Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives

By Carnes, Mark C. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives

Carnes, Mark C., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Edited by Nancy A. Williams. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000. Pp. x, 334. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, general index, index of contributors. $50.00, cloth; $30.00, paper.)

Arkansas Biography consists of biographical essays by 175 scholars on some 300 figures in Arkansas history. This volume is in some ways similar to the American National Biography [ANB] (1999), a twentyfour-volume set of which I served as co-general editor with John A. Garraty. Before considering the merits of Arkansas Biography, one can fairly ask, in light of an existing "national biography" of over 17,000 Americans, including hundreds of Arkansans, whether Arkansas Biography serves a useful purpose.

Nancy A. Williams, the editor, justifies the volume on the grounds that while national biographies choose subjects whose significance transcends a particular region or locality, the subjects in Arkansas Biography were explicitly selected because they had done something "worthy of note" in Arkansas (p. 1).

To determine whether Arkansas Biography merely duplicated, in small part, the content of the ANB, I compared a random sample of subjects in Arkansas Biography-those whose last names appeared immediately ofter "ARK" in the alphabet (for Arkansas)-to the ANB. (I skipped Harry Ashmore, who died in 1998 and was thus ineligible for the ANB, which only included figures who died before 1996.)

Of the ten figures in this Arkansas Biography sample, only Elisha Baxter also appears in the ANB. Baxter was a pivotal figure in Reconstructionera Arkansas because as governor he headed a faction that helped former Confederates acquire political rights; this led to an armed conflict that catapulted Baxter into national attention (and also, presumably, into the ANB). Eventually, President Grant intervened to restore order. Baxter, in short, was a national figure; he also played an important role in the history of Arkansas. He thus belongs in both the ANB and Arkansas Biography.

The other nine subjects, found only in Arkansas Biography, are as follows: W. Emmett Atkinson, a Columbia County circuit clerk of German descent who in 1918 contributed a paltry fifty cents to the -Red Cross, an affront to the war effort that resulted in his being hounded from office; Julia B. S. Babcock, author of twenty-five historical novels, founder of the Arkansas Natural History Museum, and a leader of both the Arkansas chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Socialist Party in Arkansas; William Baerg, head of the department of entomology at the University of Arkansas, who allowed himself to be bitten by a black widow spider and thus became the first person to accurately describe its effects ("breathing and speech are spasmodic"); Carl Edward Bailey, governor, who rejected a $50,000 bribe to prevent the extradition of gangster "Lucky" Luciano to New York; Pietro Bandini, founder of Tontitown, a refuge for Italian immigrants who had been exploited by commercial farmers elsewhere in Arkansas; John Henry Barnhill, athletic director for the Razorbacks, who pioneered high-powered recruiting techniques, inducing All-American tailback Clyde "Smackover" Scott to enroll at Arkansas in 1946 (two years later Smackover won a silver medal in track at the Olympics); Antoine Barraque, a Napoleonic soldier-turned-fur trader who became embroiled in Indian affairs in Arkansas; Thomas Barton, an oil speculator who struck it rich when the wells gushed in aptly named El Dorado, Arkansas; Lucious Christopher Bates, a journalist and civil rights activist who championed the African American students who were desegregating Central High in 1957.

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