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C.D. Wright--from The Lost Roads Project

Due to Arkansas's relative isolation from a coast or major metropolis, its dramatically distinct topographies, both mountain and delta, and its cornucopia of natural resources vaunting everything from rice to diamonds, the lore holds that a fence, invisible to strangers, separates Arkansas from the rest of the nation. The state's artists among other bodacious types have routinely ignored this fabled border. Nevertheless, there is a persistent identification--as striking as a blazed tree--which marks the lexicon of its writers, the apertures of its photographers, the tunings of its musicians, the very materials employed by its sculptors. The sum of the arts convene to aestheticize, mythologize, and historicize the Wonder State's cultural independence. My aim is to present not a unified vision, but an original, kindred one which gives particular expression to a particular place. The focus here is literary, though other genres and other media will elaborate the literature I have elected to feature.

My stance is that Arkansas culture, the artful expression of an internally autonomous territory in letters, has been both precisely and uncommonly expressed, and that this record is a cause for assertion. The Lost Roads Project may be a panegyric to our common tome; magnolia-mongering it is not. I arkansas. Others have known, or have had the honor to meet in print, arkansas also. It is neither a hieratic nor a hermetic tongue, but it is almost distinct. The inexorable course of cultural assimilation and the willful course of historical amnesia put the distinction at risk. Because I consider assimilation and amnesia artistic violations, I will try to emblazon the differences expressed here on the bark of the trees yet standing.

The survey that follows is not designed to be definitive. This is my primer, my Arkansas reader. My own reading has been neither systematic nor exhaustive. It has been deliberately limited. I knew to take the main roads, however familiar, but I was also inclined to be led along the state's literary traces, its submerged missions, vacated county seats, unkept graves, and broken levees.

[. . . .]

Prior to the mid-sixteenth century, the terra ingognita named for its original people the Quapaws, or Arkansea, had been trespassed in the vicinity of Sunflower Landing (twenty miles south of Helena). The region, that is to say, had been irrevocably penetrated by white men, horses, hogs et al., and dutifully described by the literati of Hernando de Soto’s party, the first publication from which The True Relation of the Gentleman of Elvas appeared in Portugal in 1557, fifteen years after the fact; fifteen years after the blood-drenclhd, malarial conquistador De Soto died in Louisiana, aged forty-two. The Portuguese soldier's account is more than two hundred pages long and details, in unassuming prose, the discovery, the hardship, the sport, and the cruelties of the De Soto itinerary. The other expedition chronicles are three: a brief official report to the King of Spain, the diary of De Soto's private secretary, and a secondhand, chivalric account by the colonized Peruvian scholar known as The Inca.

A hundred years passed. French expeditions succeeded the Spanish. The Jesuit priest Marquette came down from Quebec with the fur trader and geographer Joliet to the mouth of the Arkansas in search of the Vermilion Sea. They were followed by the ill-fated Sieur de La Salle and his Sicilian second, Henri de Tonti, who would establish, after a fashion, Arkansas Post. Bernard de la Harpe journeyed up the Mississippi from New Orleans in 1722, then upriver on the Arkansas to the stone outcrop he called the "Little Rock." More reports entered the documentary record.

Back at the mouth of the river, the Post clung to its existence, flying, back and forth, French and Spanish colors until the Louisiana Purchase. Arkansas Post became the territorial capital in 1819 but acquiesced to Little Rock in 1821, and in 1855 it lost its diminutive county-seat status when the seat repaired to De Witt. Arkansas Post was not situated to be a center of government. There was never any question of it becoming a literary powder keg. Remained, the bois d'arc trees.

The rightful claimants to the entire, the Quapaws, the paradisiacal Down Stream People, were swiftly reduced by the European bequeathal of smallpox--then further reduced by firearms, by debt, by booze, along with demeaning, soon-to-be-defied treaties, then gone. They may have been thousands as some reported, or only four villages. Then they were none. The missionaries continued to traipse through, penning their experiences and observations. However, the next documents of any literary bent, and the first in English, would not enter the territorial frame until the nineteenth century. Explorations of the Ouachita Valley to the hot springs were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and reported by William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter, but it would be left to the English-born botanist Thomas Nuttall to exact a description of the vaporous locale, Hot Springs.

Excerpted from Wright’s Introduction to The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-in Book of Arkansas. Fayetteville: The U of Arkansas P, 1994. Copyright 1994 by C.D. Wright.

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