1 of 2
Ed McClanahan (aka "Captain Kentucky"), photographed by Guy Mendes.
2 of 2
"Snarly Pete," photographed by Guy Mendes
Smiley Pete – the late, charismatic dog after whom this magazine’s parent company is named – made an unexpected return to newsstands recently in “Snarly Pete on Ramparts,” a story by renowned Kentucky writer and Chevy Chase neighbor Ed McClanahan. A collaboration with photographer and fellow Chevy Chaser Guy Mendes, the essay is one of many contributions with strong ties to the Commonwealth to appear in the Spring issue of Oxford American Magazine, a quarterly arts and culture magazine based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Oxford American senior editor (and former Lexingtonian) Rebecca Howell admits she consciously chooses to be a “cheerleader and conduit” for Kentucky’s rich literary arts tradition but is quick to point out that “the quality of Kentucky’s story and its storytellers can speak for themselves, if they are given a chance to be heard.”
“We make decisions collectively about what is printed in the magazine,” explained Howell of the editorial process that led to the particularly strong Kentucky showing in this issue, which launches the magazine’s 25th anniversary. Howell taught at the University of Kentucky and directed the Kentucky Women Writers Conference for several years before moving to Little Rock and taking the position with the magazine, which is often referred to as “the New Yorker of the South.”
“I’ve presented some Kentucky writers who have recently made a debut in the OA – Crystal Wilkinson, Ada Limón, Ed McClanahan – but the OA has long supported others of us – Silas House, Erik Reece and John Jeremiah Sullivan, to name a few,” she added.
Howell – a Kentucky writer herself who recently received the inaugural Sexton Prize for poetry for her new collection “An American Purgatory” – said she couldn’t believe it when she realized McClanahan had never been published in Oxford American.
“It seemed to me a mistake of history, one I wanted to try to correct,” she said. “I asked Ed to send me something for the editors to consider, and here came our Snarly, Smiley Pete, out from the past into a present-day mythology of our city.”
The essay stems from the daily strolls the author has taken through Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood over the past 25 years. In it, he describes his own amusement with a haggard building located near the juncture of Indiana and Skain avenues that he regularly passes on his daily ambles, eventually zeroing in on a weather-worn painting of a dog on one of the building’s side exterior walls.
According to McClanahan, the stenciled graffiti painting makes it appear as though the inanimate dog – whom he notes looks like a grumpier version of the beloved former Lexington dog Smiley Pete – is protecting the building. The author then segues to a brief introduction to Lexington’s favorite canine, who was known for traveling the streets of downtown Lexington in the ’40s and ’50s:
“At this juncture of my narrative, on the probably erroneous assumption that among my readers there might be some benighted wretch who doesn’t have the good fortune, or good sense, to live in Lexington, Kentucky, as I do, I have to interrupt myself just long enough to explain that among the very top ranks of deceased Lexington icons – such as Henry Clay and Adolph Rupp and Little Enis, the World’s Greatest Left-Handed Upside Down Guitar Player – is one Smiley Pete, a nondescript little spotted dog who roamed the downtown streets back in the 1950s, making himself at home at any number of business establishments.”
As McClanahan recounted recently, Smiley Pete was already a legendary Lexington character when the author attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s. Decades later, during his daily saunters, he was curiously delighted as he noticed his mind frequently slipping into a creative narrative of the dog’s painted counterpart, whom he lightheartedly insists was likely created solely “to keep prowlers away.”
“I got to noticing that I was noticing it,” he said with a chuckle. “You’ve got to do something while you are walking around in territory that is totally familiar to you.”
It is hard not to love the story of the original Smiley Pete – who, in the course of a day, was known to “pay social calls at a newsstand, a couple of cafes, a shoe repair shop, a barber shop, a dry cleaner, even a law office or two, collecting treats and tributes at every stop like a furry little gunsel in a gangster movie…smiling throughout as amicably as a crocodile,” as McClanahan recounts in the essay. The author said it was a fun creative exercise to imagine the converse story of Pete’s surly relative, whom he also describes to as a “slavering Cerberus,” loyally protecting the building on which he is painted. (The essay also includes a shout out to Smiley Pete Publishing and Chevy Chaser Magazine, noting that the dog serves as both the “spiritual mascot and logo” for the company that owns his city’s “thriving community publication.”)
While McClanahan, now 84 years old, has shortened his walking route recently, he still sees Snarly on an almost-daily basis. He noted that someone has recently painted a quotation bubble over the dog, proclaiming his name to be “Jeff” – McClanahan knows better, though. He will always be Snarly Pete.
The Spring issue of Oxford American is available at local bookstores and can be ordered online at oxfordamerican.com. Beyond McClanahan and Mendes’ contributions, the issue is rife with Kentucky connections, including “Black Fences,” an essay about black horsemen in Kentucky written by Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford; a poem by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon; art by late Lexington photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard; and “Cooking with Chris,” an irreverent recurring column by Kentucky native Chris Offutt. The issue also features an article by former Kentucky reporter Nick Tabor about a double murder that took place in Fort Campbell in the 1990s; and an homage to late Lexington writer Guy Davenport, written by North Carolinian essayist Brian Blanchfield.