For historians searching for original sources, the memoir and the family history are often irresistible temptations. Used properly, the form gives information not otherwise obtainable. For example, a Civil War diary annotated by a competent historian often provides marvelous details impossible to obtain from any other source. But cautionary tales abound. Many historians of Arkansas race relations have routinely cited “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” as a source for information. After all, Daisy Bates is genuinely a legendary figure in Arkansas history and deserves her reputation as a courageous and indomitable civil rights advocate. As the first to write a biography of Mrs. Bates for adults, I expected the book to be a cornucopia of useful information about her life. For various reasons that I detail in “Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas,” including highly personal ones and the apparent desire of her New York publisher to turn the book into a civil rights fairy tale, “Long Shadow” is, in some respects, a train wreck for the unwary.
Margaret Jones Bolsterli's beautifully written family history, “Wind and Rain: The Jones Family Farm in the Arkansas Delta 1848-2006” (University of Arkansas Press, $16.95, softcover) is so meticulously documented with detailed endnotes that the serious reader achieves a rare comfort level with the form. To be sure, this multi-generational book could not achieve the intimacy of Bolsterli's memoir “Born in the Delta, Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility.” Quite rightly, Bolsterli considers her new book a “companion volume” to “Born in the Delta,” insofar as it gives the reader the specifics of how her family's land was farmed and her own knowledge gleaned through many sources of the hopes and fears that accompanied it. Two of its many strengths lie in its exquisite attention to detail accompanied by the author's ability to make the reader feel the importance of her family's enormous struggle to survive and ultimately flourish.
Bolsterli's account begins in 1841 with the migration of her paternal great-grandparents, Uriah and Sarah Jones, and their son Joseph from central Tennessee to Arkansas County. By 1850 Uriah is listed as an overseer in Desha County, and quite pointedly Bolsterli acknowledges the significance of this occupation to her family's survival. She writes, “And this is where the telling of the family story becomes painful, for the success of clearing this swampland and making it profitable must have depended on the lash, and Uriah was in charge of the discipline of men being worked like animals.”
This indispensable acknowledgement of the importance of the slave to the Bolsterli family saga is crucial not only to the story of Arkansas but to Bolsterli personally, who prefaces the book with an elegiac poem by Thomas Hardy that alerts the reader to the underlying sadness and guilt (acknowledged or not), that accompanies all human enterprise from birth to the grave. The author's well-deserved pride in the family's incredibly tenacious struggle to hold on to the land in the face of every obstacle is laced with the inevitable ambivalence over the means by which much of it was made possible.
Because the book is so rich in details, it is impossible in a review to convey the uniform evenness and intelligence of the writing from beginning to end. As merely one example out of dozens that could illustrate the point, Bolsterli notes that in earlier generations in her family, gardening “probably represented more than it does to us, for whom it is a pleasant enough pastime equaled by other pleasures.” She observes in the “heavily patriarchal society” that was so much the South, the garden was the special preserve of women, “their space, their portion of the world … and they took great pride in it.” Thus, throughout the book we get a sense of what was important in the past and why.
My one quibble with the marvelous account is that though Bolsterli never underestimates the price of slavery, she glosses over the difficulty of school integration for African-Americans in southern Arkansas, writing at one point, “the schools in Watson and Dumas were integrated without a hitch.” While that observation may have resonance for whites, oral histories of African Americans about this period suggest they have a much different story to tell.
In any event, readers of Southern history and literature have two indispensable books from this incomparable writer on what it means to be a Delta-born and Delta-raised white person. I eagerly await the completion of her next work.
Reprinted with permission from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
Grif Stockley is a historian for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. His next book, “Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present,” will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in January 2009.