Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Storytelling is Ozarks tradition

By R.D. Hohenfeldt

All over the Ozarks, in diners and cafes, in barbershops and feed stores, you can find a storyteller or two.
That storyteller often likes to "tell one on" a friend who's present, or better yet, "pull the leg" of someone new to the group around the table or the shop counter.
Either way, he's carrying on an Ozarks oral tradition that has been documented in the works of folklorist Vance Randolph.
Dr. Larry Vonalt, professor of English at the University of Missouri-Rolla, says the Ozarks storytelling tradition is at the heart of the best current Ozarks literature, which Vonalt says is found in the works of Donald Harington, an Arkansas writer, and Daniel Woodrell, of West Plains.
Just what makes Ozarks literature Ozarkian?
"It's the idea of the storyteller," says Dr. Vonalt. "Both Harington and Woodrell use first person, and they like to pull your leg."
He added, "But I would say they're not making fun of readers. They're wanting readers to be in on the fun."
The Ozarks authors want their readers to be like the listeners in a cafe or barbershop who have "that sense of pleasure in hearing the story told, maybe in being in on the joke."
Books by Harington and Woodrell will be among those studied in Dr. Vonalt's Ozark Literature and Culture class that begins Jan. 10 and will meet from 6-9 p.m. each Monday throughout the semester.
"The class came out of my interest in Donald Harington's work," said Vonalt.
Three of Harington's books, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, The Cockroaches of Stay More and Butterfly Weed, are on the required reading list.
Also on the list are Woodrell's Tomato Red, Randolph's Ozark Magic and Folklore and Milton D. Rafferty's The Ozarks Land and Life.
Harington sets his books in Stay More, Ark., a fictitious town in the real Newton County, the state's least populous county.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozark is a fictional history of the Ingledew family. Two brothers, Jacob and Noah, arrive at what is to become Stay More, and settle there where their neighbors are the area's last two Indians. The novel follows the family and Stay More from the 1830s to 1970.
"It's humorous and incorporates a lot of Ozarks superstitions," Vonalt says.
In The Cockroaches of Stay More, Harington gives voices to the cockroaches, personifying them as old-time Ozarkers exhibiting such typical Ozarks traits as verbal modesty. There are two human characters, a man and a woman, and the cockroaches bring them together.
Butterfly Weed's narrator is Vance Randolph, speaking from the veterans home in Fayetteville where he died.
"Harington has a really great admiration of Randolph," Vonalt said, and the book is Harington's way of assuming Randolph's mantle as chronicler of Ozarks folklore and culture.
Harington really did meet Randolph, so it's another case of Harington mingling facts with fiction.
"He wants you to believe it's all true," Dr. Vonalt says; that's part of the tall-tale telling tradition."I tend to think of Harington's work as very playful."
Is Harington the William Faulkner of Ozarks literature? "He's been called that," Dr. Vonalt says.
But that's not quite fair to Harington. He's no mimic of Faulkner. He's an original voice from the hills.
Another original voice is Woodrell, who writes what he calls "country noirs."
"He deals more with contemporary people of the Ozarks," Dr. Vonalt says, adding that the characters are not necessarily people of high moral standards. Woodrell will include, for instance, the use of crack by Ozarkers. That's what Woodrell means when he says his works are "country noirs."
Also on the reading list is Randolph's book about Ozarks superstitions and Rafferty's general look at the Ozarks culture.
"There are other writers I'm not going to be dealing with, but students will be assigned to read these and make reports. Someone will likely read The Shepherd of the Hills," Dr. Vonalt says.
That book by Harold Bell Wright appeared in print first in 1907. It's probably the first work of fiction set in the Ozarks.
There are some other contemporary novels about the Ozarks that Vonalt will not tackle. He says they're books about the Ozarks, set in the Ozarks, but they're not distinctively Ozarkian and they're not good literature.
He goes back to Harington for that.
"With Harington, you can read it and enjoy it for the story, and for what's going on inside the story. He has a very vivid imagination."
Radio, television and the automobile have changed the Ozarks. There are still remote areas in Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but they're no longer isolated.
"You can live way off in a 'holler' and work in Springfield," Vonalt says.
That mobility and better communication methods mean "the idiosyncrasies we identified as Ozarkian no longer exist," Vonlat says.
Nevertheless, although they may use better grammar, storytellers are still at work entertaining their friends in the Ozarks.

Note: Dr. Larry Vonalt passed away several months after this article was published in The Ozarks Chronicle in January 2005.

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