Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Grow Up with the Country: Pete Whetstone Again in the Field!

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Grow Up with the Country: Pete Whetstone Again in the Field!

Article excerpt

Grow Up with the Country: Pete Whetstone Again in the Field! A REVIEW ESSAY BY ROBERT COCHRAN Cavorting On the Devil s Fork: The Pete Whetstone Letters of C. F. M. Noland. Edited by Leonard Williams. Arkansas Classics Edition, with an introduction by George E. Lankford. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006. Pp. xxiii, 281. Acknowledgments, introductions, illustrations, map, appendices, note on sources, index. $19.95, paper.)

Cavorting on the Devil's Fork makes available once again, in better form than ever, the heart of Charles Fenton Mercer Noland's triumphant, ill-fated work. The triumph can be easily stated-Noland's many letters and reports (there are more than 300) for the Spirit of the Times, a New York sporting weekly, made him Arkansas's first famous writer. He penned these missives in his own name (as "N" or "N. of Arkansas") and under several pseudonyms, but the persona he deployed most often and most artfully was "Pete Whetstone," and it was as "Kurnel Whetstone" that he made his name. "Noland was," claimed his editor, "during his own time, more widely read and more popular than any of the Spirit's other writers. Only T. B. Thorpe approached Noland's popularity, and even he was a distant second" (pp. 50-51). At the height of Noland's renown, several horses, dogs, and at least one mule were carrying the Whetstone name (the mule lost a race in New Jersey in 1837), and a Pete Whetstone Stakes went off at a Baltimore track in 1841. The crowning honor may have come in 1856, when an Indiana steamboat called the Pete Whetstone began carrying freight and passengers out of Louisville. Pete's fame was so great that he spawned imitators. A Virginian who signed himself "Boots" excused his contribution by noting the absence of Whetstone's "bright scintillations" from recent issues: '"I takes occasion where the big lights ain't a-shining to let my little taper glow some'" (p. 51). Cavorting on the Devil's Fork prints an 1842 sample of such imitation, "Sporting Epistle From "The Swamp,'" as an appendix.

Noland's misfortunes are more complex. One strand is generic: "dynamic and vital as it was," writes the editor, "Southwestern humor was a casualty of the Civil War .... the postwar years in the South were not conducive to laughter, and the few efforts at humorous literature largely fizzled" (pp. 2-3). Not until the 1930s did scholars and critics take a renewed interest in the genre; new collections were edited and published, and the frontier humorists began to be appreciated as establishing a tradition developed and enlarged in the works of top-shelf literary superstars. Melville's The Confidence-Man, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Faulkner's The Hamlet-all were understood as high-culture cousins of the old southwestern humorists.

But in this revival Noland's misfortunes multiplied. Troubled by chronic ill health, he had died in 1858 at forty-seven, apparently from tuberculosis, never having collected his Whetstone letters into a book-length volume. Almost a century passed before James R. Masterson's pioneering 1942 study, Tall Tales ofArkansaw (reprinted in 1974 as Arkansas Folklore: The Arkansas Traveler, Davey Crockett, and Other Legends), devoted a chapter to Noland's Whetstone letters, printed a generous selection, and predicted that a volume-length collection could find a "place on the same shelf with Georgia Scenes, The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, The Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, and other chronicles of a hard-racing, hard-drinking, hard-fighting era" (Arkansas Folklore, p. 54).

Fifteen years later, in 1957, the first attempt at such an edition, compiled by Ted Worley and Eugene Nolte, was published by a small press in Van Buren, Arkansas, as Pete Whetstone of Devil's Fork: Letters to the Spirit of the Times. It grouped forty-eight Whetstone letters and three other Noland efforts in chronological order and included the fullest biographical treatment yet accomplished. …

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