Thirty Years of Mississippi Review: An Introduction
by Julia JohnsonPosted on April 4th, 2012 at 6:10 pm
The following is the introduction to Mississippi Review volume 39, numbers 1-3, an issue reprinting highlights from Frederick Barthelme’s three decades as editor of the magazine.
Introduction: Thirty Years Before the Mast
Thirty-three and a half, to be exact. That’s how long Frederick Barthleme worked as editor of Mississippi Review, an odd little bi-annual literary magazine published by the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. Working with his cohort, the indispensable managing editor Rie Fortenberry, Barthelme twice a year produced a peculiar and idiosyncratic issue highlighting the kind of writing he found most interesting— intimate, brilliantly composed, often funny, always engaging. He began, in 1977, with the innovators of the 60s and 70s—Barth, Hawkes, McElroy, Beattie, Federman, Atwood, Lish, Carver, and soon added many emerging writers, eventually publishing more unknowns than knowns, and in the process accommodating many of the finest literary writers of the 70’s, 80’s, 90s and of the first decade of the 21st century.
In mid-2010 Barthelme was impolitely jettisoned from the editorial slot as part of a putsch at the university, and I was asked to take over. I finished the contest issue that was already underway, and then, happily, was offered a position at the University of Kentucky. I had one more issue to do for Mississippi Review, and decided the best use of that issue would be to highlight the thirty years the magazine had been Barthelme’s.
And so it happened that for some months I travelled with a pair of banker’s boxes filled with sixty-five issues of MR—a complete set, containing hundreds of poems, drawings, stories, interviews, and essays, with gorgeously clever covers wrapped around unique and compelling writing. I began to read, along with Assistant Editor Elizabeth Wagner, special issues on politics and religion, on literary magazines, on the prose poem, minimalism, the New York School poets, Hamlet, cyberpunk, Caribbean writing, panic sex, issues on emerging writers, new British fiction, world poetry, issues of interviews and issues on individuals—Rita Dove, Barry Hannah, Rick Bass, James Robison. Add to that the contest issues beginning in the 90s, winners selected by Veronica Geng, David Leavitt, Amy Hempel, Lucie Brock-Broido, and others. Plus, of course, the bulk of magazine’s poetry originally selected by the brilliant longtime poetry editor Angela Ball. In those issues were National Book Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, a Nobel Prize winner or two, National Book Critics Circle winners, numerous Pushcart Prize winners and winners of diverse honors and awards and grants, and many stories and poems republished in Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry, New Stories from the South, and elsewhere, not to mention the works of many fine younger writers just embarking on their publishing careers.
For years Barthelme and his comrades would, as he once wrote, “cultivate an irredeemably disheveled look and a catholic publishing program, seeing to it that Mississippi Review was a lively magazine, always offbeat, perhaps a bit ahead of the curve, if there is a curve.” The magazine has been recognized. Raymond Carver, who was an early contributor, described MR as “one of the most remarkable and indispensable literary journals of our time.” Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Charles Simic, also a contributor, in what Barthelme always characterized as “a lovely excess of enthusiasm,” reported that “Mississippi Review is probably one of the best magazines in the country.”
Volume to volume I went, choosing one or two pieces from (almost) every issue. The first under Barthelme’s editorship is Spring ‘78, the cover an etching of a dancing magician with top hat, out of which billows poofs of smoke. Inside, work by Ann Beattie, Joseph McElroy, Doris Betts, Russell Banks, John Batki, Vicki Lindner, Pati Hill, Kenneth Bernard. Over the months Elizabeth Wagner, Angela Ball and I read and re-read hundreds of poems and stories and began selecting astonishing work that demanded inclusion in this volume. Very soon the trouble was eliminating work, as the list of inclusions was far too long, and there are only so many pages that can fit in a book before the binding splits or paper goes tissue-thin.
I hope you will find somewhere in each work the seductive, the evocative, the troubling, the charming, the difficult and strange, all characteristics of Barthelme’s editorial taste. And just as he selected the work for the issues over three decades (or selected the editors who selected the work), we tried to see with his eyes, to find the generosity, the openness to innovative forms, the exquisite sensibility.