Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Pride in the Yankees

Had it not been for Wikipedia, I might well have forgotten about this anniversary. Instead, I was reminded by a page focusing on the magazine New England Monthly that it was 20 years ago this month that that spirited, imaginative, and too-short-lived publication ceased its award-winning run.

New England Monthly had debuted in April 1984, under the leadership of Daniel Okrent, a former Esquire editor who’d also apparently invented Rotisserie League Baseball. At the time, I was very much interested in magazines. I was counted as a subscriber to 20 or more, including Texas Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Spy, 7 Days, The New Yorker, George, and California. I had already served as an editor of one slick, Oregon Magazine, and aspired to contribute to or edit others during my career. Not news magazines, but rather innovative regional or feature publications. And New England Monthly was one of the best I’d seen up to that point--well designed, attracting excellent wordsmiths, and boasting a sense of humor that so many of the publications I’d worked for in the past lacked.

It was in New England Monthly that I discovered writers I would follow for many years to come, people such as Benjamin DeMott, Anita Diamant, Chris Jerome, Thatcher Freund, John Tayman, Corby Kummer, and Richard Todd. Like the foremost U.S. regional and city mags, it demonstrated a genuine and profound love for its locale--which also gave it license to criticize the people and practices of that area. And like Texas Monthly, for which I also had tremendous respect, New England Monthly practiced real journalism in its pages. Yes, it could be frivolous--as it often was on its “Minor Details” page of odd New England facts (examples of which are shown above), but it didn’t specialize in editorial fluff and shallow promotions, as so many such periodicals did then--and do so even more regularly nowadays. My only actual experience with America’s northeastern states up to then had come from a couple of brief visits to Boston, but I became so interested in the region as a result of subscribing to New England Monthly, that I started looking for The Boston Globe in my local library, just to learn more about what was going on there, and I found that I could carry on rather thoughtful conversations regarding Yankee pols, landmarks, and traditions.

Someday, I thought, I should just leave my home in Oregon and head east, get a job with New England Monthly, and soak up the atmosphere I’d come to know so intimately from afar.

But first Okrent left, eventually winding up as the original “public editor” (aka ombudsman) for The New York Times. He was replaced by longtime contributor Richard Todd. Then, the worst: During a regional recession, and after a period when it seemed the magazine had scaled back its ambitions, though it remained thoughtful and an excellent showcase for rising young writers (oh, how I wanted to be one of those), New England Monthly suddenly folded. The final issue, dated September 1990, doesn’t say word one about that sad turn. The decision may have been made after it had gone to press. I remember hearing about the mag’s demise from some unassociated media news source. It hit me hard. My fantasy about moving to Boston or Providence, campaigning for a position with the monthly slick, and spending some satisfying years delving into what made New England tick and talk was over. One day New England Monthly existed, the next I ceased to anticipate its arrival in my mailbox. Forever.

Twenty years later, I still have what I’m pretty sure is every single issue of New England Monthly, neatly boxed together on one of my laundry room shelves. Being reminded today of its demise, I went looking through those old issues again, re-reading a few pieces I remembered fondly and soaking up the look of the monthly once more. For a moment, I recalled what it was like to be a young journalist with great goals, his eyes set on work at a specific publication, hungry to learn more about his art at the feet of folks who appeared to know the game so much better than he.

I never did live in New England. But for the seven years of that magazine’s publication, New England--fantastic, flawed, and funny as its editors made it sound--lived in me.

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