Heard the one about how Arkansas is a national laughingstock?
To Ozarks historian Brooks Blevins, finding out how his home state became an easy punchline is no joke.
Blevins’ new book, “Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State” addresses how the birthplace of Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou and Johnny Cash is better known for its trailer park residents with dubious dental care.
“It’s kind of like a kid getting a nickname when they’re little,” Blevins said. “... In some ways, that’s kind of what Arkansas’ experience was in those earliest days that got labeled as a backwoodsy place, and we admittedly have never done a whole lot to really throw that label off. But it’s a label that’s stuck with us for the better part of 200 years.”
Blevins, an associate professor of Ozark Studies at Missouri State University, began work on the book after he was asked to help with an upcoming Old Statehouse Museum exhibit on Arkansas’ hillbilly image. He’d previously written a book, “Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image.”
Arkansas has eased along its less-than-cosmopolitan stereotype. Towns like Greasy Corner, Booger Hollow, Possum Grape and Toad Suck dot the map, while a girls’ high school sports team in Fort Smith competes as the Confederettes. Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee once lived in a triple-wide trailer while his governor’s mansion was undergoing renovations, and a state law mixup briefly did away with a minimum age for marriage.
But centuries ago, Arkansas really was in the backwoods. Travel across the state was cut off from the west by the Indian Territory and by mountains in the north and swamps in the east. It was difficult for people — and civilization and progress — to make it to Arkansas.
“The fact that Arkansas was off the beaten path — it has never been a prime destination or even on the way to any prime destination — likely contributed to its role as national pariah,” Blevins writes. “Very few people ever visited Arkansas, rendering it the perfect blank slate on which to sketch a variety of fanciful tales and caricatures.”
Also contributing to the hillbilly stereotype: much of Arkansas has been — and continues to be — dirt poor. According to U.S. Census statistics, only Mississippi has a higher percentage of people below the poverty line.
“It’s not that Arkansas is any different from any other Southern state, it’s just that most hillbilly imagery ... tends to be tied to poor people,” Blevins said.
The election of Arkansas’ most famous native son to the White House also put the Natural State into the spotlight. In his book, Blevins recounts a Saturday Night Live sketch in which comedian Dana Carvey, impersonating Ross Perot, notes that a half-million dollars is “enough to buy a still and a new outhouse for every family in Little Rock.”
Despite the less-than-flattering parody, the former president did make his home state look good, Blevins said.
“One of the things that the Clinton presidency also did was reinforce the notion that Arkansas wasn’t just a hillbilly state,” Blevins said. “We had a Rhodes scholar, Yale-educated governor who went on to become a two-term president of the United States. Certainly he was no hillbilly, no backwoods buffoon, despite what some of the pundits said.”