OPINION | Tom Dillard: UA Press vital in recording history of Arkansas

This is my 1,000th column published since August 2002. I had planned on retiring when I reached 1,000 columns, but I have decided to delay my departure until the end of the year. This column has monopolized my life for more than two decades, but it has been the opportunity of a lifetime for a guy who believes in the importance of state and local history and wants to share it with fellow Arkansans.

I'll have more to say later on that topic, but for right now I want to celebrate reaching my long-sought goal of 1,000 weekly manuscripts.

While thinking about possible topics for this special column, I received a print copy of the most recent catalog for the University of Arkansas Press. That reminded me that no institution has been more important than the UA Press in helping create and sustain a renaissance in Arkansas studies over the past few decades.

Indeed, the creation of the UA Press in 1980 began the process of redeeming our heritage by seeking out and publishing good quality studies on Arkansas -- and, importantly, its roles in regional and national affairs.

At this point in the story, we should all take time to honor the two distinguished UA professors who in 1980 convinced university officials to create a press: the late Willard B. Gatewood Jr. and Miller Williams. Gatewood held the first endowed chair in the history department, and Williams was a writing professor, translator and poet of growing reputation who is best known today for reading his poem "Of History and Hope" at the 1997 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

The first catalog of the new press included two significant books, one edited by Gatewood, "Governors of Arkansas, Essays in Political Biography," and the other being "Land of Dreamy Dreams," the debut novel of Ellen Gilchrist, who would later join the UA writing faculty and whose books won numerous awards.

As a nonprofit, the UA Press can keep its books in print for years, so it is still possible to purchase many titles from its large backlist. Today I am drawing upon a wide array of titles to recommend a few of the best for Christmas and other holiday gifts.

It is impossible to identify a single most important book from the press, but one of my nominees is the full-color "Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical, and Fine Arts Produced in Arkansas through 1950." This is more than a recommendation -- more like a warning: If you do not buy this two-volume set, you will spend the remainder of your lives without a full appreciation for the skills and artistry of our Arkansas ancestors. These volumes bring balance to our published history, helping refute the traditional stereotypes of the state. More on stereotypes later.

"Arkansas Made" is the result of two careers spent researching and documenting what is often called the material culture of Arkansas -- everything from pottery to firearms to quilts: Bill Worthen, director of Historic Arkansas Museum, and Swannee Bennett, museum chief curator.

Jennifer Carman, a Little Rock art appraiser and project adviser, played a major role in documenting the second volume, coming up with more than 1,100 "professional artists or cottage artists." Priced at $39.95 for each volume, these full-color masterfully printed books are a huge bargain. Each has an entry written by Mark Christ in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Federal Judge Morris S. Arnold has published a number of fine books at the UA Press; two of my favorites are a colonial history of the state, "Colonial Arkansas, 1686-1804" (UA Press, 1991), and his 2007 volume on the role the Quapaw Indians played in French Arkansas, "Rumble of a Distant Drum: The Quapaws and Old World Newcomers, 1673-1804."

Judge Arnold, who reads both 17th century French and Spanish, was able over years of study to find scores of never-consulted documents in both the French and Spanish national archives relating to Arkansas. Arnold's "Colonial Arkansas" is filled with fascinating and unexpected details, such as the priest at Arkansas Post in 1727 discovering that omelets made from turtle eggs were quite good.

I can't imagine anyone who has done more than Brooks Blevins to explain our state and the Ozarks region in particular, and to rescue our history from stereotypes. His book "Arkansaw/Arkansas" (UA Press, 2009) has a revealing subtitle: "How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol' Boys Defined a State."

Blevins, the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, is an Arkansas native and maintains a residence here. His work is neither pedantic nor heavy. The latest UA Press catalog announces the impending publication of Blevins' new book, "Up South in the Ozarks: Dispatches from the Margins."

While they might not be the first books you think of for Christmas gifts, I urge you to consider two books by Kenneth Barnes, emeritus professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. One deals with the history of anti-Catholicism in Arkansas and the other with the KKK in 1920s Arkansas.

"The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State" (UA Press, 2021) and "Anti-Catholicism in Arkansas: How Politicians, the Press, the Klan, and Religious Leaders Imagined an Enemy, 1910-1960" (UA Press, 2016) are both well worth reading in the Trump era.

Professor Barnes' work was influenced by anti-Catholic prejudice in his immediate family when his brother married a Catholic woman. Perhaps even more disturbing was Barnes' discovery that his grandfather had been a member of the Klan. The upside of the Barnes books, if there is one, is the realization that Arkansans have survived some frightening times of deep division in the past.

I am honored to report that the University of Arkansas Press has established a special discount in honor of my impending retirement. If you order any of the books mentioned in this column, you can receive a 35% discount by including the code FAREWELLTOM with your order. The Press website is www.uapress.com. The phone number is (800) 621-2736.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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