I've always thought of these Ozarks as a kind of strayed or misplaced outpost of your Appalachians. Indeed, there is a kind of bigeminal kinship between the Appalachians and the Ozarks: we were the mate who left home and went west looking for something better but discovered that the country we found was what reminded us of the mate we left behind. Thus the Ozarks remain a restless Appalachia or an Appalachia with wanderlust.
I'm having mixed feelings about the "too-hip media", because of the Clinton Presidency, now having an orgy of discovery of a state, a region, a way of life that until now have been what my friend, the novelist Jack Butler characterized as "the best kept secret in the nation, the Arkansas Ozarks." It is amusing to watch the media trying so very hard to find any evidence that we are indeed barefoot, unwashed, illiterate, and, as the former pe\resident tried to characterize us, "the lowest of the low."
It has placed me in a difficult position, I who have unashamedly characterized the hillbillies in my works as pretty much exactly what they are (or were, in a no-longer-existing Golden Age) in these parts, with just a touch of caricature. Having written so many novels without caring about the world's image of (or ignorance of) the Ozarks, do I have to start trying to write in expectation of accommodating some consensual New Image of us? The thing is, Arkansas itself is not a unified place that can be characterized, predicted, or pigeonholed.
We are sorely divided between what I call "Arkansans" and "Arkansawyers" -the latter, more honest designation bestowed upon us by our greater writers, such as they were: John Gould Fletcher, Vance Randolph, and myself; the former handle, preferred by the wishy-washy do-gooders with inferiority complexes (including all of our own media). Most Arkansans in the last election voted for Bush or Perot. Bill Clinton is an Arkansawyer. It is not a matter of hillbillies versus flatlanders; in fact, Bill Clinton is very much a flatlander. Arkansawyers are simply stubborn, earthy, shrewd individualists with a zero tolerance for bullshit. Most Arkansawyers are of Appalachian descent and get their character from there. But many Arkansawyers are of African, Italian, And German origin.
There is no essential difference between the Appalachian and the Ozark hillbilly. As far as I am able to detect, both are equally disappeared. Perhaps because the mountains are higher and the hollers deeper in Appalachia, there may be a few authentic hillbillies still remaining in some hidden pockets there. In the Ozarks it would almost be impossible to find a truly unspoiled hillbilly who still knows the Chaucerian, Spencerian language and who still has faith in the oldtime superstitions. The hillbilly is already a creature of myth.
Alas, then, I also am not a hillbilly. I am too educated to be a hillbilly. Like the lawyer who gives up his career to write crime novels or the doctor who gives up practicing in order to write medical novels, I forfeit my hillbilliness in order to write novels about hillbillies. It is some consolation that certain characteristics of hillbillies - fierce independence, shyness coupled with loquacity, a wry if not sardonic sense of humor - remain in my bloodstream, remain in my genes, and permit me never to forget what it is like being a hillbilly, at the same time that the deprive me of complete objectivity about hillbillies. I can't laugh at hillbillies because I am still laughing too hard with them.
I was born in Little Rock in 1935. Until I was 12 and was hospitalized with meningococcal meningitis, during a Little Rock epidemic which killed or blinded a number of other kids, my reading was limited strictly to comic books, and I wouldn't even join the annual summer reading drives of the public library, designed to reward children for reading real books during their vacations. During my hospitalization, all the nurses conducted a massive hunt for comic books I hadn't read, to satisfy my craving. Once I had consumed the several hundred comic books and had nothing further to read, I began reading the "short, short stories" which were included in each issue of the comic books, one to a page, one to an issue. This may have been something only of the 1940's. Anyway, these paltry little stories were my first real exposure to the world of fiction, outside the visual fictions of the comics, and I must have read hundreds of them for want of anything better to do.
My older brother Conrad, who at 18 was a college sophomore and fancied himself already an intellectual, the first in many generations of my family on either the paternal or the maternal side, determined to "improve" my taste in reading and wean me from comic books. So he drew up a post-hospital reading list which included writers I'd never heard of: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Conrad. I wish I still had a copy of his whole list, because that's all I can remember. I was confined in bed at home for another month before I could escape to my beloved Drakes Creek for what remained of the summer, and in both locations I had my first plunge into serious fiction. Drakes Creek was some 16 miles east of Fayetteville, and I recall sitting in the porch swing at my grandmother's house -the same porch swing that "Dawny" would sit in Bug, reading As I Lay Dying at the age of 12.
I wish I could report that the experience of going through my brother's reading list converted me to a quality-fiction addict, but I kept on reading comic books until I discovered the "Pogo" books and became a Walt Kelly fan. Throughout high school and college I did not much serious reading of fiction, mostly things my brother had in his room at Drakes Creek, novels with titles like Rain Before Seven and Raymond Radiquet's Devil in the Flesh. And for a number of years during the Mickey Spillane Craze, I consumed all of that mystery writer's books in paperback. Even when I took required college literature courses at the University of Arkansas, I was resistant to being assigned to reading fiction. Occasionally, when I saw a good movie based on a novel, I would read it. This was the case iwth Dostoyevsky's The Brother's Karamazov. I still have the paperback copy with Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart, and the young William Shatner on the cover, a copy I read in that swing at Drakes Creek when I was a college senior. I seem to recall Drakes Creek as the place where I did most of my "voluntary" (that is, pleasurable) reading of fiction. It was there I also read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without being required to do so. I had also, as I told you, voluntarily read everything by Erskine Caldwell and nearly everything by Faulkner. I grew up on Caldwell more than on Faulkner and read all of those Signet edition paperbacks in their lurid-cover originals.
Soon after the paperback of William Styron's first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, came out, I took it to Drakes Creek to read, probably my first instance of reading contemporary fiction by a young novelist. Consequently, when I was in graduate school at Harvard, I purchased at the Harvard Co-op a copy of Styron's Set This House on Fire as soon as it came out, because I remembered the earlier novel and that was my first purchase of a hardbound novel by a contemporary writer. Maybe ownership of the hardcover made it seem greater than it actually was, but I still believe that the reading of Set This House on Fire was probably the single greatest reading experience I ever had. Thus I had the experience of having already read the book when its reviews appeared, and some of those reviews were so savage they inspired me to do something else I'd never done before -write a letter to the author. I told him that his book was the best thing I'd ever read and that I couldn't understand the bad reviews it was getting.
Styron answered from Italy, grateful that my letter had arrived in the mail with a stack of those reviews and grateful that my words of praise had taken the harsh edge off the severity of the reviews. It was a fairly long letter which I treasured more than anything I'd ever had in the mail. The following year I found myself dropped out of the Harvard Ph.D. program for, among many other reasons, one of my professors saying that my papers were "too breezy and novelistic to be scholarship." I was hired to teach art history at Bennett College, a two-year girls' "finishing school" in Millbrook, New York. The proximity of Millbrook to Roxbury, Connecticut, where Styron lives, was a temptation to me, and I boldly invited him to come over for dinner. It was Christmastime, and he was busy, but he graciously counter-invited me to come over to his place. I leapt at the chance and spent Christmas Eve at Styron's wonderful country house sitting by his fire talking with him for hours. He kept refilling my glass with Jack Daniels Black. I knew from reading the Paris Review that Styron stayed up late, but it was about 5:00 a.m. before I could get away, driving my little VW bug through a snowstorm back home to Millbrook, where my wife at the time was furious and claimed I had ruined her Christmas. Perhaps, but I had started my career as a novelist.
Styron and I started a friendship which is still continuing 34 years later. For a long time, maybe two years, I kept secret from him my own aspirations to be a novelist, which had always been with me. Since my "first" novel at the age of six, The Adventures of Duke Doolittle, I had periodically attempted to write novels and had started perhaps a dozen, never finished. Finally, inspired by an irrational dream of emulating Styron's comfortable lifestyle and literary reputation, I dropped out of teaching at Bennett, retired to a squalid shack in Vermont, and finished a novel called Land's Ramble. Styron, perhaps inspired by the example of Sherwood Anderson who had agreed to help young Faulkner find a publisher on the condition that Anderson didn't have to read his work, arranged for Land's Ramble to go to his Random House editor Robert Loomis. Loomis thought that Land's Ramble was not publishable (it really wasn't), but he wanted to see anything new I was working on, and it just so happened that I had already written the first 100 pages of The Cherry Pit. Loomis wanted to see it practically a chapter at a time, as I was writing it, which was a mistake, because neither he nor I had any idea where it was going. Styron stepped in, offered to read the book himself, made numerous valuable suggestions for it. He then offered me the summer-long use of his guest house, a famous building that had sheltered a number of writers including Philip Roth and James Baldwin, to finish rewriting the novel. That summer in Roxbury was more idyllic than any of my summers in Drakes Creek.
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