When it comes to chronicling the bumpkins of darkest Arkansas, New York Times opinion writer Monica Potts is working in a long tradition. Mark Twain got there first in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His portrait of slack-jawed “Arkansaw lunkheads” watching dog fights in ramshackle riverside towns fixed the region’s image for more than a century.
H.L. Mencken’s influential 1917 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” was even less polite. He depicted the entire South as a “stupendous region of worn-out farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums.” To him, “the Civil War … finished off nearly all the civilized folk in the South and thus left the country to the poor white trash, whose descendants now run it.”
Of course Mencken was also a cynic who defined American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.”
Potts would never permit herself anything so coarse; nor would The New York Times publish such a thing in these enlightened times. A native of Clinton, Arkansas, on the southern edge of the Ozarks, she escaped via Bryn Mawr College, but returned to her hometown to write a book about the lives of poor women there.
She found it a dispiriting experience: “My partner and I knew it would be a challenge: The county [Van Buren] is very remote, very religious and full of Trump voters, and we suspected we’d stand out because of our political beliefs.”
As somebody who recently moved back to the city after 10 years in Perry County, Arkansas — just down the road from Clinton, and also chock-full of Trump voters — I too could have stood out due to my political views. However, nobody who didn’t broadly agree with me ever brought them up. It’s considered rude.
Also, not terribly important.
With religion, all that was ever necessary to put off people proselytizing was, “We’re Catholics.” Unlike most of rural Arkansas, Perry County has a substantial Catholic minority centering upon St. Boniface church in New Dixie — most descended from 19th-century German immigrants.
Otherwise, the two counties are demographically almost identical. One north, and the other southwest of the college town of Conway; both hilly, forested, and covered with cows.
Curiously, though, Potts and I appear to have inhabited very different places. She and her partner seemingly couldn’t get out of Van Buren County fast enough; I continue to miss Perry County every single day.
Partly, I miss my cows and horses. I miss the quiet days, the nightly chorus of frogs and owls; the crows and red-shouldered hawks feuding over the east pasture; the bald eagles overhead.
I miss the night sky.
Potts came home hoping to effect change. I moved to the country hoping everything would stay the same. She might say I lived like a tourist, my children already grown and educated.
Potts, however, made the mistake of involving herself in local politics: specifically, a campaign to raise the county librarian’s salary from $19 to $25 an hour. It failed. This persuaded her that “many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.”
To me, that’s way over the top. True, many cling to the Republican dogma that low taxes are the key to prosperity. It’s never worked, but hope springs eternal. Also, foreigners are viewed with suspicion by rural folk worldwide.
But a retreat from community and helping your neighbor? First, community life in rural Arkansas centers in churches, not county government. (Conway, a 45-minute drive from Clinton, has three colleges and several excellent libraries.) Second, country people routinely do more for their neighbors than city dwellers can easily imagine.
People constantly share vegetables from their garden, and venison during deer season. Diane reciprocated with her famous pear pies.
After my horse Rusty died, my neighbor Paul Bentley showed up unbidden with his backhoe at 8 a.m. and spent the whole morning burying him. Somebody told him about it at the feed store. I was terribly grateful.
Another time, my hay guy drove his tractor five miles in a snowstorm to put out round bales for my animals.
“You might could get your truck down in there,” he said, “but I don’t believe you could get back out.”
Again, I hadn’t asked.
I could tell 20 similar stories. I’ve no idea who either man voted for, nor even if they did. It wasn’t anything we talked about.
Me, I always kept a tow-chain and jumper cables in my truck in case anybody needed help. Otherwise, my only useful skill was that I’m very good with runaway livestock. So I hustled whenever the need arose to make up for my lack of tractor/chainsaw/fence-mending skills.
Of course, if you pretended not to notice people’s animals loose in the road, they wouldn’t think you were much of a neighbor.
Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and columnist for the Arkansas Times. He wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for over a decade and previously worked as an editor at Newsweek andTexas Monthly.