Philip Martin

Introduction to the Arkansas Literary Forum
Volume I:  1999

Writers naturally recoil from labels; we don't like the limits they suggest.  Richard Ford bristles at the suggestion that he may in fact be a "Southern writer;" Walker Percy feared that to be described as a Southern writer was to be thought of as "someone who writes about a picturesque local scene like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gone With the Wind, something like that."  Miller Williams says he is proud to be "an Arkansawyer," but he doesn't consider himself an "Arkansas poet."

"I'm a poet of the English language," he says.

The reluctance to be typecast is understandable; and not just from the perspective of the artist who hopes to transcend regionalism and speak to the world. Excepting Faulkner, the academic factories of the Northeast - where high literary taste is manufactured - tend to either ignore or ghetto-ize "Southern" writers in general. It might be a genuinely dangerous thing to identify oneself as an Arkansas writer.

Thankfully, that's not the intention of this forum. At least, I'm pretty sure that is not the intention of this forum. The writers represented here are a diverse group; there is no movement afoot to organize an "Arkansas school" or to enforce any kind of orthodoxy. What these writers and artists have in common is an affiliation with the state and a need to connect with other human beings on a mind-to-mind basis. We write about all kinds of things - there's nothing parochial about this bunch.

I'm impressed by the group the editors have gathered for the first - what is this? - issue of the Arkansas Literary Forum; I look out and see a number of old friends: Jack Butler, Werner Trieschmann, Andrea Budy, Paul Lake and editor Marck Beggs. (Thanks for the gig, Marck.) I see some other folks who I haven't yet met but through their work - Angela Black, Michael Heffernan, Rick Lott, Sandy Rankin, Terry Wright and Michael Karl (Ritchie) in his cowboy clothes.  Hether Burks' photographs are grave and beautiful, like the ruins of an ancient cemetery.

I've been wandering around this site for a few hours now, watching it come together, and I suppose I feel a little of the nervous excitement that a store manager has in the moments before a grand opening. I am anxious to see how people will react, where the crowds will linger, what they will take away. I'm already hungry for the second issue.

 It is one of the many things that makes me proud to be an Arkansan.

 Notice, I said "Arkansan?" Earlier Miller referred to himself as an "Arkansawyer." There is a minority who might even prefer "Arkie." (I don't mind the term myself, it conjures up some pleasant associations. I am reminded of Arky Vaughn, the Hall of Fame shortstop from Clifty. His last two years, Arky was a teammate of Jackie Robinson's.  He died young, at 40. I don't know how.)

I sense I am rambling. This is because I don't know who reads introductions. So I am going to make a self-serving assumption here. I am going to assume that the people who are reading this introduction are people relatively unfamiliar with Arkansas, that they are people who might have been mildly surprised to stumble across this site.

I have already offered the suggestion that for purposes of this forum an Arkansas writer is a writer somehow affiliated with Arkansas. Now, as an Arkansan by choice - I was born elsewhere, hold it against me if you must;  perhaps if I had been born here I would like to be called an Arkansawyer myself - I will try to tell those folks who don't really know this state a little bit about us.

Until Bill Clinton came along, most people probably thought of Arkansas as a land of ignorant hillbillies, the realm of  Lil' Abner and Daisy Mae and Snuffy Smith and Jed Clampett. True, ours is still a frontier state, raw and remote and sometimes less than civilized. True, if any state deserves to be called anti-intellectual, then Arkansas is it. Too many of us think that dogs and guns and commerce are the only proper pursuits for men, that ideas and art are the province of the anemic and the weak. (But that sentiment is not unique to Arkansas, I think I could say the same about almost any place I've ever lived.)

Philip Roth has compared Arkansas to Israel,  a country unto itself, surrounded by the Other. Of course in our case, the Other is the United States of America, the richest and most powerful nation on earth. And while we may not be so backward as we fear, there is a genuine whiff of the Third World about our state.

 Arkansas was what was left over after Missouri and Louisiana were chiseled out of the Louisiana Purchase and after Oklahoma was designated Indian Territory. Poor farmers with large families, little cash and very few slaves settled these unwanted regions;  the - as H.L. Mencken put it - "the miasmatic jungles of Arkansas."

Yet, there is much of Arkansas that is worthy of being called beautiful, and more that is surprising. Our countryside is as pretty as any, up in the hills, rivers boil through spectacular, bluff-lined passes. The changing fall foliage rivals New England's.

We are a place apart - if you've never been here, perhaps you ought to visit sometime.

At the beginning, I started out talking about how some people tend to view The South as a monolithic culture, a romantic, backwards-looking place shot through with legend and tramped by ghosts.  Some of this is perhaps our own fault; I know that I am never more Southern than when I am in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. While I am not a Southerner obsessed with the old grievances (very few of us are really), I have heard my own tongue slow, and my voice creep softward.

Like most Arkansans, I should not be offended if people thought me a Southerner - I would be eager to confess to being unduly influenced by Walker Percy or Hank Williams  or Flannery O'Connor. I would confess to a fondness for acoustic Delta blues and greased-up rockabilly. More than once have I been to Graceland and experienced something more profound than the silly giggles of imagined superiority.

Some people say and it is probably true that Southerners are less polite - more American - than they used to be, though this is probably more of a consequence of rubbing up against the rude than any genuine failing of instinct. Only a fool insists upon being taken advantage of time and time again, sooner or later patience fails. Our society is becoming less civil because there are fewer people who feel constrained by the conventions of manners; and the impulse to mock the Southerner's exquisite and intricate sense of social rights and obligations as "phony," "patronizing," or "archaic"  is strong.

An infectious informality has all but obliterated the need to show respect for people with whom we are not altogether familiar; similarly the addictive habit of confession has become a staple of our popular culture. The Southerner's inherent reluctance to participate in these touchy-feely festivals of revelation draws immediate suspicion - what is he hiding behind that gentle drawl and those old-fashioned table manners?

It is also probably true that Southerners are less well-educated than they might be, but the same must be said for the rest of America as well. While the South is famous for illiteracy, it is also famous for William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. In the South, the people who can read do.

The Southerner is acquainted with what is tragic and what is true and while the South has not always been kind to truth-tellers - Erskine Caldwell was hounded out of Georgia after writing Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre;  W.J. Cash hanged himself in a Mexico City hotel room six months after the publication of his terribly true The Mind of the South - the Southern character has borne up and persisted despite all attempts to rehabilitate it. Part of what makes the South the South is its inability to forget ("Forget Hell!" the novelty plates still read) and its acquaintance with guilt.

Beginning in 1928, a group of writers - including Robert Penn Warren, John Crow Ransom, Allen Tate  and Arkansawyer John Gould Fletcher - held a series of discussions at Nashville's Vanderbilt University that evolved into a seminal collection of essays urging the South not to abandon its "moral, social, and economic autonomy" for the industrial model of the North.

 I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition has been dismissed by some critics as an anti-progressive manifesto, and there's no reason to defend it here - though I will elsewhere if I must. I do, however, want to touch on the undercurrent of spiritual defiance that runs through many of the essays and is typified by the Mississippi novelist Ellen Glasgow, who wrote:  

To defend a civilization would seem to us as impertinent as to defend time. Certainly the South needs defenders as little as it needs apologists... We are, I think, less interested in any social order past or present than we are in that unknown quality which we once called the soul ....

Elsewhere in America it might be possible to believe in our own innocence, in Manifest Destiny or Mickey Mouse; the pragmatic South has always known and understood guilt. Where elsewhere there was plenty, this land knew privation. The South is more real than the rest of the country, it has lived through more.

And I would submit that Arkansas has lived through more than the rest of the South. Though Arkansas was part of the Confederacy, it is really not of the South. In the South, certainly; but not of the South. At the time of the War Between the States, only the cotton plantation country near the Mississippi River was completely settled. Even in the faded towns along the Mississippi, where today great slouching homes overlook public housing tracts, there is little of the sense of cloying ruin that permeates the real South.

There is no real aristocracy here, no great founding families. There were no great robber barons, no great plantation owners.  There are none of William Faulkner's Compsons here, only striving or bitter Snopeses, each scrambling for a place at the table. To be from Arkansas is to be turned away from the big house, to be designated redneck or trash. To be an Arkansan is to be a Snopes.

This is not all bad;  until a few years ago the license plates on our cars announced we were living in the "Land of Opportunity." With no tight traditions, Arkansas has long honored the bright young person with creative ideas. Upward mobility is no myth here. It is said that  anyone who can write a $1,000 check to a charity can become part of Little Rock society, invited to all manner of balls, soirees and fetes.

In this regard, Arkansas has more a  Western than Southern sensibility - family counts for less than ability. Even our billionaires have modest roots - Sam Walton began his career running small-town dime stores; Jack and Witt Stephens built their fortunes from scratch.

Sometimes it seems the most Southern thing about Arkansas is its people's habit of self-deprecation and instinct for shame; a pathology of melancholia and self-loathing that manifests itself as a kind of palpable inferiority complex. Arkansans reflexively assume anything of local origin to be second-rate, we mistrust the most innovative and original among us. Likewise, we often suspect the worst of ourselves; like all hell-fearing beings we continually question our motives and hold fast to guilt.

Because of this insecurity, this inappropriate defensiveness, we fear the harsh judgments of outlanders. Because we are from Arkansas, we have none of the advantages. We are quickly and deeply hurt, even when censure is offered constructively. We see offense where none is intended. To be from Arkansas is to simultaneously seek and scorn the approval of the Other.

Which is kind of what I see this forum being about. Here is good stuff - here is Werner Trieschmann and Jack Butler and Hether Burks (Where did you find her, Marck? She's marvelous.).

If you don't recognize that as excellence, World, you're a damn fool.

I'm proud to be associated with the people who have done this, and I hope people from all over the world find this site, that they come back often, that they like what they find here. But if they don't, it's their loss. Arkansas is chockfull of writers, it's a strange and wonderful place. This is a sampling.

If you like it, come back for seconds.

You're welcome. Visit anytime, door's always open.