Opinion

Tom Dillard: Nonfiction’s best includes Blevins, Randolph, Dumas, Cone


Last week I reported on an ongoing and informal discussion among Facebook friends responding to my query about their favorite Arkansas writers. Having discussed novelists last Sunday, this week I will address writers of nonfiction.

Fewer writers of nonfiction were nominated, which only makes sense. And expecting academic historians to make up the bulk of the nominees, I was surprised by the number of freelance writers represented.

Retired folklorist Mike Luster nominated Vance Randolph's "The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society" (1931). Randolph was a perceptive observer of the Ozarks, to which he moved in 1919 from his native Kansas.

Though he had two college degrees, Randolph chose to make his living as a writer, with the Ozarks being his primary subject. He also wrote boys' literature, a popular genre at the time, books on Western gunfighters and outlaws, and even entomology ("Life Among the Ants," 1943).

For many years Randolph wrote under multiple pen names for Kansas publisher and socialist Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, turning out dozens of titles for Haldeman-Julius' Little Blue Books series. These were actually long pamphlets, many of them dealing with often-taboo topics such as "The Secret Lore of Witchcraft" (1946).

A near-complete collection of Little Blue Books is available in the University of Arkansas Special Collections. The incredibly large group was rescued in the 1970s from a collapsing warehouse in Kansas by Robert Cochran and Bobby Roberts, who told me he had walked up and down aisles, taking copies of the booklets from hundreds of their original cubbyholes.

Though Randolph published hundreds of important works on Ozark folk ways, he lived in near poverty until old age when his bawdy stories caught the attention of the reading public. "Pissing in the Snow" (1976) was a huge success. After that date his collections found a remarkably large cross-over market: "Roll Me in Your Arms" (subtitled "Unprintable Ozark Folksongs and Folklore") came out in 1992. Other bawdy titles are "Blow the Candle Out" (1992) and "Stiff as a Poker" (1993).

A number of people nominated Ernie Dumas' autobiography, "The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind" (2019). This impressive volume is part autobiography and part ruminations on Arkansas politics since 1954, the year he began writing on Arkansas politics. He spent most of his career at the Arkansas Gazette as a reporter and editorial writer.

Dumas is a delight to read, and this is a book I highly recommend. He is quite an eloquent writer, and brings personal recollections and interpretations to the challenges which bedeviled governors Cherry, Faubus, Rockefeller, Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton, and Tucker as well as U.S. senators Fulbright and McClellan. Dumas still writes for the Arkansas Times magazine.

Another renowned journalist whose books were nominated is Roy Reed, who taught at the University of Arkansas and lived in -- as he proudly proclaimed -- the tiny historic village of Hogeye, south of Fayetteville. Denele Campbell, a productive writer on local history and biography, nominated Reed's "Looking for Hogeye" (1986) rather than his far better known biography of Gov. Orval Faubus.

Black theologian and early proponent of liberation theology James Cone was nominated by two folks for two different titles: "A Theology of Black Liberation" (1970) and "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" (2011). Cone, a native of Fordyce, graduated from Philander Smith College, where he returned to teach before joining Union Theological Seminary in New York. He died in 2018.

Grif Stockley, who published a string of novels during the 1990s, was also nominated in both categories. A longtime public defender, he wrote a series of important books on the history of race relations in Arkansas. His volume on the 1919 Elaine Massacre, "Blood in Their Eyes" (2001), completely overthrew the earlier work on what was for decades labeled as a "race riot," which involved a black "insurrection."

Stockley brought a lawyer's mind to researching and interpreting what might be the most deadly racial confrontation in American history. It is a story of horror that ends with Black lawyer Scipio A. Jones of Little Rock doggedly defending the 12 men unjustly sentenced to death and eventually winning their release by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Academic historians were nominated for a variety of books, including the late C. Vann Woodward, a pioneering Yale University historian whose books played a huge role in rewriting the history of the American South following the Civil War. His "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" (1955) is perhaps his most significant book; Martin Luther King thought so, calling it "the historical Bible of the civil rights movement."

Chuck Pribbernow of Benton County is keen on Brooks Blevins, author of the recently completed "A History of the Ozarks." This widely recognized trilogy is original in its interpretations, breadth and depth, and for its clear, engaging writing style.

Blevins, who holds the Noel Boyd Professorship in Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, is a native of Izard County, where he maintains his permanent residence. He is the author of seven books and many shorter works on Ozarks and Arkansas topics.

Longtime southeast Arkansas history enthusiast Helen Pennington was one of several who reminded us that U.S. Circuit Judge Morris S. Arnold must be included in any list of outstanding Arkansas writers and historians. It's not excessive to say that Judge Arnold created the field of Arkansas colonial history. Pennington mentioned "The Rumble of a Distant Drum" (2000), which deals with the roles played by Quapaw and other Indians in French and Spanish Arkansas. For an overview, I recommend "Colonial Arkansas: 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History" (1991), a survey that is as much fun to read as it is original and definitive.

I can't leave out Ben Johnson, who retired recently as the Ragsdale Professor of Arkansas History at Southern Arkansas University. Ben's biography of poet John Gould Fletcher, "Fierce Solitude," (1994) is an example of what biography can be.

Many more worthy writers were nominated, too many to discuss here. Most of these books are readily available.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].


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