Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol' Boys Defined a State

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol' Boys Defined a State

Article excerpt

Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol' Boys Defined a State. By Brooks Blevins. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009. Pp. x, 242. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

Arkansas/Arkansaw is a better book than its quirky title and subtitle might suggest. In fact, it is a better book than a quick summary of its thesis might indicate. Historian and Arkansas native Brooks Blevins argues that, since the antebellum period, the primary image of the state's people articulated and sustained by both Arkansas residents and nonresidents has emphasized the hillbilly. Despite the regional and ethnic diversity of the state, and despite the many changes in its history, Arkansas has since the nineteenth century occupied a singular place in American identity as a place full of hillbillies who were simple, unsophisticated, economically backward, maybe violent, and often pretty amusing. For Blevins, the intriguing features of Arkansas identity are the dominance of the hillbilly image and, especially, the ways most people who invoke it give it both positive and negative connotations. The title refers to the duality of the state's identity as a real place full of real people whose identities are so often the subjects of stereotype.

The real strength and novelty of the book-and the reason to read the book and not just a review of it-lies in the fascinating and almost encyclopedic range of sources, some obvious and some wonderfully obscure, that Blevins chooses to analyze. He begins with the Arkansas Traveler, a humorous and revealing story of misunderstandings between observer and local. With that image as background, the author studies travel writing, Southwestern Humor, government and business publications designed to increase tourism and investment, folklorists like Vance Randolph, authors from Harold Bell Wright to Charles Portis, Francis Irby Gwaltney, and Donald Harington, performers such as Bob Burns, Judy Canova, Lum and Abner, and Black Oak Arkansas, and entertainment from The Beverly Hillbillies and the Dogpatch, U.S.A. theme park to journalists' fascination with Orval Faubus and Bill Clinton.

The book reads quickly and easily, in part because of lively and often witty writing and in part because of fascinating subject matter and thoughtful analysis. …

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