Time is right, they Reckon

March 01, 1995|By Curtis Wilkie

Oxford, Miss. -- UNDAUNTED BY earlier failures to sustain magazines dealing with Southern literature and lifestyles, the PTC Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi has just published the premiere issue of Reckon, an impressive collection of articles, photographs, a civil rights retrospective and a long work of fiction by Barry Hannah.

The magazine's title is based on a regional colloquialism; the word is often used to express an opinion, such as: "I reckon that mule's worth a hundred dollars."

Reckon actually had a longer gestation period than an elephant. It was conceived in 1976, when the center started, but the concept was put on the shelf as the center's curriculum was developed and the prodigious "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture" was put together.

During an ice storm a year ago, the magazine's top editors, Ann Abadie and Lynn McKnight, said they sat in front of a fireplace and decided, in Ms. Abadie's words, "If we're ever going to do it, let's do it now."

The result is a slick, 160-page issue that covers the South from the coal mines of Appalachia to the jazz bands of New Orleans. There is an obligatory noeverent art by Doug Marlette, the talented Southerner who does editorial cartoons for New York Newsday.

The magazine draws heavily from the intelligentsia of Oxford. Mr. Hannah, one of the masters of the American short story, is writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. He gave Reckon a 12,500-word story that probably could have commanded thousands of dollars from a national magazine. Some of its language would have provoked denunciations by state legislators a few years ago, but the story reflects Mr. Hannah's very original style.

Lisa Howorth, an art scholar who lives in Oxford, has a fascinating piece on "sacred art," a phenomenon that is apparently widespread. Citing numerous examples with illustrations, she tweaks the center's own encyclopedia for dismissing religious influence on art in the South.

The husband-and-wife team of Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee offers a lengthy essay with photographs on stock-car racing. "We felt this is an important part of contemporary Southern culture," Ms. Abadie said. "People in the penthouse or ivory tower may think they don't need to know about this, but we're not just looking for a high-brow reader."

Similar ventures have died over the years. Southern Voices, out of Atlanta, was not heard from very long. Southern Magazine, published in Little Rock, Ark., expired a few years ago. Delta Review, an ambitious journal that began in the Mississippi Delta and moved to Memphis, Tenn., lasted less than 10 years in spite of donations of fiction from such authors as Walker Percy and Jesse Hill Ford.

Delta Review survived in the mid-1960s because its owner, a wealthy Mississippian, kept it going as a dignified alternative to news stories coming out of the state involving racism and Ross Barnett, the buffoonish governor.

Reckon has no rich benefactor, and at this point, only a miniscule portion of the 50,000 subscribers its founders hope to develop.

Meanwhile, the magazine's sponsor, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, is threatened by congressional vows to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"We wouldn't be here without Humanities," Ms. Abadie said.

"We'd be happy to have a 'Sugar Daddy,' or a 'Sugar Mother,' " she said. But for the moment, to paraphrase a line from Tennessee Williams, they must rely on the kindness of friends.

Subscriptions for the quarterly, at $21.95 a year, can be obtained from the center at University, Miss. 38677.

Curtis Wilkie writes for the Boston Globe.

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