Shedding Light on Arkansas Spirit

By Pruden, Wesley | Insight on the News, February 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Shedding Light on Arkansas Spirit


Pruden, Wesley, Insight on the News


When Bill Clinton "stepped through the looking glass into the world of Washington, D.C.," as his successor as governor of Arkansas put it, he applied his thumb to his eye as if to wipe away a tear. "I don't know when I'll be home next," he told a few friends who gathered at the governor's mansion to watch him climb into a car for the ride to the airport, "but you'll always be there with me. Arkansas runs deep in me and it always will."

The man who would soon become the 42nd president of the United States was hardly leaving for a faraway land; this was not a scene from World War II, with the fuzzy-cheeked Marine shipping out for Guadalcanal. But everyone in the crowd - indeed, everyone in Arkansas - understood.

"A lot of people try to leave Arkansas, but not many succeed," observed Charles Portis, who quit as a foreign correspondent for the old New York Herald-Tribune to return to Arkansas, write True Grit and become the state's most famous author. It's difficult to achieve escape velocity."

The Arkansas character, which marks all the state's sons and daughters, even the policy wonks who are alien to the tradition, is easy to recognize and difficult to define. Until the ascension of this native son, few outside the region had a very clear idea even of where to locate Arkansas on a map, so remote was it in the nation's consciousness. The reputation it had was that of a dangerous backwater, populated mostly by snakes and alligators, colorful rogues, suspicious hillbillies and other violent country critters.

Like all stereotypes, this one contained a kernel of truth. Davy Crockett, the mighty Tennessee frontiers-man, remarked on this when he stopped in Little Rock in 1835 on his way to the Alamo. "If I could rest anywhere," he said, "it would be in Arkansas, where the men are of the real half-horse, half-alligator breed that grow nowhere else on the face of the universal earth but just around the backbone of North America."

In its early days, Arkansas was not the genteel South of cotton and cavaliers, but a brawling redoubt of cotton and outlaws, highwaymen and riverboat pirates, of cardsharps and circuit riders, and of decent people who were nevertheless tough enough to survive at the farthest edge of civilization. Of a sort. The toughness, translated as strength of character, remained when the roughness subsided.

"The kind of self-generating violence that is the hallmark of the American frontier continued in Arkansas long after the leading edge of the westward migration had passed," observed Harry S. Ashmore, a patrician South Carolinian who became a bemused chronicler of the state as the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette from 1948 to 1959, one of the state's most racially turbulent eras.

"Confficts of interest deemed to be colored by questions of personal honor required that the offended party obtain satisfaction on his own motion," he wrote in a history of the state two decades ago. "For ordinary frontiersmen this meant resort to whatever weapon was handy; for those who considered themselves gentlemen, it meant the code duello."

The frontier survived in Arkansas, the last settled of the Southern states, into the first decade of the 20th century. The Mississippi River, which forms its eastern border, was an almost impenetrable barrier. Once across it, a settler faced miles and miles of swamps, which were not drained until the frontier elsewhere was closed. Once past the swamps, the settler had to find a way through the Ozarks and the Ouachitas to move farther west. So the wagon trains bypassed Arkansas, to rattle west through Missouri to the north or through Louisiana to the south.

Most of the settlers who made it, and who stayed, were of English and Scottish stock from the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia, and even today a very good ear can detect the trace of Elizabethan English on the tongues of a few old-timers in the hollows of the remotest hills. …

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