Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (2009), by Brooks Blevins

Blevins goes all the way back to the founding document of Ozarks writing, the traveler Henry Schoolcraft’s journal from 1818, to show where Arkansas’s benighted reputation began. Schoolcraft says of one Arkansas family: “Their manner and conversation were altogether rough and obscene . . . characterized in partaking of whatever was disgusting, terrific, rude, and outré in all.” Hillmen cared only for hunting and valued their dogs more than their women. So begins the legend of the Arkansas—Ozarks—hillbilly, and things don’t improve much.

The hillbilly became the dominant Ozarks image: a dissolute, illiterate, often criminal fellow addicted to moonshine. But an alternative, nearly opposite narrative also rose: the white Ozarker was a primitive but pure Anglo-Saxon who lived in harmony with nature and was naturally virtuous. This Ozarker was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Harold Bell Wright and his myriad imitators.

Neither portrait was entirely false, and anyhow the state had few defenders even into the 1950s. Even today. The state vied with Mississippi for the rank of 49th or 50th in seemingly endless categories.

Blevins traces the state’s dubious image through some godawful novels and a spate of Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-type movies from the 1930s in good, scholarly fashion. Casual readers may be most  interested in Blevins’ history from World War II onward: for instance, his portrait of the  hillbilly politician, Orval Faubus. In 1957, Faubus added racism to the image of a state that had never really been Southern. Famously, Faubus put up every imaginable obstacle to the “Little Rock Nine” in their efforts to integrate Central High. Faubus was also an overwhelming influence in the development of Dogpatch, USA, which took its inspiration from Al Capp’s comic strip. Essentially, Dogpatch was Harrison, Arkansas’s attempt to make money off its own ridiculous image.

Another Arkansas politician, Bill Clinton, comes off well by comparison, though Blevins shows how the Rhodes Scholar could play up his Bubba-dom when it served him to do so.

In one of Blevins’ more startling stories, Marilyn Quayle, wife of the candidate for vice president, insulted the state at the 1992 Republican Convention. She then tried to “ameliorate bruised feelings” with a letter addressed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arizona.

In other words, this poor state can’t catch a break. One is left in awe at the amount of second-rate material Blevins had to digest, but he wrote a fine, sometimes amazing book. His history of the Arkansas image is honest, self-deprecatory, and a little sad.

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