Arkansas/Arkansaw Book Review

Published: 2021-06-18 00:55:04
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What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the state of Arkansas? Chances are, that as an Arkansan the thoughts are quite different than those of someone not born or raised here. Hillbilly, redneck, barefoot, and trailer are a just few of the common first words invoked in the minds of “foreigners” by the word Arkansas. In the non-fiction work, Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State, author Brooks Blevins provides readers with his idea of how Arkansas’s image began, and then perpetuated over time.
He provides several examples of the creation and reiteration of this imagine, beginning as early as the 1800s and progressing all the way into the 2000s. Not every example provided in the book reflects a negative image, as Blevins is trying to prove that there are positive aspects, it has progressed over time, and is ultimately the Arkansan’s perception of it that determines its power. The books provided so much information of the state I am proud to call my home, and I believe that Brooks Blevins was successful in his presentation and purpose!
I was pleased to find that Blevins writes this book as an Arkansas native rather than an opinionated outsider with no identity in the subject of his work. I feel that it is this factor alone that gives the book such a genuine feel. I was also pleased to find that Blevins once worked as a professor at Lyon College, which is located in my hometown. This gives me an even stronger sense of familiarity with him. The book is intended to be read by anyone interested in the subject, although it seems natural that interest would be primarily with historians and Arkansas natives.
It is this reader’s interest that actually influences the effectiveness of Blevins’s writing. Obviously, efferent readers and aesthetic readers will be seeking different things from the text and therefore take away different things from the text. But in the end, Blevins hopes that all readers will recognize the many ways in which Arkansas has fit into our nation as whole, both then and now. Blevins uses interesting techniques presenting the Arkansas image. The most unique and effective techniques is his vocabulary.
“Arkansaw” is the word he uses “when referring to the state’s image and when invoking the mythical place conjured various stereotypes and caricatures” (5). This helps to distinguish general information from information directly related to “the mixture of fact, legend, and stereotype” that comes to mind when Americans think of Arkansas (5). Blevins also makes use of the word “Arkansawyer” to describe inhabitants and the “different reactions Arkansas people have to the Arkansaw image” (6).
Another distinction in vocabulary that Blevins chose is the use of the word image in the place of identity, which implies an always active participation in the defining of a reputation. These methods contribute to the tone of the book as well as the reader’s understanding of the author’s presentation. Blevins illustrations of Arkansas’s image span the course of hundreds of years. The first images presented in the books stem from early travelers to the state. The opinions of most of these travelers were mixed, with many of them describing neanderthal like conditions.
Francios Marie Perrin de Lac of Arkansans’, “They pass their time playing games, dancing, drinking, or doing nothing, similar in this as in other things to the savage peoples with whom they pass their time” (12). Other visitors describe humble dwellings, plain clothing, endless hunting and lots of weapons. Throughout most of the book’s first chapter Blevins recounts the experiences of several travelers who all seem to agree that Arkansas is a state full of lazy, violent people with no regard for the rest of the nation’s idea of civilization.
Blevins suggest that much of the disparity in Arkansas’s definition of normal and the rest of the country’s comes from Arkansas’s geographical location. He says that because, at this time, Arkansas is blocked on the east by swamps and on the west by Indian territory it became “backwater”. Unfortunately much of Arkansas’s reputation at this time was negative. There are a few travelers that noted the simple goodness of Arkansan’s at this time.
Travelers such as Friedrich Gerstacker and Washintgon Irving presented a softer side to the prominent savage-like image described by others. Gerstackers perception of Arkansans was descibed as primarily positive. He described the Arkansans he encountered as “honest and upright” and reported that Arkansas was his favorite of all the states in America. Irving said that Arkansans, “have none of that eagerness for gain, and rage for improvement, which keep our people continually on the move” (22).
He had a respect for the slowed down, simple way of like Arkansans lived every day. Blevins depicts both positive and negative travel accounts and memoirs, although he believes that their impact is difficult to measure. As the book progresses through the years, Blevins begins to introduce several famous faces that call Arkansas their home, in what he calls the Heyday of the Hillbilly. He mentions everyone from musicians to actors, athletes to novelists, and intellects to political figures.
For each one mentioned, Blevins describes their experience with the Arkansas image, whether they found a way to embrace it or let it bring them down. It’s interesting that he does not limit this presentation to individuals born and raised in the state, and includes some that instead have “adopted” Arkansas as their home state. All of the Arkansans he describes have impacted or been impacted by the image of their state. My favorite part of the book is actually the conclusion. Blevins begins this by describing an incident that I actually remember.
In 2000, while the governor’s mansion was undergoing extensive renovations, Governor Mike Huckabee and his family chose to stay in a triple-wide trailer. The move was quickly met with laughs and “I-told-you-so’s” from all over the country. The best part of the story is that the Huckabee family embraced the situation and joined in the laughter! Huckabee said, “Let the people laugh. I think that the difference between an Arkansas and an uptight, wound-up northerner, is that… we’re laughing with you, because we like the way we live” (186).
This acceptance is what I believe is the central goal of Blevins writing. Through this book, what I think Blevins really wanted to achieve was an acceptance of the Arkansas image. He mentions what he calls the Arkansan’s inferiority complex and says that “people of Arkansas are probably more obsessed with their state’s image than are people of any other state” (186). Blevins suggests that although the nation’s reaction to the governor’s manufactured mansion implies that Arkansas’s hillbilly image still exists, it is no longer in the forefront of people’s mind that they think of Arkansas.
Blevins goes on to identify statistics about everything from education to violence, with Arkansas “generally low where you want to be high and high where low might be a good thing” (188). However, the statistics he discusses show that Arkansas is not always the worst state in the nation. As an Arkansan, I was so shocked to read all of the negative things others about my state, although I have heard some of them myself a time or two. All Arkansans are aware that we are typically viewed in a “less civilized” light than the rest of the country.
But one thing I have always held in my mind is that we can’t possibly be nearly as uncivilized as the state of Mississippi.. I laughed to see Blevins use of the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi”. Part of having pride in your state is accepting that you will never be able to change an image that has been so widespread for so long. It’s always better to just embrace it, join in the jokes, and no that no state is free from stereotypes or stigmas. It is a nationwide thing!
Overall I was very pleased with Blevins argument in the book. The way in which he chose to approach the creation of the image was interesting and I enjoyed the various accounts he utilized. I also enjoyed learning about famous figures from my state that I had not previously known. He does a great job of presenting the information in a entertaining and real style. His pride in his home state shines through and inspires me to learn more about my state so that I can better embrace my title as a true Arkansan!

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