Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Delta, cotton and the Great Migration

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

In an earlier post, I discussed Gene Dattel’s recent visit to Little Rock to talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.”

In that book, Dattel touches on one of the most significant events in the history of the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — the Great Migration of blacks from these cotton-growing regions to the factories of the Upper Midwest and other parts of the country.

There were two phases of the Great Migration.

The first phase occurred from 1910-30 when about 1.6 million blacks left the South.

The more drastic phase was from 1940-70 when the mechanization of agriculture, combined with the evils of segregation, led to almost 5 million blacks abandoning the region.

By 1970, American blacks had gone from being a largely rural population to an overwhelmingly urban population. Almost 80 percent of them lived in cities.

For many Delta counties and parishes, there has been a steady population decline since the 1950 census. In the 1950s and 1960s, those leaving were mostly black. Since widespread school integration began in the 1970s, those leaving have been mostly white.

The one constant has been that the population is getting smaller. Arkansas counties such as Phillips and Mississippi counties now have about half the population they had 60 years ago.

The Great Migration is generally considered to have ended in 1970, but much of the Delta continues to bleed population as whites move out in search of better jobs and schools.

I’ve written before that Arkansas is rapidly becoming two states within a state. One “state within a state” in the central, west and northwest is gaining population and doing relatively well economically. The other “state within a state” in the south and east is losing population and doing poorly economically.

Consider the information provided by the 2010 census: Arkansas had 39 counties that gained population in the previous decade and 36 counties that lost population.

Monroe County in the Delta lost 20.5 percent of its population.

Benton County in the Ozarks gained 44.3 percent in the same decade.

I see nothing to suggest that these demographic changes, which have had such a huge effect on Arkansas as the center of political and economic power shifts, will end anytime soon.

Much of it began with the Great Migration.

“Just as a labor shortage had created the need for slaves and later for free blacks in the cotton fields, so the 20th century migration of blacks was economically induced by a demand for labor,” Dattel writes. “Yet racial overtones persisted. Cotton, disenfranchisement and de jure segregation may have been absent in the North, but repression and de facto segregation were not. The Great Migration would force white America to confront race yet again, but this time in a Northern context. It would introduce black Southerners to the reality of white ‘Northern racism, the business cycle and class relations.'”

Frederick Douglass had posed this rhetorical question in 1865: “What shall we do with the Negro?”

Dattel writes: “White America’s answer was simple and resounding: Keep him in the South to cultivate cotton. … Before the introduction of mechanization to the cotton fields in the 1930s, and its full impact in the 1950s, the Great Migration surrounding World War I represented a real threat to the structure of Southern cotton production. Until the 1930s, the methods and technology of cotton farming were remarkably similar to those of post-Civil War America.”

Dattel notes that the need for cotton laborers in the South meant that “the presence of blacks was tolerated. And while they were needed, Southern state governments and individuals tried to prevent black cotton workers from moving north during the Great Migration. Only when mechanization arrived would white Southerners abandon their interest in black workers.”

In other words, mechanization changed everything.

Much of the nation began to prosper in the years following World War II. Thanks to congressional approval of the GI Bill, thousands of veterans became the first members of their families to attend college.

Following college, those veterans married, bought homes and purchased automobiles. American manufacturing made the switch from producing products for the armed services to meeting consumer demand. The automobile and steel industries flourished.

Men and women who once had worked as sharecroppers on cotton plantations in the Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana Delta now found themselves in steel mills and automobile factories in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Gary and other Northern cities. Some of the best Southern cooking was now found on the south side of Chicago.

To truly comprehend the scope of the Great Migration, drive through the Delta during the Christmas holidays and look at the automobiles in the driveways with license plates from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and even California. The owners of these vehicles have Delta roots, but their grandparents and parents fled the region years before in search of a better life.

Too often, those left behind were the poorest of the poor. Too often, the education their children received was below par and health care was almost nonexistent. It led to a downward economic spiral that continues to this day in many Delta counties and parishes.

Federal, state and local government agencies have spent huge amounts of money in the region. Having spent four years working for the Delta Regional Authority, I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of smart people doing good work in the region. I can also tell you there’s too often a lack of planning and therefore a lack of a clear investment strategy. Funds are spread thinly rather than strategically, serving simply to sustain misery in some of the tiny crossroads communities that have been dying since the end of the sharecropping era.

Pete Johnson, the original federal co-chairman of the DRA, once compared the Delta to a “giant Indian reservation, separate from mainstream society in the region’s larger cities — out of sight, out of mind unless it’s a weekend gambling excursion.”

The decline of manufacturing in Northern cities, family ties and improved race relations have brought some blacks back South. But the 2010 census figures show the speed with which whites have now abandoned a number of Delta counties and parishes.

It comes down to economics. Prior to mechanization, a large landowner might have needed 400 laborers to cultivate his thousands of acres of cotton. By the late 1950s, he was doing the same amount of work with 40 people. Now, it’s just four or five people doing the work.

I suspect that when the 2020 census figures are released, dozens of Delta counties and parishes will be even smaller overall than they were in 2010 while the percentge of black residents will be higher.

“The Delta is truly the quintessential intersection between cotton and race,” Dattel writes. “Cotton dominated the economy; blacks dominated the population. It was in the Mississippi Delta that cotton and culture combined to produce the musical genre of the blues, which has earned the region a reputation as a ‘primary taproot of black culture and history in America.’ It has been referred to as the greatest single subregional contributor to the stream of black migrants to the urban North. As one of the spokesmen for the Delta Chamber of Commerce noted in 1938, more than 40 percent of all cotton produced in America bloomed within 200 miles in any direction of the Mississippi Delta.”

Speculators and railroad developers brought in immigrants to fuel the boom. Chinese and European labor supplemented the existing black labor. Vicksburg grew from 4,591 people in 1860 to 12,443 in 1870.

“Times changed quickly,” Dattel writes. “No longer were cotton farms filled with black sharecroppers and their shacks. Mules and the farm equipment of a bygone era disappeared. Sheds for tractors and mechanical cotton pickers replaced barns and mule stables. The many black churches that dotted the farm landscape were abandoned as blacks moved to Southern towns and cities and to cities in the North. High unemployment resulting from the displacement of unskilled farm laborers remains an enduring feature of the cotton plantation landscape. The coincidence of the advent of technology, the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation has left blacks in the plantation world groping for an economic identity.”

Dattel concludes that in the 80 years from 1861 to 1941, cotton descended from “an indispensable product to a surplus commodity. It was replaced by oil as the eventual strategic resource in the post-World War II global arena. In many ways, cotton had been the oil of the 19th century.”

So you want to understand what’s happening in the Delta today?

Go back and study the cotton economy.

Go back and study the Great Migration.

Then study the 2010 census figures.

You’ll have a much clearer idea how we got to where we are and a much more pragmatic grasp of what the future holds.

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Cotton picking time down South

Friday, October 14th, 2011

It’s cotton picking time in the Delta.

Fields are white with cotton, and gins are operating around the clock.

When it comes to cotton and its legacy, many Americans think of Mississippi and Alabama. The fact is that Arkansas grows more cotton than either of those states.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas ranks fourth among states this year in the amount of cotton acreage. Texas is first (growing five times as much cotton as the next closest state), Georgia is second and North Carolina is third.

With the cotton harvest in full swing, it was an appropriate time for Ruleville, Miss., native Gene Dattel to appear at the Clinton School of Public Service and talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America.”

Dattel spoke Thursday night.

“The story of cotton in America is a dramatic economic tale whose fundamental importance in the nation’s history has been largely ignored,” Dattel wrote in the book’s preface. “Because of its connection with race, cotton is uniquely tainted in American history. … Slave-produced cotton was shockingly important to the destiny of the United States; it almost destroyed the nation.”

Ruleville is in Sunflower County, which is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta’s cotton-growing region. Dattel’s ancestors were part of the influx of Jewish immigrants who moved to the Delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s to serve as peddlers and merchants in what was then a growing region.

Dattel’s family came from Latvia. His grandfather opened Dattel’s Grocery and Market in Sunflower.

“The Delta was opening up,” Gene Dattel said. “It was a frontier area.”

Bottomland hardwoods were being cleared, lumber was being shipped north to Chicago and what was once forest became vast fields of cotton. Levees were built to hold the water out, and railroads were built to haul out the cotton.

The Dattel family moved from Sunflower to Ruleville when Gene Dattel was age 2. His father opened a dry goods store in Ruleville, and many of the customers were black. Saturday was the big day for merchants as sharecroppers and tenant farmers came to town to shop, visit with neighbors and seek entertainment.

Gene Dattel would work in his father’s store from early in the morning until late at night on Saturdays.

“I became quickly aware of how poor people shopped and was privy to their wants and dreams,” he told Memphis writer Helen Watkins Norman. “It’s not difficult to develop sensitivity in that situation. There’s no way to talk about the Delta without talking about race.”

Of the large number of Jews in the Delta in those days, Dattel said: “There were so many Jewish athletes that the high school football coaches would call the rabbi to find out when the high holy days were so they could schedule football games.”

Norman wrote: “Dattel made friends, played sports and, like every other white boy in Mississippi in the 1950s, became an authority on Ole Miss football. But his ethnicity and family background were different from the majority living in the Delta, and he knew it.

“‘No one in our family hunts,’ he laughed. ‘Our family sport was arguing. It was egalitarian, nothing personal. Our Thanksgiving holiday sometimes required reference material.’

“By the time Dattel reached high school, the Delta was in the throes of desegregation, and racial tensions were high.

“‘My little world in Ruleville was confining, and I wanted out,’ he said. Besides, he explained, he had outgrown the public schools in Ruleville and was looking for more academic challenge.”

In the second semester of his junior year, Gene Dattel moved to Memphis to live with relatives Ann and Sidney Dattel and enroll in the Memphis University School.

Sidney Dattel, a former physics professor at the University of Prague, spoke six languages. He had been injured in World War II and was a paraplegic. Each night, he would grill young Gene with various questions.

A classmate at both MUS and Yale was Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx.

Gene Dattel excelled in school and was accepted at Yale. In the fall of 1962, he was the only Mississippi student in the freshman class.

James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi that same fall. After having been barred from entering the university in September, Meredith was admitted on Oct. 1. His enrollment sparked riots in Oxford the day before, requiring enforcement not only from U.S. marshals but eventually from Army troops shipped in from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

The riots left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard. At one point, there were 20,000 U.S. combat infantry, paratroopers, military police and National Guard troops in or near Oxford.

Time called it “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War.”

In his book “An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962,” William Doyle wrote: “The mayhem of the riot was so severe that many reporters fled the scene early in the fighting or couldn’t get there until after the fighting ended. Since the crisis occurred in the days before national TV networks began covering such events live, there were almost no TV images of the battle. There were exceedingly few newsreel or still images, either, since it was a nighttime battle and photographers on the scene were threatened and attacked by rioters. There do not appear to be any newsreel or video images of the daytime rioting in downtown Oxford on the morning of Oct. 1, though a few still photos were made.”

Still, the word of what was happening in north Mississippi dominated the news.

More than 1,000 miles away in Connecticut, Dattel followed those sometimes sketchy news accounts, shocked by what was happening in his native state.

He said he was “put on the defensive because I was from Mississippi.”

Reacting to the events back home, Dattel became immersed in Southern history as a way “to understand where I was from and who I was.”

The famed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, an Arkansas native, was a professor at Yale at the time. Woodward had arrived at Yale the previous year from Johns Hopkins. He would become Dattel’s favorite writer.

Dattel also helped start a speakers’ program at Yale that brought some of the top Southern writers to the campus. One of those who spoke was Hodding Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Delta Democrat-Times at Greenville, Miss.

Norman wrote: “Dattel’s interest in the Mississippi Delta and how it worked economically, socially and racially led to a fascination with what he calls systems. By that, he means economic systems, legal systems, financial systems and value systems — the broad picture. After graduating from Yale with a degree in history, he entered law school at Vanderbilt.”

Dattel wrote a senior thesis on antitrust as it relates to institutional investment. It came back to his interest in systems — in this case the movement of money. He joined Salomon Brothers in 1969 and spent years working his way up through the ranks at the investment firm.

Dattel was a vice president for the company in New York, London and Hong Kong. During the 1980s, he managed Salomon’s Tokyo branch as it grew from five to 250 employees.

Dattel later managed Morgan Stanley’s equity operations in Tokyo, serving as an adviser to U.S. and Japanese financial institutions.

Dattel’s first book, “The Sun That Never Rose,” came out in the early 1990s and accused Japan’s financial institutions of “squandering the wealth of the nation” due to a lack of accountability, a lack of central planning, bureaucratic excess and provincialism.

Dattel later turned his focus back to the Southern United States. Now 67, Dattel had long been fascinated with how cotton shaped the global economy in the 19th century while increasing racial problems in this country.

“Without cotton,” he wrote, “slavery would most probably have been headed for extinction.”

His book covers events from the 1780s until the 1930s when subsidies began making cotton what Dattel calls “a permanent ward of the federal government.”

A European thirst for clothes made of cotton rather than wool made cotton the top U.S. export from 1803 until 1937. Southern cotton farmers needed black labor to grow the massive amounts of cotton demanded by consumers worldwide. And even though many people in the North had opposed slavery, racism remained rampant in Northern states.

“The blatant racial bigotry in the North played a vital role in consigning blacks to a life in the cotton fields by impeding and even curtailing their physical and economic mobility, thus furthering the entrapment of most blacks in the South after the Civil War,” Dattel wrote.

Racial oppression, you see, wasn’t limited to the South.

Dattel spent three years writing “Cotton and Race.” The book was released in 2009. It was a subject Dattel had begun researching as a freshman at Yale.

Ruleville, surrounded this week by fields of white, now has about 3,000 residents. More than 80 percent of them are black. Ruleville was larger when Dattel was growing up there with the population evenly split between black and white.

“I do think what’s going on in the Delta is of interest and value outside the Delta,” he told Norman. “If you want to talk about American history and developmental economics, you don’t need to go any further than the Delta. It had a beginning and an end in terms of economic growth.”

Towns were being born in the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi when Dattel’s ancestors arrived from Latvia. Now, dozens of those communities are almost dead.

When Dattel’s book came out two years ago, he spoke to about 60 people at the Mississippi state archives in Jackson. Sitting quietly in the back of the room, wearing an Ole Miss cap, was James Meredith.

As he spoke, Dattel was looking at the man whose efforts to integrate Ole Miss had sparked in a young Yale freshman the hunger to explain the South’s history and the effect of race and cotton on the region.

“The symmetry was unbelievable,” Dattel later would tell The Associated Press.

In a sense, Gene Dattel had come full circle.

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Curtis Wilkie untangles the tale of Zeus

Monday, December 27th, 2010

I spent much of the weekend reading Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” Time to read has become a rare commodity, so the four-day weekend created by Christmas presented a golden opportunity. I picked the right book.

Wilkie has done a masterful job of chronicling the downfall of one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, Dickie Scruggs.

Wilkie is a Delta boy, born in Greenville and raised by a single mother who taught school. His father was an alcoholic who died when Wilkie was young.

Wilkie was a student at Ole Miss when violence erupted in the fall of 1962 over James Meredith becoming the first black to attend the school, one of the landmark events of the civil rights era. He witnessed history at a young age and decided to be among those writing history’s first draft as journalists.

Wilkie graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and headed back to the Delta to work as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press-Register. Though I continued to call Little Rock home during my four years with the Delta Regional Authority, the DRA headquarters was in Clarksdale and I spent dozens of nights there. I generally would work late, buy a Press-Register from the box in front of the federal building while walking to my car and then take the newspaper with me to read while having dinner at Rest Haven, Abe’s, Ramon’s or the Ranchero.

Many of that Delta city’s residents remember Wilkie’s stint there from 1963-69 as integration and other aspects of the civil rights movement played out across the South.

After receiving a fellowship from the American Political Science Association, Wilkie headed to Washington in 1969 to work on Capitol Hill for Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Rep. John Brademas of Indiana. In 1971, he returned to newspaper work in Wilmington, Del.

Wilkie was hired by the Boston Globe in 1975 and would stay at the newspaper for a quarter of a century. He covered seven presidential campaigns for the newspaper and was the Globe’s White House correspondent from 1977-82. He also served as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief.

The Globe later established a bureau in the Middle East, and Wilkie worked out of Jerusalem from 1984-87. He returned South in 1993 to open a Southern bureau for the newspaper in New Orleans. Wilkie teamed up with the late Jim McDougal to write “Arkansas Mischief: Birth of a National Scandal,” which was released in 1998.

In 2001, Wilkie’s second book was published, “Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South.”

After leaving the newspaper business, Wilkie was a journalism professor at LSU in 2003 and was appointed to an endowed chair in journalism at Ole Miss in 2004. In 2007, he became the first Overby Fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.

As more and more successful Ole Miss graduates came back to Oxford to live, Wilkie found that he often crossed paths with Scruggs, who had relocated his law practice from Pascagoula to Oxford. Wilkie readily admits that he considers Scruggs a friend. But in more than 300 pages of investigative journalism, he turns over all the stones of this tangled affair, which goes to the heart of the Mississippi political, legal and business communities.

Having spent much of my time in Mississippi for four years and knowing many of the book’s characters, I found it fascinating. Yet anyone who loves reading about Southern politics will enjoy this book. Mississippi, you see, is much like Arkansas — a small state where personal connections run deep.

During Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, national reporters would parachute into Arkansas and be amazed at how connected everyone is. A state of fewer than 3 million people and the interpersonal relationships that engenders was something many of them could never fully grasp.

Here’s one example of how Mississippi is also a small state: I was reading a newspaper column about the book. The column was written by Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947 and for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Bill Minor’s son, former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor, is a figure in Wilkie’s book. Paul Minor, now in federal prison, also was one of the state’s most successful lawyers until he was convicted in 2007 along with two Harrison County judges on numerous corruption charges. Paul Minor is serving the longest sentence of the three, 11 years.

We’ll let Bill Minor summarize has Scruggs became one of the richest lawyers in the country: “Scruggs amassed his multimillion-dollar empire by becoming a master at class action lawsuits against big corporate adversaries and assembling a legal team to do practically all the courtroom work while he devised overall strategies aimed at forcing a settlement.

“His first big coup came in the 1980s by representing hundreds of shipyard workers who contracted asbestosis at Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding. Then, in the 1990s, he became nationally recognized as ‘King of Torts’ and subject of a movie. Acting as special counsel for state Attorney General Mike Moore, Scruggs forced previously impenetrable Big Tobacco into a multibillion-dollar settlement on grounds their product had cost states millions in Medicaid health care payments.”

Scruggs later would receive a five-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a ham-handed attempt to bribe a state circuit judge. His son, Zach, also would receive federal prison time and serve his sentence at Forrest City.

It’s a classic tale of greed run amuck. Scruggs had far more money than he would ever need to live comfortably. Wilkie, in fact, laments the fact that so many of that poor state’s best and brightest have entered the legal profession through the years, often choosing to sue and countersue each other rather than becoming entrepreneurs and creating jobs.

With a bright son who is a senior in high school and says he eventually wants to attend law school, it certainly gave me food for thought while reading the book.

It was fitting that Wilkie’s tome was released Oct. 19 at Square Books, that great independent bookstore on the Oxford square just down the street from where Scruggs’ law firm had its offices.

“Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs liked his friends close and his enemies closer,” Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal wrote in a review earlier this year. “His wife, Diane, lived in dread that they would be his undoing. She was right. … Few of the chief actors in this book come out looking very well. They range from aggressively calculating or naively stupid to ruthless power lovers. Its main character, Dickie Scruggs, rises from the world of poor boy from a broken home to the pinnacle of his profession and its riches. But along the way he acquires or befriends associates who help pave his road to ruin.”

She says Mississippi’s “incestuous and close-knit political, legal and social circles, especially the old network of the late Sen. Jim Eastland and the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Nu fraternity, prove to be breeding grounds for his troubles.”

When asked by Brumfield what surprised him the most in researching the book, Wilkie said: “The scope of the story. What I originally thought might be a book about the investigation and a highly charged trial turned into more of a tale of Mississippi politics, how Dick Scruggs became ensnared in a network of influence peddlers, movers and shakers and fixers who have been doing business in this state for decades.”

Brumfield asked about the difficulty of writing about people one knows well. Wilkie answered: “Almost any journalist is going to be confronted with writing unfavorable stories about friends. I’ve had to do it a number of times. Sometimes you may lose friends altogether or bruise friendships. But usually, if the writer is handling the story as accurately and fairly as possible, the relationship survives. In this case, Dick Scruggs and I continue to correspond. I believe he agreed to talk with me — under no conditions — because he felt if a fuller account of the story were told the public would have a better understanding of how he ended up in the mess he did.”

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“The Ghost of Bud Parrott”

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

I met Kane Webb for an early dinner at the Town Pump in Little Rock (one of my favorite, independent, locally owned establishments) Tuesday night.

As I pulled up, I could see Kane staring into the adjacent parking lot of the Dixie Cafe.

What had he spotted?

“That was Charles Portis going in to eat over there,” Kane said. “He’s probably the most celebrated author in the country right now due to the remake of the movie ‘True Grit.’ And here he is going to eat — probably by himself — at the Dixie Cafe.”

What a small, wonderful state this is. Kane and I agreed on that fact long before the chips and cheese dip (true Arkansans must order cheese dip at such establishments) had arrived.

You’re going to dinner and you run into a famous yet unassuming — some would say reclusive — author.

He’s our version of J.D. Salinger or Nelle Harper Lee.

Kane had written in this month’s issue of the constantly improving Arkansas Life magazine: “I’ve touted the literary brilliance of our resident genius so often that folks surely tune me out when they hear the words ‘True’ and ‘Grit.’ Which is either Portis’ best, second-best or third-best novel on my all-time list. It depends on which book of his I’ve read (again) most recently. … For the sake of the American reading public, let’s hope the move rekindles interest in the book, and that in turn rekindles interest in Portis’ other books. He deserves it, yes, but we deserve it.”

We live in a state filled with immensely talented people, almost all of them as equally unassuming as Buddy Portis.

Pretension is just not in our Arkansas DNA.

I was reminded of that yet again last night when I arrived home from dinner and found a package from Dr. Judson Hout of Camden.

Another of the great things about a state of fewer than 3 million people is that we all know each other or at least pretend to. Judson Hout grew up in Newport. My father’s first job out of college was to serve as the high school football coach in Newport.

Dad left coaching in 1951. Dr. Hout still refers to him as Coach Nelson.

I like that.

Judson Hout graduated from Newport High School, went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and then practiced medicine on military bases and in communities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Most people think they have a novel in them.

The difference between Dr. Hout and the vast majority of us is that he actually wrote his novel.

And he found a publisher — Ted Parkhurst of Little Rock.

I began reading “The Ghost of Bud Parrott” last night. It’s outstanding.

Dr. Hout explains his connection to the real Bud Parrott in his foreward: “This novel, this work of fiction, is the result of my affection for the time and place in which I grew up: Northeast Arkansas in the 1940s mostly. I have chosen to use the real name of a man who was my friend and confidant in those days, Bud Parrott.

“I knew Bud Parrott late in his life. He taught me a great deal about being a man in this world. Although he lived with my family for eight years, I learned nothing of his past. There were rumors that he had played Negro League baseball in his youth, rumors he would neither confirm nor deny. He could, however, throw a sharply breaking curve ball, a skill he tried to teach me without success.

“When I decided to write a novel, I chose to make Bud the hero and picture him as I imagined his life might have been. In doing this, I have completed a work that is purely and totally fiction. In all the years Bud was close to me, I felt I never really knew him. His outward jovial, cheerful personality seemed to mask a deeper sadness. As far as any of us knew, he had no relatives.

“In writing of that time and place, I have felt it was important to use the deplorable N-word in places. It is not used to offend the reader but rather to be true to the period and place. I hope the reader will understand and accept that for what it is.”

U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes has called the book “a racial-healing saga for the ages.”

The Rev. Lawrence Braden, a physician and Episcopal priest, said it opens a “window on the social disease that is bigotry.”

Brian Hardwick, the chief executive officer of Regal Energy Corp. in Dallas, said: “Baseball fans and those who love a well-turned coming-of-age story will find themselves absorbed in this tale of life in small towns, farmlands, factories and ballparks from Pennsylvania to Alabama to Arkansas.”

Here’s how the book begins, just to give you a sample of the good writing that follows: “I am haunted by a menagerie of memories of childhood. Pleasant and unpleasant, the days of my youth have been tumbled in a drum of years. Days of excitement, anticipation and discovery are jumbled up with events so frightening I wish they would go away. Some days from those years so long ago often do seem buried in some New Orleans-style vault, away somewhere, yet not quite out of consciousness. Always, they are floating in my subconscious ready to pierce the veil of knowing.

“From the day I walked out of Newport, the county seat that had been my home in Northeast Arkansas, in 1953, I have poked and prodded those ghosts whenever they threatened entry into my daily thoughts. Now the time had come to brave the place again, to travel back into the Delta, to see Newport one last time. To resurrect the ghost of Bud Parrott required a bold attempt to burying the others, once and for all.”

John Minor, one of my father’s favorite football players at Newport High School, found a photograph of the real Bud Parrott that’s used in the book.

“Your father knew him,” Dr. Hout wrote to me. “Bud was a janitor at Newport High School during Coach Nelson’s last year there.”

Dr. Hout has had successful book signings in recent weeks at Newport, Blytheville (Mary Gay Shipley and That Bookstore At Blytheville are Arkansas treasures), Little Rock and Camden.

This first novel deserves wider publicity, however.

Here’s how the dust jacket explains it: “In the tradition of Southern youth portrayed by Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, Judson Hout gives us the voice of Isaac Wood, whose coming of age in the White River bottoms of Northeast Arkansas takes us back to the 1950s, when Elvis was still touring the flats of east Texas and Burma Shave was laying claim to the fenceposts along Highway 66.

“Beginning and ending with a frame story — Isaac Wood as an older adult — the guts of this little Southern novel are laid out like the innards of a White River catfish. Some say ‘purdy’ and some are aghast. In that frame is the life story of young Isaac Wood’s surrogate father. From the wrong side of the tracks comes a quiet man to fill that part, a man who keeps his own council and treats folks right. A man all covered in black skin, Bud Parrott walks out of Jackson County and near-slavery at the age of 16.

“Hopping a freight, Bud heads to Birmingham to seek his fortune. Along the way, Bud is inducted into the rites of the curious fraternity of hobos. Brush-arbor campfires, watering stations for steam locomotives and haunting interiors of boxcars prove the settings for Bud’s induction ceremonies, events for which no crepe paper or soda-pop punch are provided.

“Traveling with hobos and later courting, working in an industrial mill, playing Negro League baseball on the Pittsburgh team with Satchel Paige, standing up to a numbers-running boss and inevitably paying the price for his courage, Bud’s introduction to humanity away from home is as colorful and episodic as Huck Finn’s float on the Mississippi.”

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“God & Football”

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Chad Gibbs must be loving life right now.

You see, he’s an Auburn Tiger fanatic, and his team is 12-0. With a victory Saturday in the SEC title contest at Atlanta, Auburn will be in the national championship game.

Alabama lost to Auburn last Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Cam Newton has been cleared to play by the NCAA.

If you’re Chad Gibbs, it has been quite a week.

And if you love college football, love the South and grew up going to church, you’ll enjoy Gibbs’ book, “God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC.”

Gibbs recently spoke as part of the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service (which I continue to contend is one of the greatest amenities of living in Little Rock; the lectures are all free), and he’s as funny in person as he is when writing.

Here’s how the book starts (just to give you a sample): “Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for people’s hearts and minds.

“Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I’m sorry; that’s an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: Suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville or Baton Rouge — and if you don’t believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor — we’ll call him Corso — were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?

“Well, on Sunday morning he’d probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building, where some sort of ceremony had begun 10 minutes before they arrived. Inside, he’d watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than 25 minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.

“Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.

“On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later in the day. All afternoon they would eat, drink and fellowship with friends, family and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and like-minded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they’re at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.

“After he sees this, I think it’s safe to say Corso will think he’s found the one true religion — and he’ll probably convert on the spot.

“Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, Southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America.”

During the 2009 season, Gibbs attended a home game at each of the 12 SEC schools.

“I was looking for people more screwed up than I was so I could feel better about myself,” he told those in attendance at the Clinton School.

He was raised an Alabama fan but ended up attending college at Auburn. There, his passion for the Tigers exploded.

It was the man they called “The Godfather” in the SWAC — Coach Marino Casem, who was head coach at Alabama State in 1963, Alcorn State from 1964-85 and Southern University from 1987-88 and 1992 — who uttered my favorite description of college football.

“In the East, college football is a cultural exercise,” he said. “On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is a form of cannibalism. But in the South, college football is a religion, and every Saturday is a holy day.”

SEC football attendance will top 6 million people this fall.

Here’s how Gibbs’ book is described at www.amazon.com: “They spent thousands on season tickets, donated millions to athletic departments and for three months a year ordered their entire lives around the schedule of their favorite team. As a Christian, Gibbs knows he cannot serve two masters, but at times his faith is overwhelmed by his fanaticism. He is not alone. Gibbs and his 6 million friends do not live in a spiritually void land where such borderline idol worship would normally be accepted. They live in the American South, where according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 84 percent identify themselves as Christians. This apparent contradiction that Gibbs sees in his own life, and in millions of others, has led him to journey to each of the 12 schools to spend time with rabid Christian fans of various ages and denominations. Through his journey, he learns how others are able to balance their passion for their team with their devotion to God.”

In an interview with www.saturdaydownsouth.com, Gibbs was asked about his favorite place to visit.

“Taking Auburn and my bias out of play, I would have to say Baton Rouge,” he said. “I was there for the night game vs. then-No. 1 Florida, and I was in the student section. Game day at any SEC school is great, but there is just something special about a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.”

Gibbs explained the book this way in his interview with the website: “The book deals with how Christians, specifically me, balance the two passions in their life: God and football. So obviously my Christian faith is a large part of the book. The book also deals with family, specifically how growing up in the South watching and attending games with our parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins is a common bond we share. A friend of mine summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘Football is a great hobby but a terrible God.’ Going forward, I hope I will stop looking to football, or anything else for that matter, to fill the void in my life I believe only Christ can fill. This is the lesson of the book.”

Gibbs has figured out that spiritual books need not be dour. They can be funny.

When the book was released back in August, Gibbs wrote this at www.chadgibbs.com: “It’s leaving behind the small group of people who helped make it and going out into a scary place where people can read it, hate it and write means things on the Internet about it. So yeah, I’m nervous about letting go of my little book.

“I think about all the writers who went before me, folks like Harper Lee and Kate Gosselin, and how they must have felt when their books flew from the nest. How can you know if what you have written is good? I don’t think you can. Not at this point. You are too close. When I read ‘God & Football,’ I don’t think it is good or bad, only familiar. But when you read it, it will be good or bad, and what if it is bad? I can’t change it now. It’s too late. It’s not mine to change anymore. It’s out there, in the scary world.”

Having written a book, I can relate.

For the record, Chad, I liked it. A lot.

“Driving home, I felt a strange kindredness for the University of Arkansas,” he writes near the end of his chapter on Fayetteville. “Fayetteville reminds me a lot of Auburn, and the people were so friendly and welcoming. I’d like to think I’ll go back in future years, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit I probably won’t. That drive is no fun, and I certainly don’t want to travel that far just to see Auburn get its teeth kicked in.”

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Jay Jennings’ “Carry The Rock”

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Following his graduation from Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys in 1976, Jay Jennings decided to walk on for the football team at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“It was pretty illogical,” he tells me over breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had wanted to try playing football at the college level, but I ended up getting accepted at a Southeastern Conference school.”

Had he gone to an Ivy League school, he likely could have played.

But the SEC, the greatest college football conference of them all?

Jennings spent the summer working out with Little Rock Hall graduate Greg Martin, the Vanderbilt kicker. Upon entering college, it didn’t take Jennings long to figure out that he wouldn’t play much at the SEC level.

He vividly remembers the week he spent impersonating the Alabama tailback.

“I wanted to say to those tackling me in practice, ‘The guy you face Saturday is going to be a lot faster than me.’ It was fun to give it a try. But there was no future there for me.”

There was, however, a future as a writer. And Jennings is a fine one. After graduating from Vanderbilt, he earned a graduate degree in English literature from the University of Chicago and taught for a time before moving to New York in 1986 to pursue his writing career. He was later a reporter at Sports Illustrated.

His new book is titled “Carry The Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City.”

Jennings moved back to Little Rock in May 2007 after convincing the then head football coach at Little Rock Central High School, Bernie Cox, to give him total access to the school’s football program. The book weaves the story of that team’s 6-4 campaign in the fall of 2007 into the complex history of race relations in this state and its largest city.

No one could have predicted in the autumn of 2007 that Central High would go 0-10 in football in both 2008 and 2009. Cox announced his retirement from Central High last year and is now an assistant at Arkansas Baptist High School, where he also teaches. He’s a central character in the book, albeit a reluctant one who has never sought to draw attention to himself.

“Bernie Cox has a voice that’s oddly soft for a coach,” Jennings writes. “Background noise of any kind — an air conditioner, an idling bus, a lawn mower, Central’s marching band at practice, even a cell phone’s ringtone — might eclipse it.

“As he started addressing the parents at a preseason meeting in Central’s auditorium, the same one Mary Lewis had christened with her arias 80 years before, the listeners scattered across the orchestra seats leaned forward to hear. His voice may have been soft, but he was delivering his own aria, one that differed in tone from year to year but in some ways was as unchanging as any by Verdi. He hit the same notes in 2007 that he’d been hitting since 1975, his first year as head coach.

“Standing in front of the stage rather than on it, he was sure some of the parents wouldn’t like what they heard from him, but then, some never did. The parents he didn’t care for were the ones who either didn’t participate in their sons’ football lives at all or participated too much. The former group saddened him.”

Eddie Dean wrote a glowing review of Jennings’ book for last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. In summarizing the “Carry The Rock,” Dean writes: “As the Tigers struggle on the field, Little Rock faces its own problems. A school board divided along race lines bickers publicly, while appeals courts grapple with inequities wrought by decades of school redistricting and other failed attempts to emulate Central’s example. As the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine approaches, former Tiger star Ken Richardson, a member of the city board of directors, sums up Little Rock’s racial dilemma: ‘Are we really embracing each other or are we just tolerating each other?’

“By addressing that question, ‘Carry The Rock’ transcends the season-on-the-brink genre. Mr. Jennings recounts painful events from Little Rock’s past, including the 1927 lynching of a black man, whose body was paraded through town and burned in a pyre by a mob that foreshadows the throngs that 30 years later harangued the Little Rock Nine. Mr. Jennings reminds us that the murderers escaped trial and that, for years, the public memory of the lynching survived in the oral histories of local blacks, not in history books.

“As for the current moment, Mr. Jennings uses his home-field advantage to capture moments that an out-of-town writer might miss.”

Indeed, Jay Jennings has a home-field advantage. He comes from a well-known Little Rock family. His father, Walter, is now 89, retired from First Commercial Trust and attending many of the events being held to mark the release of the book. Walter Jennings graduated from Little Rock High School in 1939.

“The fact that Dad was alive when the 1927 events I wrote about occurred makes you realize how present the past is,” Jay Jennings says.

In the acknowledgments section of his book, Jennings writes: “My late uncles, Earp Jennings Jr. and Alston Jennings Sr., managers for the Little Rock High School football teams in 1932 and 1933, respectively, went on to become no less than one of the best chemical engineers and one of the best trial lawyers in the country and are a testament to the enduring quality of public education in Little Rock.”

In the book’s prologue, Jennings includes this quote from James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”: “In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”

Jennings then writes: “The living present soon becomes the past, and you never know when your own small history will become large, which coach’s words will ring in your ears dozens of years later, what personal fight might ascend to the highest court in the land. So the little battles of Little Rock matter. Now, the ordinary politics — the school board races and the local legal actions, the ones that matter most to the people who live here — consume the coummunity.”

Indeed, a full 53 years after the 1957 crisis, those little battles matter.

A review of “Carry The Rock” by Howard Bryant in Sunday’s New York Times wasn’t as positive as The Wall Street Journal review five days earlier had been.

“Jennings writes insightfully about the lack of interaction between white and black players on the Tigers; a theme throughout the football parts of the book is the lack of cohesiveness among these Tigers and the dire on-field consequences,” Bryant writes. “But he does not go further. He does not ask them why this is the case or provide their opinions about the world they live in — one where they listen to the same music and wear the same uniform but where, after many championships and a half-century of ‘progress’ in ostensibly post-racial America, they still do not spend time at each other’s homes.”

As a Little Rock resident, though, I believe the book strikes just the right tone.

In the acknowledgments section, Jennings quotes James Baldwin again: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Jennings is more than a good writer. He is a credit to the craft. And with “Carry The Rock,” he is, above all, honest in his assessment of 21st century Little Rock.

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Visiting Mr. McCormick in Greenville

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I love independent bookstores.

I can get lost in them. I can spend hours upon hours in a good bookstore. Just ask my wife.

When I was a child growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street. Mr. Adams was more than willing to let a young boy roam the aisles of his store and stay as long as he wanted. That bookstore is long gone. It seems a shame that a town with two four-year universities isn’t the home of a great independent bookstore. I wish I had the funds to open one there. Alas, those funds don’t exist.

Mr. Adams’ story was remarkable. As a teenager, he was paralyzed in a high school football game while playing for the Arkadelphia Badgers. The community came together to support him and help him open a business. He paid the community back many times over by providing a quality bookstore for decades.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I wish I could get up to Blytheville more often than I do. The long drive from Little Rock is almost worth it simply to visit Mary Gay Shipley’s northeast Arkansas institution, That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay started the store in 1976. It covers 2,400 square feet and has more than 25,000 books. There are rocking chairs to sit in. Good coffee is always available. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places in Arknasas.

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I was able to visit another favorite bookstore — McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss. — on a regular basis. Business took me back down that way Friday, and I had a chance to drop in at 5 p.m.

Every town should be so lucky. McCormick Book Inn is an oasis.

Residents of southeast Arkansas (at least the ones who like to read) are familiar with this wonderful retreat and its highly opinionated owner, Hugh B. McCormick III. His wit and sense of humor are contagious. And he will tell you what he thinks. For instance, he believes that one of my favorite books, John Barry’s “Rising Tide” (an account of the Great Flood of 1927 with much of the story centered on Greenville), is an “atrocity.”

I love how the McCormick Book Inn website puts it: “Books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

“Intelligent insults.”

What a great term.

The store at 825 S. Main. St. in Greenville was opened in 1965. Mr McCormick describes it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

Southern Living, in turn, described it like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor. ‘You know, Leland is the sticks,’ he tells us with a wry grin as a Leland customer pays for her books. The Mississippi Delta offers the ultimate Southern travel adventure — catfish and tamales, juke joints brimming with blues, colorful small towns and friendly locals who can’t wait to show you a good time.”

As you head east on U.S. 82, turn right on Main Street (away from the levee). McCormick Book Inn will be several blocks down on the right. If you reach the historic cemetery, you’ve gone too far.

In the back of the store is a small museum that Mr. McCormick has put together.

“My particular interest is the turn of the century of Greenville,” he says. “I’m also interested in the 1927 flood. I have a fairly large collection of Greenville photographs of the flood.”

As far as that term “deltalogy,” here’s how Mr. McCormick explains it on the store’s website: “As far as we know, we invented the term. … We needed a catchall word to describe the growing category of nonfiction and fiction books about the Mississippi Delta or by Deltans. Greenville’s own David Cohn wrote in his book ‘God Shakes Creation’ (1935): ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.’ This flat, fertile, alluvial expanse extending 50 miles east from the Mighty Mississippi to the Yazoo River, running from its northern point along the bluffs of Memphis, 150 miles south to the hills of Vicksburg, is the land of the Delta. From ancient mound builders to blues culture, and the rise and fall of the rivers, and from agri-business to casino gaming, the Delta continues to capture the attention and imagination of folks around the world. The Delta is a place; a melting pot of people; a mythology and a reality. And we need a word for it all: deltalogy.”

The store has always been in the McCormick family. Hugh’s father, Hugh B. “Buster” McCormick Jr., retired from Chicago Mill and financed the store for his daughter, Mary, who had worked for a publisher in New York after graduating from college. The younger Hugh had to cut the weeds behind the old house before the store opened.

“I was in college, and that was my summer job that year,” he said in a 2005 magazine feature on the store. “The property goes all the way back to the cemetery, and I found all kind of stuff that had been dumped back there.”

“Buster” McCormick had the front of the house removed and replaced with windows. A local carpenter built the shelves and other interior fixtures. The two back rooms were added later. Young Hugh took over the store after graduating from college. He has now been running the place for almost 40 years.

“When it first opened, we were in the center of things between the residential and commercial areas, but now we’re sort of on the outskirts,” the current owner told the Mississippi Business Journal. “The commercial areas are all farther south now and we’re an island, sort of an oddity.”

The former house that’s now occupied by the store was built of cypress in the 1920s. Mr. McCormick told the business publication, “The old house reflects character, and I attempt to be a character. Folks from the big city find us charming. Yes, we’ve reached the stage of charming. We enjoy promoting Greenville as best we can. The literary history is positive and all the history of the area is rich. Greenville has produced a lot of writers, and people want to buy something associated with them.”

Long live McCormick Book Inn.

Long live other such independent bookstores.

What’s your favorite bookstore and why? Let’s start a list.

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“Season of the Gar”

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The University of Arkansas Press released a book earlier this year titled “Season of the Gar.”

I had written in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column last summer about my fascination with alligator gar. That fascination dates back to long summer days spent at my grandparents’ home in Des Arc on the White River. I enjoyed walking a block from their house on Erwin Street to the fish market on Main Street to watch the commercial fishermen bring in the day’s catch.

When I was a boy, commercial fishing seemed like an exciting, exotic occupation. I didn’t comprehend just how hard these men worked for very little money.

While hanging out in the fish market, I would become almost mesmerized by the black-and-white photos on the wall of the alligator gar that had been pulled out of the White River through the years.

“Season of the Gar” was written by Mark Spitzer, who teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and is the managing editor of the Exquisite Corpse Annual, one of two award-winning literary publications (the other being the Oxford American) housed on the UCA campus.

“They are a true mystery fish, whose histories have been confused by sloppy scholarship, unchecked science, prejudicial journalism and generations of fishermen who think they know the facts,” Spitzer writes in his preface to the book. “Another message in this book is that gar aren’t as destructive to other fish as they’ve been made out to be, and that they serve a valuable function in providing ecological balance. Plus, contrary to popular belief, gar do not destroy gamefish populations or eat their own weight (or twice their own weight) in other fish per day. As studies have shown, gar cut down on populations of carp, shad, drum, buffalo and other fish that can be destructive to nesting habitats, therefore leaving the smaller members of the minnow family for bass, pike, catfish, trout, crappie, etc.”

The book contains some wonderful old photographs. The first is of a White River gar that weighed 230 pounds and was 7 feet, 8 inches in length. The photo by Johnnie Gray appeared on postcards in the late 1950s, and it began Spitzer’s own lifelong fascination with the fish.

“It was those pictures in fish books I saw as a kid,” he writes. “Particularly that one of two guys in Arkansas, posing beside a ferocious, steely alligator gar longer than themselves. According to Maynard Reece’s “Fish and Fishing” (1963), their hook was rigged to a piano string; but according to my imagination, what they used for bait was a whole chicken. So that’s why I wanted to get a gar.”

Other vintage alligator gar photos include one taken in Little Rock in 1928 and one taken on Moon Lake in Mississippi (just across the river from Helena) in 1910. It’s pointed out in the caption to the 1910 photo that some experts challenge the legitimacy of the 10-foot Moon Lake gar because the stomach seems more slack than usual and the fins and tail are unnaturally flared.

At any rate, the photo made me anxious to do something I’ve long enjoyed on my trips to the Delta — make an afternoon drive along Moon Lake followed by one of those superb seafood dinners at Uncle Henry’s Place in the old Moon Lake Club (a place Tennessee Williams included in some of his work).

Spitzer addresses the rod-and-reel style of fishing for alligator gar that was popular in Arkansas in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Back then, various publications touted the state as a gator gar mecca, where anglers from around the world could use deep-sea tackle to catch furious, leaping goliath-fish weighing well over 100 pounds,” he writes. “Such publicity was effective, especially on the lower White, Cache, Mississippi, Arkansas, Red, L’Anguille, Ouachita and St. Francis rivers, where word-of-mouth as well as newspaper and magazine articles brought steady business to local guides.

“Most of these alligator gar were caught on piano wires and finished off with bullets, shotgun slugs and arrows through the skull. The big ones were plentiful for a while, and landing seven-footers was much more common than it is today.”

I’m also fascinated by several other fish that can be found in Arkansas waters.

I had mentioned in an earlier post paddlefish (often called spoonbill catfish by Arkansans), and how the eggs of this fish are harvested for freshwater caviar. I can remember taking a photographer into George’s Fish Market at Marvell one day to watch the eggs being removed from paddlefish.

“Get yourself a plastic spoon and have some,” one man said.

I thus sampled the freshwater caviar from a huge spoonbill that had been swimming in an Arkansas river only hours before. It was wonderful.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s guide to Arkansas fish, paddlefish belong to the Polyodontidae family. Amazingly, the other other living member of this family is the Chinese sturgeon of the Yangtze River in eastern Asia.

Yet another native Arkansas fish that fascinates me is the chain pickerel. That’s because chain pickerel would scare me to death when they would hit our topwater lures on a tupelo-gum slough in the Ouachita River bottoms where my father and I often fished. That slough also held a sizable alligator population.

My father would always return the pickerel (which he called “pike”) to the slough. According to him, they weren’t good to eat. The bass and crappie we caught were for the table. But those pickerel sure were fun to catch.

According the Game and Fish Commission guide, “Only one other pike, the grass pickerel, is native to Arkansas. Muskellunge and northern pike (and tiger muskies, a hybrid of the two), have been introduced.”

A visit yesterday to the remote White County community of Georgetown on the White River (there’s one way in and one way out as Arkansas Highway 36 comes to an end there) had me thinking about Arkansas fish such as alligator gar, paddlefish and chain pickerel. Just the drive to Georgetown was like a step back in time.

At the boat ramp on the White River, there were a number of trucks and trailers. People were out there fishing on a perfect spring day. I wished I could join them.

What a wild, wonderful state we call home.

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“Arkansas/Arkansaw”

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

In his wonderful new book “Arkansas/Arkansaw,” Brooks Blevins quotes from one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits.

It was one of the series of skits the program aired in 1992 to lampoon the presidential debates between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

Kevin Nealon played the role of debate moderator Sam Donaldson of ABC News.

And here’s what the moderator had to say: “Gov. Clinton, let’s be frank. You’re running for president, yet the main streets of your capital city, Little Rock, are something out of ‘Lil’ Abner,’ with buxom underage girls in cut-off denims prancing around in front of Jethro and Billy Bob while corncob-pipe-smoking, shotgun-toting grannies fire indiscriminately at runaway hogs.”

Next, the Perot character played by the talented Dana Carvey calls the Clinton character “cracker boy” and adds this: “Why are we talking about Arkansas? Hell, everybody knows all they got down there is a bunch of ignorant, inbred crackers, peckerwoods, catch me? Now, can we talk about the deficit? While we have been here jabbering, the deficit has increased by half a million dollars. That’s enough to buy a still and a new outhouse for every family in Little Rock.”

I thought the skit was funny at the time. I still think it’s funny.

It didn’t bother me as I sat watching in my den in Little Rock. I’ve tried my best through the years to escape our inherent Arkansas inferiority complex. During the four years I lived in Washington, D.C. (prior to Clinton becoming president), I learned an important lesson.

We spend far too much time as Arkansans worrying about what others think about us. We’re afraid people are looking down on us. Here’s what I learned: They aren’t looking down on us. They aren’t looking up at us, either. They just aren’t looking at us at all. We’re a state that rarely registers on the national consciousness.

And that’s just fine with me.

Blevins, who once worked at Lyon College in Batesville, is now the endowed associate professor of Ozark studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. He has done the best job yet examining the image of Arkansas and our aforementioned inferiority complex.

In the introduction to the book, published by the University of Arkansas Press, he writes: “Time and time again the Arkansawyer has been portrayed as a backwoods buffoon or a rugged individualist or some combination thereof. … In an overly simplistic yet useful dichotomy, these perspectives might be described as romantic versus progressive, with the former often cherishing the very Arkansaw characteristics condemned by the latter.

“It is my contention that the portrayals of the Arkansawyer, romantic or fantastic they may be, have been positive ones as often as not. For many a romantic or radical observer, as we shall see, Arkansaw has provided an antithesis to a variety of American illusions: the idea of American exceptionalism, the blind faith in ‘progress,’ America’s starring role in some cosmic, providential plan. In this rendering of the Arkansaw image, the Arkansawyer becomes a nonconformist who consciously or unconsciously rejects the tenets of an American narrative found in the Puritan-through-Progressive continuum.”

Blevins uses the spelling “Arkansaw” when referring to the state’s image and “when invoking the mythical place conjured by the various stereotypes and caricatures. This is not to suggest that Arkansaw represents some bizarro-world mirror image, an antithesis to the real Arkansas, but that Arkansaw stands for the complex mixture of fact, legend and stereotype that is summoned from the depths of the American consciousness at the mention of the word Arkansas.”

I remember vividly when the national media picked up on the fact that Gov. Mike Huckabee and his family would be moving into what the industry likes to call a manufactured home (still known by most Arkansans as a mobile home or a house trailer) while the Governor’s Mansion was being renovated.

It was the summer of 2000, and we were at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. I was Huckabee’s communications director at the time and was suddenly inundated by media calls.

For the following week, we booked appearances on all three of the major network morning shows along with a taped interview by Jay Leno for NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

The move into the mobile home was an effort to save the taxpayers money. It might also have been a way for the governor to thumb his nose at some snooty Little Rock residents.

I still smile at the thought of the liberal doyennes (including some in the Governor’s Mansion neighborhood who had put huge “Bill Bristow For Governor” signs in their yards two years earlier) who got their panties in a wad over this supposed blow to our state’s image. Not to be sexist. There were plenty of males expressing their righteous indignation. You don’t think it had anything to do with Huckabee being a Republican, do you? Surely not.

They had always considered the Huckabees to be redneck interlopers from Hope who wouldn’t drink with them at CCLR, didn’t eat with them at whatever was the “in” restaurant that year and didn’t attend an Episcopal  or some other church that “proper people” attended.

Goodness folks, our state’s national image had been pretty well determined prior to this.

At any rate, here’s what the governor told Leno: “One of the things we want to do is to show that people in Arkansas aren’t all that sensitive about people making light of us. We know who we are.”

At a news conference later in the week, he said: “Let the people laugh. I think the difference between an Arkansan and some uptight, wound-up Northerner is that … we’re laughing with you because we like the way we live.”

Blevins writes: “Huckabee knew full well that there were a good many Arkansans who took exception to their state’s reoccurring role as the butt of national jokes and that more than a few resented his decision to knowingly invite derision with his triplewide plan. Finally, Huckabee’s ultimate decision to subject his state to stereotyping and mirth-making in order to save taxpayers a few dollars reflected the old spirit of nonconformity that had inspired admiration for the natural Arkie.”

No, I don’t worry too much these days about what some fellow in Iowa, New Jersey or Idaho thinks of Arkansas. It used to bother me more. Now, I rather spend my time enjoying all this state has to offer.

What about you?

How concerned are you about the “Arkansas image?”

What do you think accounts for our collective inferiority complex?

I would love to know what you think.

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