Brooks Blevins, author of A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers, answers questions on his scholarly influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways in his book.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
Well, you can’t have a trilogy without a volume three. As for my decision to write the trilogy . . . I’ve been researching and writing about my native Ozarks region for thirty years, so I suppose A History of the Ozarks is something of a culmination of all that work. I almost certainly wouldn’t have considered writing such an in-depth and sweeping regional history, however, had I not started teaching regular classes on the Ozarks when I came to Missouri State University in 2008. After a few years it became clear that the region needed a comprehensive history. But I never envisioned a three-volume work when I started writing six years ago. Fortunately, the last twenty years – and especially the past decade – has produced some great scholarship on the Ozarks, so I didn’t have to undertake this task solely through primary sources.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
Like most historians and writers, I could pen an entire essay on this one question. My primary influence is my mentor J. Wayne Flynt, who has always insisted on producing the most thorough scholarship in a very readable form. My constant striving to reach an audience made up of both my professional peers and general readers comes directly from him. But there are plenty of others who have influenced my research and writing over the years: former professors like Elizabeth Jacoway, David Edwin Harrell, and W. David Lewis, my regional history mentor Lynn Morrow, and scholars of Appalachia like Henry D. Shapiro, David E. Whisnant, John Inscoe, Gordon McKinney, John Alexander Williams, and Ronald D. Eller. Though they’re out of fashion these days for a variety of reasons, I still draw inspiration from the styles of a lot of older narrative histories of the U.S., like the books of Daniel J. Boorstin.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I’m not sure why this happens on almost every book, but I always seem to stumble across a little seed toward the end of writing each one – and that seed usually grows into something later. It happened again on this one, but I’m currently turning that interesting discovery into an article, so I’m keeping mum for now. As for the material that actually appears in this book, they’re not my “discoveries,” but a couple of the funner stories I was able to flesh out include the public enemy era in the Ozarks and the pioneering 1950s country music t.v. show called the Ozark Jubilee. From Bonnie and Clyde to the Barker gang, there was a whole lot more Depression-era crime in the region than I’d imagined – and that’s with the Ozarks’ most famous product, Pretty Boy Floyd, doing most of his deeds elsewhere. The Jubilee is a gem of a story, the first regularly scheduled country music show to air on network television. Broadcast from Springfield, Missouri, it reflected not only that city’s brief challenge to Nashville for country music supremacy, but it also occurred in an age in television when network programming could come out of a small place far from Los Angeles or New York.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
In so many ways, any study of the Ozarks or Appalachia is rooted in myth-busting. One of the key arguments of the book – and of the trilogy – is that the story of the Ozarks is, after all, a regional variation on what is essentially an American story. But it’s easy to get bogged down in the myth-busting mindset and fail to appreciate the wonderful stories of regions on their own merits. The goal of helping readers re-evaluate long-held assumptions always hovers over this book and the previous volumes in the trilogy, but I hope it doesn’t obscure the rich and meaningful stories inside.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
Now I’m repeating myself, but the central idea really is the notion that the history of the Ozarks, while colorful and often unexpected, is not the story of an exotic land of fundamentally different people. It is a riff on an American melody. Still, the fact that generations of outsiders have embraced the idea of an isolated place divorced from the currents of mainstream America plays a key role in the history of the Ozarks and its people. Telling the region’s story is thus a constant process of out with the old/in with the new.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I don’t read for fun nearly as much as I should, because I’m usually working on a book. But I do enjoy fiction and try to read novels and short story collections that focus on the Ozarks and Appalachia. The late Donald Harington is a favorite, but there are other terrific Ozarks-based books by Daniel Woodrell and Steve Wiegenstein, among others. (I occasionally teach an Ozarks Literature course, so there’s a two-birds-with-one-stone function here, too.)
For most of my adult life, I haven’t watched a lot of t.v. or movies. And I live in a very rural area and only got broadband this year, so I’m a latecomer to the world of streaming television. But I’ve been trying to catch up by watching some of the touchstone series of recent years, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Better Call Saul. I’ve always been a big fantasy and sci-fi fan, especially Star Trek; the Andy Griffith Show is a staple; I’ll watch anything with Billy Bob Thornton in it; and I enjoy a good half-hour with Samurai Jack or the early seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants. I miss having little kids and an excuse to watch animation.