By Mark Rutledge
The launch of the online magazine Appalachian Places represents another turn on the long literary road that branches from East Tennessee State University. As the road merges further with a superhighway that holds the promise of new and exciting travels into Appalachia and other highland regions around the world, it is appropriate to look back with a thankful nod to this magazine’s print forerunner, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.
For more than three decades, Now & Then provided a high-quality print product for writers and readers devoted to the Appalachian region. Produced by the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services, with strong support from the university, it evolved from its early look of a grainy newsletter into a glossy format with a design consistency worthy of its reputation as a premier Appalachian periodical. When the publication began, there were not many magazines focused on the Appalachian region. In addition to regular contributions from ETSU’s academic community, the magazine was well known for attracting original works from widely known contributors to Appalachian literature. With categories including music and book reviews, photography, poetry, food and general interest articles, subjects were wide-ranging — and as a general rule, grounded in Appalachian topics and culture.
The magazine often touched on environmental features and concerns also, a category that was a particular passion for the magazine’s first editor, Fred Waage. The ETSU professor of literature and language helped launch the publication with its founder, Richard Blaustein, in 1984. At the time, Blaustein, who died in November 2020, was a professor of sociology and anthropology and was serving as the founding director of the Center of Excellence.
“Ultimately, the premise of Now & Then is this sense of a ‘living tradition,’” Waage wrote in an introduction for the inaugural edition. “We speak for and to a proud culture which is flexible enough to contain much diversity within its unity, and to assimilate rather than being transformed by new ideas and institutions. But also for a culture which has problems — economic, social, environmental, aesthetic — which demand a continual re-confrontation and reinterpretation.”
After the magazine’s first two years, Waage, who has published poetry, fiction and written extensively on environmentalism, stepped down to pursue other projects. Asked about his experiences overseeing the earliest editions of Now & Then, Waage said that one of the most interesting was the Winter 1986 issue, which focused on Blacks in Appalachia. “It was guest edited by Edward Cabbell,” Waage said. An expert on the theme of that issue, Cabbell had recently co-edited the 1985 book, Blacks in Appalachia, with William Turner.
Much has changed in Appalachia since that 1986 issue of Now & Then. But the topics and issues covered by the magazine at that time still generate compelling stories among the people and places of the region. In 2019, for instance, the Center of Excellence sponsored a public lecture by Turner at ETSU on topics related to the modern civil rights movement. Also during that year sprang an idea for a film documentary based on the same issues and experiences explored in the 1986 issue of Now & Then noted by Waage. The documentary team, whose members include faculty and staff at ETSU, is working on a film titled "The Black Appalachian." The project is aimed at revealing the Black experience in Appalachia and is expected to be completed this year.
Now & Then archives offer a treasure trove of stories and experiences that remain relevant. Appalachian Places will dip into that well of history and literature from time to time by publishing selected content from Now & Then. Keeping and highlighting that connection is critical to maintaining the literary tradition long associated with the Appalachian Studies program at ETSU.
Responsible for building the tradition are former "Now & Then" editors Waage, Pat Arnow, Jill Oxendine, Jane Woodside, Nancy Fischman, Fred Sauceman and Randy Sanders. In addition to these editors, the directors of the Center of Excellence oversaw the magazine and served as senior editors: Blaustein, Jean Haskell, Ted Olson (interim), Roberta Herrin, and current director Ron Roach.
Sanders, who served as managing editor for Now & Then from 2006 until it ceased publication, played a key role in establishing the high-quality content and look of the magazine. Sanders, who retired in June after more than six years as director of the B. Carroll Reece Museum in the Center of Excellence, summed up the exciting transition to a digital publication: “The magazine industry faces many challenges and opportunities,” Sanders said. “While the Now & Then staff remains grateful for the countless writers, poets, reviewers, and artists who enriched our pages, there is little doubt there is a waning interest in printed media formats. Fortunately, as audiences become accustomed to the advantages offered by digital alternatives, Appalachian Places will be there to carry on the work started by Now & Then."
The quality journalism that populated the pages of Now & Then is on display in a brief retrospective contributed for this article by former Now & Then editor Fred Sauceman, who serves as an associate professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU:
It had begun to snow heavily in the Mud Lick Run community north of Buckhannon, West Virginia, that day in January 2006. I knew I had better start on my way back to Johnson City soon, but I just couldn’t leave. My hosts were Roger and Donna Perry. I will never forget my time with them. Their stories were among the most compelling I had ever heard.
I was working on an article in what would be the very first issue of Now & Then under my editorship. I had gone to Upshur County in the days after the Sago mine disaster, which trapped 13 coal miners and killed them all but one.
Despite the massive national media coverage of that tragedy, I knew there were more stories to tell. People in and around Sago opened up to me that weekend. Among them were Roger and Donna. Roger was on the other side of the wall when the explosion occurred on Jan. 2, 2006. He made it out alive. Donna’s brother Marty did not. His name was at the top of every alphabetical listing of the dead: Alva Martin Bennett.
I sat for hours at the Perrys’ dining room table that day, leafing through a scrapbook about six inches thick. When Donna came to a color photograph, she stopped and couldn’t say a word for several minutes. It was the last picture ever taken of her brother, from Christmas of 2005.
When Donna felt like talking again, I told her I knew several of those miners had left handwritten notes of love and goodbye down underground. I asked her if Marty had done so. She told me she wished he had, but he could not read and write.
That moment affirmed for me the special responsibility I had inherited: to tell our readers genuine stories of the Appalachian people.
Sauceman attributed the magazine’s longevity and success to the “special responsibility” he shared with many other staff members. “Serving as editor of Now & Then was one of the signal honors of my life,” he said. “I will be forever grateful for the regionwide connections I made during my decade as editor. Randy Sanders, as managing editor, transformed the look of the magazine. Section editors Marianne Worthington, Linda Parsons Marion, Wayne Winkler, and Edwina Pendarvis, and Knoxville News Sentinel cartoonist Charlie Daniel, always provided brilliant content. Through their work and through the talents and insights of countless writers over those years — many of them just starting their careers — my appreciation for our region deepened profoundly. It brings me great joy to know that, in its new form, the magazine will live on.”
The magazine will indeed live on, albeit under a different name and on a digital platform that will afford broader opportunities for publishing even more content related to the stories, literature, music and poetry of Appalachia. The additional space and publication capacity of an online platform will open opportunities for more student and community involvement. The magazine also will endeavor to bring more focus and attention to similar stories and issues affecting highland regions around the world. We look forward to continuing this literary journey, which was started so well by the many men and women who contributed to Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.
Mark Rutledge is managing editor of Appalachian Places. He is a marketing and communications professional in higher education and spent more than 30 years in newspaper journalism. His weekly column appears in newspapers in Tennessee and North Carolina.