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"I should like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas," Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said near the end of his life.

Meaning that, having been jailed and broken, he felt like retreating into ignominious exile in an obscure territory where no one would know his name to either recover or more likely die or vanish. There being no such things as synonyms, "Arkansas" was the appropriate word.

Or maybe it's not; maybe what Wilde meant is that, like Tom and Huck and Thelma and Louise, he longed to light out for the territory, for someplace wild and free and yet unformed by the petty hypocrisies of civilization.

I don't know how we should take the quote. I first encountered it in 1997, as the epigraph to David Leavitt's Arkansas, a book that, aside from the epigraph, had nothing to do with Arkansas but included the novella "The Term Paper Artist," which was about a disgraced gay writer (named "David Leavitt") who retreats to his father's house in southern California after a literary scandal involving an English poet.

(In real life, Leavitt was sued for plagiarism by poet Stephen Spender, who alleged Leavitt appropriated his autobiography for the novel While England Sleeps. Spender won and Leavitt's publisher eventually pulped thousands of copies of Leavitt's novel.)

Though I've seen the quote bandied around quite a bit in the past couple of decades, I can't find a source for it aside from Leavitt's Arkansas, so I'm inclined to regard it as Leavitt's meta-fictional invention. It's something Wilde ought to have said, and might have said, it honors the spirit of the constructed Wilde I carry around in my head; it's useful to think of him imagining Arkansas as some fantastic wilderness fraught with possibility and danger. After all, it's where I have chosen to live.

If someone asks where I live and why, I have an interesting answer. Arkansas has a more Western than Southern sensibility; it finds its identity in the negation of regional stereotypes. It is not Louisiana or Texas or Missouri or Oklahoma or Mississippi. Philip Roth once said it was like Israel in that it both distrusts and seeks the affirmation of the surrounding Otherness. Being from Arkansas can be like being from Tasmania--given the right audience, you might seem exotic.

Yet why we live where we live is not always a question that requires an interesting or complicated answer; a retiring east Texas teacher once told me the county fairs and small-town diners were full of his former students. None of them ever seemed to move away. He didn't have an answer why, except a lot of them were country folk who'd been born there and who'd make a run into Tyler or Lufkin every few weeks. Maybe the wandering gene is recessive.

He knew it was time to retire when he started having the grandkids of his first classes' students in for parent-teacher conferences. They all got so old so early out there in the boonies.

Maybe you're like the guy in the Talking Heads song--"This is not my beautiful wife . . . How did I get here?" I think that way sometimes, maybe when I wake up on a Sunday morning after crossing the shadowlands of some persistent yet unrecallable dream. Before light paints the room, when everything is ghost gray shapes, I sometimes take an inventory.

Sometimes I can't quite believe I live here.

Part of it is an understanding of the role luck plays. Things happen and you do what you think best, or maybe you just don't do what you're afraid of doing. Most of us can be both very brave and completely craven, sometimes in the same moment. It's hard to know what you want, and it's harder for some of us to ask for it even when we know we want it.

The east Texas teacher played the violin and was really good; he'd gone off to North Texas State, and auditioned for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and Wilfred Conwell Bain said he would have liked to take him on if they only had an open position. But they didn't, and he had a teaching certificate.

First he told himself he liked it, then he discovered in it the satisfaction that comes with doing a job well. And so he settled in for 50 years, living within a couple of miles of where his parents were buried. He took a trip to New York once, heard the Philharmonic and saw the Yankees play.

"There are people working in the Peavey factory who can play guitar every bit as good as Jimi Hendrix," Billy Bob Thornton said one time.

I don't know how you can't believe that if you walk around with open eyes and rabbit ears. Just take a stroll through Argenta on one of its Friday evening art walks and, while you're sipping your free box wine, look at what's on the walls. I can't start naming artists because they get nearly as tetchy as writers do when you leave one of them out, but any one of them could hang a picture in the Louvre and not draw fire and pitchforks. Just like any of those kids playing for money at Dickey-Stephens could hang in the major leagues.

There's no scarcity of talent. There's a scarcity of opportunity for the remunerative expression of talent. We need a lot more music teachers than first-chair violins.

I was talking to a neighbor who had something to do with the recent visit to Little Rock by Michael Satterfield, who blogs as "The Gentleman Racer," who said lots of nice things about the city (read it at shorturl.at/AMX49).

As someone who has experience with medium-sized Southern cities, I tend to agree that Little Rock-North Little Rock is more cosmopolitan than uninformed opinion would credit. Factor in affordability and quality of life and Arkansas might start looking really good to you. Places like Bentonville and El Dorado have seized some cultural momentum and though philanthropy primed both those engines, there seem to be enough alert, invested people in the state to support optimism.

There are things to do, such as on Thursday when the Arkansas Film Society's annual Filmland event kicks off. Only boring people need be bored here.

I'm not George Babbitt and this isn't the community calendar. I know I can walk half a mile from my house and be in the Third World. This is the Arkansas, the America, we have made, and must find a way to live with. Our best is as good as anyone's; our worst is just as bad.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 08/20/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Our best and worst

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