The Common, published biannually, is an Amherst College-based literary journal intended to challenge and broaden the reader’s sense of time and place. The magazine, which counts Jennifer Acker ’00 as its editor-in-chief and Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy ’74 as an advisory board member, released its first print issue in 2011. Since then, The Common has managed to distinguish itself amongst a glut of titles in the literary journal genre as a publication with a unique sense of purpose.
Works of poetry and prose are paired with carefully curated images to compose a magazine worth reading again and again. This week marks the launch of a brand-new edition of The Common. Issue 08 is a substantial one, physically and otherwise: the 206-page volume’s heft matches the weight of the ideas presented inside. This particular collection of short fiction, nonfiction, poems and black-and-white photography certainly satisfies the journal’s objective to embody “a modern sense of place.” It does so in a way that’s particularly poignant for college-age readers — people in the midst of a formative period of self-discovery and identity development. Issue 08 centers on not just the general notion of place described in the mission statement of The Common, but also on the concept of finding a place of belonging, of finding oneself.
Issue 08 commences with a statement by Acker, an essay simultaneously about travel, authenticity and fitting in. The piece serves as a moving primer to the subject matter explored in the rest of the volume’s 206 pages. She describes her trip to Italy to reconnect with friends living in Tuscany and manages to relate this experience to her childhood stint in Hebrew school. Acker says that she feels like a pilgrim as she wanders the streets of Tuscany during a morning walk. This is a title she prefers to that of tourist; she says that it’s “infinitely better, more reasonable, more authentic” to be a pilgrim.
In her essay, Acker touches upon a pair of all-too-familiar fears: the fear of not being perceived as genuine and the fear of failing to fit in. She recalls her grade school self, who begged her parents to allow her to attend Hebrew school despite coming from a non-religious family. She labels this as the beginning of her “career as a wannabe belonger,” the genesis of her desire to “belong somewhere special.” Young Acker craves association with a religious group just as her adult self desires to fit in in Tuscany, to avoid the ignorance and flamboyant appearance of a tourist. Hers is an elegantly written and pithy analysis of the role of place in feeling comfortable with oneself. It’s a true highlight of the issue.
Jeff Jackson’s “The Dying of the Deads: A Story in Three Parts,” is a darker exploration of the notion of place and a standout among many well-crafted works of short fiction in this issue of The Common. Jackson writes with both style and grit; the two main characters — teenagers called Isaac and The Kid, respectively — are reminiscent of the adolescent boy characters of the young adult novel “The Outsiders.” They’re a bit rough-and-tumble, but they’re well-intentioned, too. The story begins with the boys mourning the suicide of Isaac’s girlfriend, Sara.
In a supernatural twist, they discover that they have the opportunity to bring Sara back to life, an endeavor Jackson recounts with language that is intensely descriptive, but never overwrought or flowery. His writing style is both haunting and masculine, and he uses it to envelop the reader in the setting of his story. However, as the reader is further engrossed in the richness of Jackson’s setting, the characters become more and more uncomfortable with their own sense of place and their sense of self. The juxtaposition lends lasting emotional impact to the piece.
Ralph Sneeden’s “Stepping Off: Confessions From the Littoral Zone” is a story of familial relationships, personal growth and mortality. Sneeden’s work reads like a miniature memoir; there is an understated poignancy to it and it ultimately makes the greatest emotional impact of all the pieces in Issue 08 of The Common. He begins by telling the story of when he nearly drowned during a family trip to the Jersey Shore. Despite this experience, he develops a lifelong love of surfing and reverence for the ocean, commenting upon both its beauty and its danger. His relationship with the seaside evolves as he ages.
With “Stepping Off,” Sneeden uses place as a framework to examine his own progression from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood to fatherhood. Life, as Sneeden presents it, is “an ongoing cycle of initiation.” The ocean is the environment that initiates him into each new stage of his existence; it’s a setting he identifies with and a place he can both share with his son and enjoy on his own.
The poetry of Issue 08 weakens an otherwise stellar volume of The Common. While the majority of the poems included are enjoyable pieces, none leave a particularly lasting impression on the reader. I found myself skimming the poetry in an effort to get to the next work of short fiction or the next essay, pieces that truly embodied the mission statement of The Common. The poetry selection lacks the sense of cohesiveness boasted by Issue 08’s prose. Regardless, the Amherst-based publication brings additional significance to the meaning of place, while finding its own place in the ever-expanding realm of literary journals.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the author of “The Dying of the Deads: A Story in Three Parts.” He is Jeff Jackson, not Jeff Johnson.