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After languishing in obscurity, university presses are publishing significant works

By Diann Blakely

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Twenty years ago, America's university presses had a reputation for publishing books that were either quaintly local or unreadably erudite. Footnote-ridden tomes on Shakespeare's use of the exclamation point, for example, or works devoted to quilting patterns in northeast Alabama usually lost money. But universities tended to regard the red ink as a necessary badge of honor in their sometimes dubious pursuit of prestige and scholarship.

Today, universities operate like corporations, slashing budgets and personnel from their unprofitable areas. While such policies have wreaked inarguable harm on untrendy departments like classics, they've had a beneficial effect on university presses, whose catalogs are now increasingly filled with novels, art books, collections of short stories, personal essays, and/or poetry designed to attract the general educated reader. These titles not only sell, but they also represent some of our best writers, especially writers who lack appeal to those larger houses--which operate not like corporations but like multinational conglomerates.

Southern university presses are among the country's strongest, and the most laudable ones have maintained regional ties and scholarly standards while establishing connections--and markets--on both coasts and in major cities in between. LSU Press, for example, has an excellent, long-standing roster of poetry titles, including Dave Smith's Southern Messenger Series, which published Four Testimonies, the most recent collection by Nashville's Kate Daniels. But LSU has worked as well to strengthen its relationship to the larger literary world, in recent years contracting with the Academy of American Poets to publish the winners of that venerable institution's much-coveted Walt Whitman Award, given annually for a poet's first book.

Likewise, University of Georgia Press has earned a national reputation for the short fiction it publishes, its Flannery O'Connor Prize a corollary to the Academy's Whitman Award. Georgia has also issued acclaimed novels by James Kilgore, Judson Mitchum, and Judith Ortiz Cofer, all of whom have been regulars at the Southern Festival of Books.

Closer to home, Vanderbilt's co-publishing arrangement with the Country Music Foundation is producing spectacularly well-received books. Charles K. Wolfe's A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry garnered raves everywhere from Kirkus to the Wall Street Journal and was named a co-winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Prize. Last month saw the debut of Tom Piazza's True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, a much-awaited book about bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin. As for other genres covered by Tennessee university presses, UT-Knoxville's current list includes Cassandra Singing, a novel by David Madden, Austin Peay's writer-in-residence a few years back, and A Little Fling, a lively collection of essays by hometown boy Sam Pickering, a.k.a. the model for Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society.

The pride of Southern university presses, however, is located in Jackson, Miss., where, in 1970, the state's eight universities agreed to launch a publishing concern with a $25,000 annual budget. Mississippi Black Folklore, by then-Ole Miss professor William Ferris, was University of Mississippi Press' first title, and since then the publisher has grown into a world-class house without abandoning its regional roots.

Mississippi's '99/'00 list includes a volume of special interest to Nashvillians: next January's The Art of William Edmondson, which will accompany the Cheekwood-organized traveling exhibition of the artist's work. Edmondson, the child of former slaves and a Nashville native who began sculpting after a command from God, was the first African American to be given a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. His limestone sculptures of angels, humans, and animals arguably constitute the most vibrant part of Cheekwood's permanent collection and have long been admired by folk art cognoscenti.

If, unlike Edmondson, Maude Schuyler Clay isn't as well known among art lovers here, that situation should be remedied by the publication of Delta Land, a new collection of black-and-white photographs. Clay's first cousin is mythic Memphian photographer William Eggleston, and she has long shared his preference for color photography. But that changed when a West Virginia doctor moved to the small Mississippi town of Sumner, where Clay presently lives and where five generations of her family have farmed the land.

"For the walls of his new clinic," she says of the physician, "he wanted photographs that captured the 'stark and elegiac beauty' of the local landscape. And he wanted them to be made in black and white." Clay initially feared that the subject had been overworked, but research showed that both black-and-white and color photographers had concentrated more on portraiture than landscape. The Delta's landscape is now mostly unpeopled: Machines work its hundreds of thousands of acres, and scattered wooden skeletons stand in place of the "big houses," commissaries, outbuildings, tenant dwellings, and churches that used to flourish only decades ago. Clay's photographs both document and transform "the most Southern place on earth," resulting in work that is at once austere and masterful.

Masters of the written word are featured in Mississippi's "Literary Conversations Series": These volumes of interviews, conducted over the course of an author's lifetime, chronicle the development of writers from Chinua Achebe and Jorge Luis Borges to homegrown greats like Faulkner and Welty. One of the best recent collections is devoted to Albert Murray, the novelist and enormously influential cultural critic.

The vast blues archive housed at the Ole Miss campus, like its renowned Center for the Study of Southern Culture, means the Press offers a natural venue for titles such as Sebastian Danchin's learned-but-entertaining Life and Music of B.B. King and Gerhard Kubik's dauntingly well-researched Africa and the Blues. Nonetheless, Mississippi continues to broaden its reader base, recently adding two new series: "Conversations With Filmmakers" features volumes on George Lucas, John Sayles, and Clint Eastwood; and "Understanding Health and Sickness" covers topics like childhood asthma and obesity. A third series, "The Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African-American Studies," is in the works for 2000.

The Press' commitment to writers for whom national and regional identity aren't contradictory but complementary means that certain of its titles quickly achieve widespread recognition. Sometimes that recognition is helped by larger cultural trends: For instance, there are exponentially more buyers now than two decades ago for a book like Adopting Alyosha, which chronicles a single man's bureaucratic and geographic journey toward fatherhood in Russia.

Readers who want to learn more can check out the Press' Web site at http://www.upress.state.ms.us, or they can send catalog requests to 3825 Ridgewood Rd., Jackson, MS 39211-6492.

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