The Poetic History of Arkansas
Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go Now
— Sonny Boy Williamson, "Eyesight to the Blind"
Any locale will yield its share of writers, but the majority of its inhabitants will go unaware of its own--past and present. Arkansas offers a wildly diverse geography: two mountain ranges, piney woods and delta. It has birthed or raised or adopted an equally varied body of writers.
A Portuguese soldier and scribbler from De Soto's party published the first account of the area, The True Relation of the Gentleman of Elvas in 1557. Others of the same party, and later expeditions also described the state, or at least of a fever-ridden strip of the state south of modern-day Helena, the hometown of the great blues songwriter and harmonica-player Sonny Boy Williamson. The Spanish and the French would continue to vie for the property, wresting it from the Quapaws, until the Louisiana Purchase. Early in the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson commissioned William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore the Ouachita Valley, and soon after, the English botonist Thomas Nuttall would initiate a taxonomy. Followed by the geologists Schoolcraft, and then Featherstonhaugh; then Gerstaecker, the German travelogist. At this point a rudimentary spa was in place in Hot Springs.
But the most outstanding figure of Arkansas letters is Sequoyah, our American Cadmus. He spent his entire adult life creating a syllabary of eighty-six characters for the Cherokee language. The type was cast in 1828 and within a decade is it reputed that no less than ninety per cent of the Cherokee Nation was literate. Sequoyah completed his syllabary in Dwight Mission, now under Greer's Ferry Lake. After the Removal, he left Arkansas with a handful of followers in search of every last Cherokee soul, and died in Mexico. In 1854 his widow, Sally Guess, would be the recipient of the nation's first literary pension, three hundred dollars annually, set aside by the Cherokee Council.
The twentieth century proliferation of writers of every stripe with rightful claims in Arkansas: the historian C. Vann Woodward, the folklorist Vance Randolph, novelist Bernie Babcock and biographer for juveniles, Charlie May Simon, and the poet wrongly identified with the Agrarians and then the Imagists, John Gould Fletcher, who returned from his long sojourn in Europe to live outside of Little Rock; wrote a state history and founded the Ozark folklore society. A slew of writers of country, blues, and sacred music have Arkansas credentials: Pinky Tomlin, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Driftwood, Albert Brumley. CeDelle Davis, Son Seals, Iris DeMent. Then there are the survivors: Fusao Inada Lawson whose childhood was spent in an internment camp in southeast Arkansas, Maya Angelou, Eldridge Cleaver; Ved Mehta who learned his independence, far from his native country, at the Arkansas School for the Blind, He was the school's first non-white student. Fiction writers include: Henry Dumas, Donald Harrington, Dee Brown, John Grisham. The flat earth south of Hope was home to poet Besmilr Brigham. The Ozarks and the Benedictine abbey and school in the Ouchitas gave us the singular poet Frank Stanford. I am short-changing by the hundreds here. I am a stalwart believer in the bearing a particular geography can have on a writer. I am not just talking about individual experience, but about the effects of temperature, vegetation, animal life, waterways, human structures and institutions. And I have long been an advocate of the integrity of that place in the writing.
Henry Dumas spent his childhood in Sweet Home and his stories, Goodbye, Sweetwater could not have come from anywhere else but the one-time farming community near the sulfur pit. Donald Harrington's Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks is the classic fiction of the hill country. Albert Brumley's Depression hit "I'll Fly Away" is still one of the best religious songs ever recorded. Iris DeMent's paternal family hailed from an island in the middle of the St. Francis River. There is no need for DeMent to cover any one else's songs--she is a deep well.
All writing is a risk and a trust; all writing is critical as it pertains to consciousness, and every word of it is for the record. "I want people of twenty-seven languages walking back and forth and saying to one another hello brother how's the fishing and when they reach their destination I don't want them to forget if it was bad" writes Frank Stanford in his epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I second that emotion.