Paul Greenberg

What a difference a publisher can make. Like the difference between a publication that's going down fast and one that's back on its feet and showing every sign of life. And maybe becoming not just a magazine but an institution, one that reflects the literary tradition -- as well as the music and art -- of a whole distinctive American region, like the South.

Of course the magazine would have started at Oxford, the one in Mississippi, Faulkner's Oxford, in the heart of the heart of the South -- but by the time it made its peripatetic way to Arkansas, it was like the last survivor of The War crossing the river and wanting only to rest under the shade of the trees, like any other dying dream.

I'm talking about the Oxford American, which has always been the magazine of the future in these fascinating parts, and, alas, looked as though it always would be, never coming into its own in the here and now. Which is why, when one Warwick Sabin was recruited as its publisher -- indeed, just about conscripted -- there was an air of desperation about the decision. Like the last gasp of a drowning man reaching out for anything or anybody that could keep him afloat.

By that time, some six years ago, the poor bedraggled thing had more problems than either the Delta or Appalachia in hard times. It needed some guiding light to straighten out its finances, get it a decent editor at last, keep its circulation up, and generally put it back on track. Or maybe even fulfill its original promise, which is just as great as it ever was. The vision of a great magazine that would somehow capture the spirit of Southern life and letters is still there, always has been. It's just that this quarterly has never been able to fulfill it. Dreams can be elusive.

Now, almost six years later, the magazine is breathing steadily. Warwick Sabin found a bankrupt publication deep in debt and put it on a businesslike basis. He got rid of the two editors in love who made a spectacle of themselves and, worse, of the magazine. He found a former editor of Harper's -- Roger Hodge -- whose taste and discernment is now showing in issue after issue. The quarterly is alive again, and so is hope at the Oxford American.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.