What will the future be, for the American South, and with the South, the world?
In its current quarterly edition, The Oxford American tromps intrepidly into the always-fraught business of prognostication. “The Future Issue” of the magazine, which is published by the Oxford American Literary Project in alliance with the University of Central Arkansas, includes several essays about what 2050 might bring, as well as a centerpiece of 11 works of short fiction with a 2050 frame of reference.
To continue the theme, on Tuesday, October 5, editors and writers of “The Future Issue” of The Oxford American and Hendrix College will present a free, public symposium on the Future of the South at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. with a keynote address by Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell.
Marc Smirnoff, OA‘s editor, brags a little in his introduction to the special issue: “It is common to portray Southern writing as obsessed with the past and nothing else; this little experiment certainly gives a kick in the pants to that perception.” While Warwick Sabin, publisher, strikes a serious, economic-development note: “The parts of the South that have suffered the most in recent decades are the ones that have failed to most aggressively anticipate the future.”
Those sites, Sabin claims, include states and counties that have been so intent on compromising their tax regulations to lure antiquated industries—oil, cars—that they have failed to imagine a better tomorrow. He writes: “The only way to control our future is to summon the courage and confidence and intellect and energy to create the South that we would like to see fifty years from now.”
How? It’ll be through “a crazy idea that no one has come up with yet,” Sabin imagines.
Much of the issue is rather less somber—or at least is comically apocalyptic. One contributor, Hal Crowther professes that “my approach to prophecy owes more to Jonathan Swift than to Nostradamus or the book of Revelation.” So, he depicts a South so affected by global warming that, “after many brutal cycles of oil spills, hurricanes, and infernal, relentless heat waves, the Gulf Coast from Brownsville to Key West was virtually abandoned.” By 2050, he adds, “as heat-crazed multitudes evacuated most of the Northern Hemisphere below the 49th Parallel, Canada, with its temperate climate and subtropical island, became a nation of half a billion inhabitants.”
And with that, in his account, Southern writers earn their keep as “wandering bards like the ancient Homer,” reciting their work to settlements of displaced and departing Southerners.
Fiction writers in the issue resonate with these conceptions of a Southern 2050. In Charles Yu’s story, for example, a director of a pharmaceuticals corporation based in Mississippi, a territory of the United States of China, addresses his shareholders and extols his “solid work in Depression” which has culminated in the development of a drug whose slogan is “Be the Person You Wish You Were” and which, coming on the heels of fine performance in the company’s departments of Hair, Erection, Sleep, Allergies, Fat, and Cholesterol, emboldens him to declare: “We are going to cure dread by the end of the decade.”
In Victor LaValle’s story of 2050, a 74-year-old narrator living in Fayetteville, N.C., who met his lover “the old-fashioned way: playing online poker at a virtual casino,” and who works 50 hours a week selling home-theater equipment, notes that “the Apocalypse never actually happened, thank you very goddamn much.”—Peter Monaghan