The Pulitzer Prize winner's "America, Look at Your Shame!" was discovered among his poetry manuscripts and was inspired by a 1943 race riot outside a Detroit amusement park. Agee, a novelist, poet, screenwriter, critic and journalist, died in 1955.
Billed as "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing," the Oxford American almost folded last year. It was taken over by At Home Media Group Inc., publishers of an interior decorating magazine. The new owners moved the publication from Oxford, Miss., to its new home in Little Rock.
Now, with the Agee essay and a travel story about motel life from novelist Charles Portis, who wrote the novel that inspired the John Wayne movie "True Grit," the winter 2003 edition is trying to increase its circulation.
After a year's hiatus, landing Portis' story was a coup, editor Marc Smirnoff said.
"I've been trying to get him in the magazine since our founding in 1992," said Smirnoff, who wants to increase subscribers from 32,000 to 100,000. "He's always written back ... rejection letters."
Smirnoff said the only change he made to Portis' copy was to capitalize the "R" in the last name of Lash LaRue, a cowboy star from the 1940s.
"That was the extent of our contribution," Smirnoff said.
Besides Portis and Agee, there are articles by Joy Williams and William Bowers, and fiction by Wells Tower in the latest issue, which sells for $4.95. Contributors to earlier editions included William F. Buckley Jr., Donna Tartt and Barry Hannah.
"This magazine is not just about literary writing," said Smirnoff, who calls it a general interest publication. "Only by mistake do I call the Oxford American a literary magazine."
Writers are given a set of guidelines to target Oxford American readers. At the bottom of the list is the following caution: "We do not publish pornography, society gossip, or poems about cats."
Smirnoff said he's not joking about the felines, but then reflected. "You know, I think we have published a cat poem. It's just there as false warning."
A northern California native, Smirnoff ended up in Oxford in 1985, after his car broke down during a cross-country trip. So he took a job at a local bookstore and settled into a new Southern life.
"I saw that people were buying up Southern literature," Smirnoff said. "Then I noticed there wasn't a magazine about the South on newsstands. ... Here I was in this region that has this deep literary tradition ... and it just seemed peculiar and nonsensical that there wasn't a magazine coming from this rich region."
So in 1992, Smirnoff and John Grisham, author of such blockbusters as "The Client" and "The Firm," decided to start the Oxford American. Grisham began bankrolling the business two years later. But after 10 years in Oxford, the magazine was sinking.
Grisham not only devoted money but his writing talents to keep Oxford American afloat. The magazine serialized his novel, "A Painted House," in 2000.
Grisham and Smirnoff are now minority owners with At Home.
"I love Oxford to death, but I also learned first hand that there's some danger in putting out an ambitious magazine in a small town," Smirnoff said. "I need to feed off energy and movement. You don't really get that in a small town."
By Chuck Bartels