The Literature of the Ozarks (2019), edited by Phillip Douglas Howerton

Howerton, a professor at Missouri State University—West Plains, surveys Ozarks literature from the travel journal of the unofficial founder of Ozarks writing, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,  through the contemporary scene. He opens the collection with a wonderful, very foreign Osage creation story, put into English by the Omaha Indian scholar, Francis La Flesche. Otherwise, while the 19th Century entries are notable historically, they’re rather thin on literary merit. You’ve got to appreciate Howerton’s diligence, but there is no unsung Hawthorne or Twain to be found here.

The anthology grows more compelling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the startling 1906 essay by Springfield writer Benjamin F. Adams, “What the Negro Must Do.” As Howerton points out, Adams touches bases with the great conciliator, Booker T. Washington, but hints that one day the races will no longer be separate-but-equal, but merely equal. Not that Adams’ essay was in any way responsible, but three months after its publication, three black men were lynched on the Springfield square.

Howerton’s painstaking introductions are all like that, many of them more interesting than the entries. If you just read those introductions, you’d have a fine, long essay on Ozarks writing. Did you know that Robert Heinlein (yes, Grandmaster Robert Heinlein, the sf writer) hailed from Butler, Missouri, and that his famous YA title, Starman Jones, featured a protagonist from the hills? Or that Vance Randolph, one of the Ozarks’ most famous writers, certainly its best-known folklorist, was a high school dropout? Or that, much later, he came just short of earning his Ph.D? Or that he made most of his money with what could be called hack writing, churning out Little Blue Books for the Haldeman-Julius firm, that iconoclastic, radical publisher in Girard, Kansas?

I wish Haldeman-Julius were still around.

Randolph is represented with one of his short stories, an arch little tale of a friendless simpleton, the Ozarks version of a village idiot, who grows fascinated with the U.S. mail, finding that he can get all kinds of free stuff simply by requesting it.

Delightfully, Howerton includes an excerpt from Sycamore, by a novelist Randolph very much admired,  Constance Wagner. Sycamore is an acerbic portrait of an Arkansas resort town, probably Eureka Springs. Wagner wrote for The New Yorker, and one is tempted to say that her style is as historic as her novel: immaculate, correct, conservative. Still, she was a consummate novelist. In particular, her minor characters, ranging from dissolute hillbillies to cultural poseurs, show as much mastery as anyone’s in this anthology.

Howerton presents a respectful portrait of the best-known, and most pilloried, Ozarks writer, Harold Bell Wright, along with the opening chapter of The Shepherd of the Hills. His evenhandedness here is admirable.

Hound dogs are ably portrayed in MacKinlay Kantor’s almost technical description of the art of fox hunting, with an excerpt from The Voice of Bugle Ann; dogs merge with pathos in a story of a country boy in the big city, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows.

Donald Harington, the fabulist whose novels many think to be the best ever to come out of the Ozarks,  is represented with a sparkling, tongue-in-cheek essay on (among other things) Ozarks place-names, “Finding the Place, Naming the Place.”

Active contemporaries are well-represented with excerpts from the first novel, Slant of Light, in Steve Wiegenstein’s utopian series; a story reprinted from Steve Yates’ Juniper Prize-winning collection, Some Kinds of Love; and an excerpt from Daniel Woodrell’s most recent novel, The Maid’s Version. C. D. Albin’s violent, despairing father-and-son story, “Hard Toward Home,” provides an example of the newer sort of Ozarks story that eschews dialect and back-woods stereotypes to portray people who could exist anywhere, or at least anywhere rural.

Howerton includes a great deal of poetry, most of it free verse and completely accessible, most of it on Ozarks themes such as the fascinating narrative poem by Native American John Rollins Ridge, “The Arkansas Root Doctor,” a comic poem emphasizing the exotic and mythic Ozarks. The most technically proficient poets here are probably John Gould Fletcher, with his lyrical “Thunderstorm in the Ozarks;” and the beloved University of Arkansas poet,  Miller Williams, with “Main Street,” a satirical take on urban sprawl: “The city limits signs of six towns/move toward each other like suspicious children.”

Omissions? Yes, quite a few. The book, at 300 pages, could easily have been 500, though of course a 500-page tome would have been unwieldy, and driven up the cost still more. Howerton does note that some excerpts were unavailable because their publishers wanted too much money. But for what’s it’s worth, Douglas Jones is a strange omission, particularly with This Savage Race, one of the best novels about pioneers ever written, and his Pea Ridge novel, Elkhorn Tavern. There’s the scandalous Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her linked short stories portraying Mansfield, Missouri: Old Home Town (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=old+home+town). In The Moonflower Vine (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=moonflower), Jetta Carleton’s nostalgic prose rivals Constance Wagner’s, and what’s more, Carleton was home-grown. Sue Hubbell’s ecological memoir about beekeeping, A Country Year (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=hubbell ), has been a favorite since its publication in 1984.

Also not included are any number of genre efforts, and any number of memoirs from old newspaper editors, not all of which are rose-colored treacle. These latter, of course, are seldom gathered in any anthology.

Howerton has done yeoman’s work here. You can read through the anthology slowly, savoring every entry, and when you’re done, you’ll have a thorough understanding of who Vance Randolph and Harold Bell Wright were, and who is valiantly carrying on their work. The Literature of the Ozarks would seem to be a logical text for any course on Ozarks literature or history, and it belongs in every library.

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