Q&A with Brooks Blevins, author of The Old Ozarks

Brooks Blevins is the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. He is the author or editor of eight books, including Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South; Arkansas, Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State; and Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image. He recently answered a few questions for us about his new book, A History of the Ozarks Volume 1: The Old Ozarks.

Q. In A History of the Ozarks Vol 1: The Old Ozarks, you begin the first volume of a three-part history of the Ozarks region and the culture of its inhabitants. Why did you conclude that such a comprehensive project was necessary?

Even though the last two decades have seen a growing number of scholarly works on Ozarks history, the challenge of teaching regional history and the public’s misunderstanding of Ozarks history and culture largely stem from the lack of a comprehensive history of the region. And I think this lack of a history was in large part due to the hold that folklorists and romanticizers have had on the Ozarks for generations. As more scholars have turned their attention to regional history in this age of hyper-specialization, we’ve been moving away from the old exotic backwater model toward a model that looks at regions as microcosms of the American experience. It’s a great way to combine sweeping temporality with a more narrowly-defined geographic focus. That said, my original intention was certainly not to write such a sweeping and in-depth history of the Ozarks, but rather a one-volume history of the region. By the time I got to the Civil War, however, I already had a book-length manuscript. There was just so much in the early history of the Ozarks that tied the region to the broader story of America and westward migration. It seemed a shame to give that story short shrift.

Q. What did you unearth while writing this book that most surprised you?

The layers of the region’s story in the years before the arrival of the Anglo-American settlers who would come to dominate and define the Ozarks were even richer than I expected. Though vast expanses of the region were uninhabited by Native Americans in the decades preceding European contact and even in the years leading up to the Louisiana Purchase, the Ozarks played a central role in the interplay of natives, European colonials, and U.S. expansion. The region’s role as an unofficial first “Indian territory” for displaced natives from east of the Mississippi – and its location in the path of the Trail of Tears – made the Ozarks crucial to evolving U.S. Indian policy during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. And for a fleeting moment a number of Native Americans even envisioned the heart of the Ozarks as a new autonomous homeland for displaced eastern nations.

Q. What major stereotypes still distort our views of the Ozarks and its people today?

It seems like an almost daily occurrence as I work with students, scholars, and the public that I encounter ingrained notions of a place and people that time has passed by – whether in a positive or negative sense. Those old hillbilly images that have so long colored our perceptions of the Ozarks and Appalachia are not easy to shake. There’s just enough believability in the truth of the stereotypes of uneducated, moonshining, gun-toting backwoodsmen that the imagery sticks to the highland South like beggar’s lice. My goal is to introduce the reader to a fuller, more nuanced picture of the region, its history, and its inhabitants, one that reintroduces a forgotten diversity and injects a useful complexity to the story.

Q. You write that throughout much of the twentieth century, Ozark historians highlighted the region’s peculiarities and ethnic distinctiveness. How has the discipline changed since then so that you can tell the story of the region with the subtext, “They’re really not that different from you and me”?

In the last thirty years or so there has been a movement away from the “exceptionalist”
interpretation of regional history that reigned for so many years. Some of this stems from an effort to write regional history in a national context; some comes from a new willingness on the part of scholars to approach regional studies with an open mind, not with the expectation that each region necessarily constitutes its own unique story. In the study of the highland South, this movement toward a more unexceptional, more holistic approach began with scholars of Appalachian history. It’s just one of many things that scholars of the Ozarks can learn from studies of her sister region back

Q. What do you have planned for the next two volumes?

The next volume covers the long era of Civil War and Reconstruction, with in-depth discussions of slavery in the Ozarks, the secession crisis, Civil War on the battlefields, the home front, and in the bushes, and the Reconstruction of the Ozarks politically, socially, and economically. The third volume carries the region’s story from the late nineteenth- into the early twenty-first century, concentrating especially on the evolution of regional social construct and the increasing centrality of stereotype in the history and culture of the Ozarks. As in volume one, I try to avoid writing regional history in a vacuum, looking instead at the ways in which the story of the Ozarks illuminates broader national developments. The trick is to do this without losing sight of the people and events that give the Ozarks its own flavor.

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