A Tribute to Maxwell George

By  |  November 15, 2019
Editorial shenanigans through the years: Maxwell George and Eliza Borné talk up the Georgia Music Issue at WABE; the editor’s desk; reviewing layouts the old-fashioned way. Editorial shenanigans through the years: Maxwell George and Eliza Borné talk up the Georgia Music Issue at WABE; the editor’s desk; reviewing layouts the old-fashioned way.

 

Seven years ago, Deputy Editor Maxwell George joined the staff of the Oxford American  as assistant editor, having recently been promoted from the role of editorial intern. At the time, he didn’t have much experience editing longform narratives and he’d never produced a compilation, though he was enthusiastic about storytelling and music and eager to learn about the form of magazine writing. Max and I were hired around the same time, and all this while it has been my privilege to work with him closely and watch him develop into a remarkable editor whose ideas and intelligence have gone on to shape countless editorial projects at the OA—most notably the music issue, for which he has served as chief curator and project lead since 2015. Meanwhile, he has earned a reputation for being an exceptionally gifted story editor. He has great taste and inexhaustible curiosity, and he possesses an encouraging and sensitive manner that leads writers to produce their best work. 

Today is Max’s last day at the Oxford American. My colleagues and I will miss his wry sense of humor, his commitment to upholding the very best of the OA, his endless ideas, and his unique ability to help a writer “unlock” a piece of writing.

Here, I share ten highlights from his years with the magazine.

—Eliza Borné, editor


 

“Walking the Tornado Line,” by Justin Nobel
Spring 2015 issue

Occasionally, a writer presents an idea so ambitious, specific, and wild that we decide to take it on just to see what comes back. Justin Nobel’s proposal to walk the 150-mile path of devastation a 2013 supertornado cut across rural North Alabama was one of those ideas. As adventurous in execution as in subject, “Walking the Tornado Line” was Max’s first major commission. It was selected as notable in The Best American Travel Writing 2016 (edited by Bill Bryson).

 

“Crossing Over,” by Jonathan Blitzer
Fall 2015 issue

An important aspect of the Oxford American’s legacy has always been the magazine’s fostering of emerging talents, from John Jeremiah Sullivan and Jesmyn Ward early in their careers to Jonathan Blitzer, who is now a staff writer for The New Yorker. Max expertly shepherded Jonathan through multiple drafts of his epic profile of the extraordinary life of a transgender woman in El Paso. This 12,000-word feature became a finalist for the 2016 Livingston Award in Local Reporting.

 

“Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel),” by Kiese Laymon
Winter 2015 issue

As an OA assistant editor in 2013, Maxwell first approached Kiese Laymon after discovering Kiese’s revelatory novel and essay collection. Kiese mentioned the possibility of writing an essay about OutKast, but nothing came of it then. When we selected Georgia as the music issue theme two years later, Max invited Kiese to contribute. An instant classic, “Da Art of Storytellin’: A Prequel” was reprinted in The Fire this Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward. Kiese is now an OA contributing editor.

 

“Homecoming Queen,” by Maxwell George
Winter 2015 issue

For his first OA byline, Max wrote a profile of soul singer Sharon Jones (which turned out to be one of the last before her untimely death the next year). Primarily associated with New York, Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia; her mother relocated the family to Brooklyn when Jones was a baby. After achieving fame late in life, Jones moved back to the place of her earliest memories. Max spent time with her friends in Augusta and interviewed Jones before a show in Atlanta for a portrait centered on her oft-overlooked Georgia ties.

 

Visions of the Blues
Winter 2016 issue

Since 2009, every year the OA’s annual music issue has focused on the legacy of a different Southern state, but in 2016, we decided to freshen up the series. Max conceived of a one-time genre theme devoted to the South’s greatest musical export: the blues. He curated the accompanying compilation, wrote the issue’s editorial introduction, and contributed many of the liner notes for the songs on the CD, including entries for Gil Scott-Heron, Charley Patton, and John Fahey.

 

“A Town Under Trial,” by Nick Tabor
Spring 2017 issue

Max had been itching to work on a true-crime story for some time when he received Nick Tabor’s pitch, ostensibly the story of an unsolved double-murder in rural Kentucky. Max encouraged Nick to pursue the larger implications of the tragedy, which pointed to the disturbing trend of corrupt towns that appear next to military bases across the country. With aspects of true-crime, courtroom procedural, character study, and analysis of socioeconomic issues, this 14,000-word story is one of the longest Max has ever edited—and one of the best. (It was also 2017’s most-viewed story on OxfordAmerican.org.) Max would go on to work with Nick again in 2018 on a deeply reported history of Orthodox Christianity in the South, told through the life story of a controversial monk.

 

“The Socialist Experiment,” by Katie Gilbert
Fall 2017 issue

As a quarterly, the OA isn’t often the most appropriate venue for peg-based journalism, but occasionally a story comes along that satisfies both the current news cycle and our goal of publishing excellent, timeless essays. Katie Gilbert followed the unique mayoral campaign of Chockwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, for two years to produce this nuanced 12,000-word piece, and Max provided guidance as she struck the right balance between history and narrative. An excerpt of the story appeared on the Sunday front page of the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s largest daily.

 

Kentucky Music Issue
Winter 2017 issue

In 2017, we returned to the state series with the Kentucky music issue. Once again, in addition to leading the CD curation, Maxwell wrote the issue’s editorial introduction and several liner notes, including entries for Dave Evans, Bonnie “Prince Billy,” and Harry Dean Stanton. In the intro, he highlighted the career of legendary songwriter Tom T. Hall to communicate two singular aspects of Kentucky’s legacy: that the Commonwealth has produced an astonishingly deep well of music talent and that artists and writers from Kentucky are demonstrably influenced by their roots there. 

 

North Carolina Music Issue
Winter 2018 issue

“North Carolina, I love you,” wrote Max without irony in the introduction to 2018’s North Carolina music issue. This was the seventh Oxford American music issue he had worked on, and the most personal, as Max, a Charlotte native, was able to pay tribute to his home state’s legends, masters, and overlooked talents, from James Taylor to Jodeci, George Clinton to Rapsody. The issue would not have been complete without Ryan Adams, whom Max wrote about in a first-person essay; a few months later he would reckon with the accusations that Adams is a predator.

 

“The Wonder of It All,” by Jon Kirby
Winter 2019 issue

In the latest episode of Points South, the OA’s podcast, Max shares five favorite moments from the music issue series, including his newest byline, a tribute to Little Rock editor William Whitworth and his friendship with Dizzy Gillespie. “I could pick a million” favorites, he says, and so could I—though his final editing job for the magazine, a profile of NASA astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair for the South Carolina music issue, is near the top of my list. Coached and encouraged by Max, music historian Jon Kirby wrote a definitive essay celebrating the brilliant physicist who brought a saxophone into orbit in 1984, then tragically died aboard the Challenger two years later. Bring tissues when you read this revelatory and poignant story.

 

In the podcast episode, Max also interviewed David Ramsey, an OA contributing editor and author of some of the magazine’s most beloved stories, including “Prayers for Richard” and “Some Like It Extra Hot” (to name a very few).  In praising Dave’s writing, Max said, “You care so much and everything is thoughtfully done.” The same could be said for Max’s work at the OA. We thank him for his dedication to the Oxford American and wish him all the best.

 


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Eliza Borné is the editor of the Oxford American.