I recently asked subscribers to an online Arkansas history discussion group to submit their favorite quotes about the state. The responses are as interesting as they are varied.
The discussion began slowly, then filled with quotes about Arkansas, its people and their culture. The discussion ventured sharply into folk sayings at one point, but quickly recovered.
The hardworking and prolific historian Mark Christ with the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock got us off to a good start by quoting Thomas Bangs Thorpe, the author of the 1841 classic The Big Bear of Arkansas.
When asked where an especially exaggerated hunting tale happened, Thorpe's character exploded in response: "Happen! Happened in Arkansaw: where else could it have happened, but in the creation state, the finishing-up country, a State where the sile runs down to the centre of the 'arth, and the government gives you a title to every inch of it. Then, its airs--just breathe them, and they will make you snort like a horse. It's a State without a fault, it is."
"Excepting mosquitoes," cried a skeptical Hoosier.
The popularity of this story caused some literary historians to refer to the "Big Bear school of humorists."
It was about this point in the discussion when someone took our conversation into a very different direction by quoting Oscar Wilde, who is reputed to have responded to an especially painful prosecution by exclaiming, "I should like to flee like a wounded hart [a male red deer] into Arkansas."
Oscar Wilde packed a lot of living into 46 years, including producing volumes of poetry, but he is especially known for his string of popular plays, most notably The Importance of Being Earnest. His best remembered novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
Wilde's literary achievements are eclipsed by his flamboyant personality, his languid poses, and especially his outrageous clothing--and by his conviction in the British courts for homosexual activity.
I have always wondered why Arkansas would be on his mind rather than, say, Texas or Canada. But, as my friend and former colleague Ethel Simpson of Fayetteville reminded the group, Wilde had visited Memphis, Tenn., in 1882 when he went on a lecture tour throughout America and Canada.
He certainly would have heard plenty about Arkansas--a poor place, commonly believed to be dangerous, where everyone carried a knife known as the Arkansas Toothpick, where gamblers and prostitutes plied their trades in towns up and down the Arkansas and White rivers, where both children and adults were often unshod, and hordes of mosquitoes left new arrivals suffering from the bone-shattering chills and high fevers symptomatic of malaria.
Wilde's lecture topic was usually the decorative arts, reflecting his role as a leading advocate of the Aesthetic movement, an attempt to justify what became known as "art for art's sake."
According to a Memphis newspaper, Wilde spoke before "a cultivated audience of 600 people." The newspaper mentioned but chose not to address Wilde's "costume and attitude," noting that the topic has been the subject of widespread gossip and "call for no new explanation." Later that week, Wilde filled up an auditorium in Vicksburg, Miss. But he avoided Arkansas.
One museum curator, responding offline, suggested a whole page of interesting quotes by or about early Arkansans. One of her favorites was by 17-year-old Jane Eliza Mills, commenting on why she would never marry William E. Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper: "I would not marry William E. Woodruff if the hair on his head was gold and strung with pearls." She soon changed her mind, and married Woodruff on Nov. 14, 1827. Their marriage produced 11 children.
Said curator also brought my attention to a line in explorer Thomas Nuttall's journal about a stop near modern Russellville where he removed more than 50 Lone Star ticks from his body and clothing. Ticks, Nuttall wrote, "are here more abundant and troublesome than in any other part of America."
Reconstruction was a time for quotations. One of the most quotable black leaders in postbellum Arkansas was William H. Grey of Helena.
Born free, Grey moved to Arkansas immediately after the Civil War. He served in numerous political offices and was known for his oratory. He was the first black man to speak before a national political convention, addressing the 1872 Republican national convention.
As a delegate to the 1868 state constitutional convention in Little Rock, Grey gave a talk titled Justice Should Recognize No Color: "Give us the right of suffrage; establish a school system that will give us opportunities to educate our children; leave the door ajar that leads to peace and power ..."
A surprising number of quotes were attributed to former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Janine Parry, the highly acclaimed professor of political science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, reported that "my students--liberals and conservatives--roar with laughter over Mike Huckabee's 2017 Twitter quip about that poor soul who rammed his car into Rapert's 10 Commandments monument: 'Some idiot in my home state broke all 10 commandments at the same time.'"
It was not surprising when several people commented online about Gov. Orval Faubus' famous line: "Just because I said it doesn't make it so."
People who knew the late Professor Bob Meriweather of Hendrix College, a respected government professor, was quoted as starting a new semester by saying: "Welcome to Arkansas--a place where they've made self-deprecation into an art form."
Two friends from Malvern submitted a quote from 1878 in which Elizabeth Fowler of Prairie Township in Hot Spring County had a claim before the Southern Claims Commission, noting that she had been a loyal Unionist throughout the Civil War.
One witness swore: "In 1864 [during the War] she said that she would like to have the Union as it was, and was afraid we would never have such times as we use[d] to have again."
Perhaps my all-time favorite quote was published just over a century ago when the people of Arkansas celebrated the end of World War I. Here is how the Gazette described the celebration: "There was no past experience to compare it with. It had all the joy of all the Christmases that have ever been, all the fire and patriotism of all the Fourths of July, the color and noise of 47,000 circus days and the confetti-covered camaraderie of a million street carnivals, the whole lot jumbled up into one tremendous occasion."
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 10/06/2019