In a way, Back Yonder is a standard story of growing up in the backwoods of the Ozarks before the roads were good and the REA brought electricity. It covers what you’d expect: the crops for a subsistence lifestyle, home life in simple log or clapboard structures, what passed for schooling, courtship rituals, wild goings-on at camp meetings, traveling salesmen, and finally, the rise of the young man/chronicler as he gains an education, gets married, and finds a career.
First published in 1932, Hogue’s memoir is strikingly illustrated with the woodcuts of his son-in-law, Howard Simon, bringing to mind other similarly illustrated backwoods titles from the 1930s such as Thames Williamson’s The Woods Colt (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=woods+colt ). With his sprightly introduction and endnotes, Professor Brooks Blevins sets the book’s context and explains its significance in the Ozarks canon. It’s among the first of such memoirs, for one thing, and was favorably reviewed in publications as sophisticated as the New York Times and Scribner’s.
Though presented as a literal memoir, Blevins points out that Back Yonder is very much fictionalized: it’s hard to say what town or even region the book is set in (other than the Ozarks themselves), and the young Wayman Hogue is a composite, only approximately Wayman Hogue himself.
But autobiographies are never literally true even when, or especially when, they get all the facts right. Hogue’s discussion of Ozarks vernacular rings true if you have also read through the lexicon of the master, Vance Randolph. His recollections of the primitive educational system—where county funding had to be supplemented by subscriptions, or gathering fees from parents—nicely dovetails with Guy Howard’s Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=walkin%27+preacher+of+the+).
Some few passages are so eccentric they must be true, such as Hogue’s account of a worthless neighbor who lusted after a widow 30 years younger, despite his marriage to an (extremely) long-suffering woman and their kids. The man claimed God had appeared to him in a vision and told him, since his marriage was only common law, that therefore he must cast off his sinful wife—and marry the widow.
Hogue offers up a wealth of such yarns. His tongue-in-cheek account of a back-country debating society, taking on the question, “Which is more attractive to the eye, Art or Nature?” is a hoot worthy of Mark Twain. One debater offers proof that art is more attractive, but in rebuttal, the champion for Hogue’s side declaims:
“The womurn war all dressed up in purty shoes and purty hats . . . and they war awful purty. The womurn was nature and the close was art, and it war mouty hard to tell which war the purtiest . . . [but] s’posen them womurn had a-pulled off them ar close. ’Course they didn’t do it, but I say jist s’posen they had . . . Then which would the men be a looking at, the womurn or the close? Honer’ble Jedges, which would you a-been looking at?”
Hogue follows with a visceral account of a public hanging, which he presents dispassionately while including profiles of the train robbers who were hanged. He invents dialogue between them in which they all rationalize their failures in life, blaming them on rich folks in passages that again are reminiscent of Mr. Mark Twain. Any notion that Hogue experienced all of this personally is out the window at this point.
As an aside, if there were a market for Westerns anymore, Hogue offers up a plot ready to go.
On a day when he’s cheated out of a teaching job, he—or Wayman Hogue, the composite—gets into a brutal, no-rules, back-alley fight, and lands in jail for a day. His opponent in the fight has influence in several counties, and ruins Wayman’s chances at a job elsewhere. So he goes back to school, and is on his way out of the hills forever.
Many a “good ole days” reminiscence is spoiled by a refusal to acknowledge just how difficult and mean life could be back in the hills. Hogue plays it straight. He’s good-humored but unsentimental. He may not be literal, but he’s honest. What might at first seem to be just another Arcadian exercise becomes, in the end, a thoughtful memoir.