we assumed, must be devoted to studying the syntax of Faulkner as the primary cause of stroke. We assumed our teachers, like our uncles, were insane. After reading those paragraphs, we decided that Southern writers must be insane, too.
These writers were dead now, for the most part. Gone with the Gulf Stream. The world no longer turned to the South and its odd little congress of writers, stove up in their scattered rooms in New Orleans and Little Rock and Jackson and Milledgeville, to find news of civilization. No matter. We preferred Stephen King and Michael Crichton.
And then, in my senior year of high school, like many good children of Mississippi, I visited Ole Miss to determine the appropriate blood-alcohol saturation for incoming freshmen. During the regrettable fog of my visit, I stumbled into Square Books in Oxford, looking for something to consume that was not mixed with Jim Beam. There I was confronted by a publication that changed my life.
I picked up this magazine, heavy and strangely full of words. Even way back then—this was 1993, you understand—it was odd for magazines to have so many bylines, so many unfettered paragraphs. I had never seen a magazine produced in my homeland, about my homeland, that did not also contain recipes for red velvet cake or suggestions for how to mimic the sounds of the Eastern Wild Turkey. Even its name, Oxford American, surprised me, suggesting that what happened in this place was a story bigger than the place itself. This magazine has not stopped surprising me since.
Give, so new generations can be surprised, too.
Harrison Scott Key is a contributing editor of the Oxford American and the author of The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir, which received the 2016 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
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