Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Arkansas Room

So, this really shd be Part Two of 'What I've Been Reading", albeit a week late (the time between being filled with me-being-on-deadline).

Two of the things I really enjoyed about being in Arkansas this last trip were finally getting a courtesy card from my old college library (where I worked the whole time I was at SAU, as a work-study student) and finding 'The Arkansas Room' at the Magnolia library.* The latter I'd heard described as 'the genealogy room' and so I hadn't paid much attention to it my last two visits, given that I didn't have time to do any family-history research on those trips (wh. wd have started instead w. me trying to get all my scattered notes together anyway). It turns out this is only half its contents, the other half being books by Arkansas writers or on Arkansas topics. Hence I came across an intriguing (self-published?) building-by-building description of a ghost town along the Buffalo River and a nicely-illustrated booklet of Caddo head-pots, both of which I hope to take a closer look at next time. But the two books which interested me most, both of which I only had time to read in part, were FIERCE SOLITUDE: A LIFE OF JOHN GOULD FLETCHER by Ben F. Johnson III [1994] and FAUBUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN PRODIGAL by Roy Reed [?1997].

The John Gould Fletcher book, of which I read the latter half (Chapters IV & V), told me a lot I didn't know about a figure I'd been only vaguely aware of -- I think the book I read on the tarot up at Fayetteville back in my master's degree days might have come from Fletcher's library, now at the Univ. of Arkansas, and there were a number of other vaguely-interesting-looking books in that collection I never got around to looking at, like a copy of AMANDIS OF GAUL.

The first thing I learned is that his name was "John Gould Fletcher" and not 'John Fletcher Gould', as I'd always thought (and also not to be confused with fellow-Agrarian John Crowe Ransom, one of the inventors of New Criticism). The next was that aside from having been one of the Agrarians and a contributor to I'LL TAKE MY STAND [1930], his main claim to fame was from having travelled in the same circles with Pound and Eliot when a young expatriate in London in the 'teens and 'twenties, before returning to Little Rock around 1932/33. I got the sense that, as an extremely minor poet,** he deliberately sought out a small pond in hopes that this wd make him a big fish, only to declined into a regionalist, eventually killing himself in 1950 (ironically, by drowning himself in a small pond).

Johnson does a good job of presenting a rather minor figure's limited claim to fame (mainly through the people he knew, rather than any achievements of his own), working hard to be fair without actually making Fletcher likable in the least -- in fact, his frequent tirades make him come off as distinctly unpleasant. But it was interesting to read about his membership in an ever-shifting movement (first the 'Fugitives', then the 'Agrarians', then the regionalists), which made for a good reminder that members of a literary group (say, the Inklings or the New Critics) all remain quite distinct as individuals, whatever common elements unite them or seem to unite them in retrospect.

The book contained a lot of information, some interesting (such as his urging people to boycott the talkies in 1929, or his admiration for Wm Morris's anti-industrialism) and some appalling (such as Fletcher's extreme racism, his support of lynching,*** his anti-Semetism, &c). One minor episode in Fletcher's life spoke volumes for me, and gave me a sense of a bullet we collectively dodged as a nation. Early on in the Depression, Fletcher and two of his most extreme TAKE MY STAND colleagues, Donald Davidson and Frank Owsley (the latter of whom wrote the most viciously racist essay in the collection), tried to launch what they called the 'Gray-Jackets' movement. Inspired by Mussolini's Brown Shirts and Hitler's Black Shirts, this wd have been a pseudo-Confederate youth movement, whose activities wd have included things like blowing up statues they disapproved of and intimidating Chambers of Commerce who tried to lure Northern factories to Southern towns. Given how volatile things were in the v. early thirties, I think we're all lucky this Tea-Partyism of its day sputtered and died.

(continued in next post)

*actually the Columbia County library, but I always think of it as 'the Magnolia library'.

**based on the poems Johnson quotes, which are unimpressive.

***his sister, by contrast, was a prominent anti-lynching activist who organized a group to fight against lynchings (the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching).


David Bratman said...

I once read a book titled Let Us Build Us a City by Donald Harington, an account of visiting a variety of ghost towns and tiny hamlets in Arkansas whose founders had, in grandiosity or misplaced hope, named each of them something City. With your interest in local history of the state, I'd certainly recommend it.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Thanks for the information about the BUILD US A CITY book, which I'll certainly try to track down. I may even have lived in some of the places he mentions, though I doubt it. For the record, the book I was referring to was about the ex-town of Rush, Arkansas, in the north-central part of the state -- the one area of Arkansas I've never lived in.

--John R.