If you ask outsiders what they know about the state of Arkansas, they're probably going to tell you Central High, Bill Clinton and the Razorbacks. That's about it unless some of the more boorish throw in a term like hillbillies.
It's a conversation that quickly brings us to Arkansas's age-old identity crisis and Brooks Blevins's new book, “Arkansas/Arkansaw” (University of Arkansas Press, $29.95. hardcover). This book is the bible of all things hick, yet it also strives to render a thorough post-mortem on Arkansas's corpus of low self-esteem.
“What part of ya'll don't you understand?” Blevins asks outsiders, before deconstructing an “Arkansaw” horizon littered with incestuous, bare-footed, dim-witted hill folk, and contrasting it with “Arkansas,” land of cultural enrichment and indoor plumbing.
While the state has suffered, as Time magazine wrote in 1942, “a mass inferiority complex unique in American history,” Blevins cleverly serves up a double-wide helping of Arkansas's rugged individualism and rustic charm as seen through books, movies and songs. His cast of characters ranges from Bob Burns to Lum and Abner to Dizzy Dean.
“Arkansas/Arkansaw,” in the author's words, is a “complex mixture of fact, legend and stereotype that is summoned from the depths of the American consciousness at the mention of the word Arkansas.”
A prime example is Thomas Jackson's cornball joke book called “On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw,” published in 1907. Jackson, who was basically illiterate and had to dictate copy to his wife, turned out to be a marketing genius. He was based in Chicago, the major hub for rail traffic crisscrossing the U.S. and his book was sold on all of the trains by vendors who also peddled candy, tobacco and magazines to weary travelers.
“Slow Train,” with Arkansas's reputation flapping in the breeze, quickly found its way to both coasts. Over its lifetime of four decades or so, the little book sold nine million copies while Arkansas civic leaders scrambled to cover their embarrassment.
And, how could one miss the irony of a true hillbilly governor, Orval Faubus from Greasy Creek near Huntsville, standing in the doorway of Central High School? Or, as Blevins writes, that African-Americans living in the state at least have always been able to escape the stigma of backwards Arkansaw since everyone knows that all hillbillies are white.
If there is a shortcoming in “Arkansas/Arkansaw,” it's that Blevins fails to list among his self-esteem boosters the one true god of many Arkansans — Razorback sports. Maybe we just need to bear in mind that the best defense for Arkansas's reputation usually is a good offense.
In “True Grit,” the classic novel by Arkansas's own Charles Portis, the feisty heroine, Mattie Ross of Yell County, becomes so exasperated with outsiders that she finally intones, “people who don't like Arkansas can go to the devil.”
End of conversation.