I’m humbled, really quite floored in that tomorrow at 11 a.m. I will stand in Strong Hall on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield before students in a university course entitled Ozarks Literature and History, and taught by Dr. Brooks Blevins. Thirty students have just finished reading my novel, Morkan’s Quarry.
While not unheard of, it is very rare for an author in his or her lifetime to have a novel taught in a classroom as part of a body of literature. This is what has me floored, as Morkan’s Quarry was just published in 2010. Much has happened for it, and I count myself extremely blessed.
The honor has me thinking, though, of what to share. The narrator of Morkan’s Quarry has a voice, one that I hoped would fall between two valences within Ozarks literature. I wanted the narrator to have the slightly elevated sophistication and the almost scientific distance (without the snotty, eastern condescension) of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. But I also wanted the narrator to tap Silas Turnbo’s raw, brainwave cadence and his sweeping humanity and curiosity about people found in the accounts in The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo.
So where does Ozarks Literature start? I think, arguably, here, on December 9, in 1818.
From Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozarks Journal: 1818–1819, edited by Milton D. Rafferty (University of Arkansas Press 1996)
“…we continued our journey in a north-west course along the hills which skirt the river bottoms at the distance of a mile from its banks, and arrived at an early hour in the afternoon at the house of a Mr. Coker, at what is called Sugar-Loaf Prairie. This takes its name from a bald hill covered with grass rising on the verge of the river alluvion on the west side of the river, and is discernible at the distance of many miles. The settlement at Sugar-Loaf Prairie consists at present of four families, located within the distance of eight miles, but is so recent that a horse-path has not yet been worn from one cabin to another. It is the highest settlement on the river, excepting two families at the mouth of Beaver Creek, about three miles above (the actual distance is fifteen miles overland and forty miles by river). These people subsist partly by agriculture, and partly by hunting. They raise corn for bread, and for feeding their horses previous to the commencement of long journeys in the woods, but none for exportation. No cabbages, beets, onions, potatoes, turnips, or other garden vegetables, are raised. Gardens are unknown. Corn and wild meats, chiefly bear’s meat, are the staple articles of food. In manners, morals, customs, dress, contempt of labour and hospitality, the state of society is not essentially different from that which exists among the savages. Schools, religion, and learning are alike unknown. Hunting is the principal, the most honourable, and the most profitable employment. To excel in the chace procures fame, and a man’s reputation is measured by his skill as a marksman, his agility and strength, his boldness and dexterity in killing game, and his patient endurance and contempt of the hardships of the hunter’s life. They are, consequently, a hardy, brave, independent people, rude in appearance, frank and generous, travel without baggage, and can subsist any where in the woods, and would form the most efficient military corps in frontier warfare which can possibly exist. Ready trained, they require no discipline, inured to danger, and perfect in the use of the rifle. Their system of life is, ill fact, one continued scene of camp-service. Their habitations are not always permanent, having little which is valuable, or loved, to rivet their affections to anyone spot; and nothing which is venerated, but what they can carry with them; they frequently change residence, travelling where game is more abundant. Vast quantities of beaver, otter, raccoon, deer, and bear-skins, are annually caught. These skins are carefully collected and preserved during the summer and fall, and taken down the river in canoes, to the mouth of the Great North Fork of White River, or to the mouth of Black River, where traders regularly come up with large boats to receive them. They also take down some wild honey, bear’s bacon, and buffaloe-beef, and receive in return, salt, iron-pots, axes, blankets, knives, rifles, and other articles of first importance in their mode of life.
“We were received by Mr. Coker with that frankness and blunt hospitality which are characteristic of the hunter. Our approach to the house was, as usual, announced by the barking of dogs, whose incessant yells plainly told us, that all who approached that domain, of which they were the natural guardians, and whether moving upon two, or upon four legs, were considered as enemies, and it was not until they were peremptorily, and repeatedly recalled, that they could be pacified. Dried skins, stretched out with small rods, and hung up to dry on trees and poles around the house, served to give the scene the most novel appearance. This custom has been observed at every hunter’s cabin we have encountered, and, as we find, great pride is taken in the display, the number and size of the bear-skins serving as a credential of the hunter’s skill and prowess in the chace.
“We had no sooner acquainted our entertainer with the objects and contemplated extent of our journey, than he discovered the fear which appears to prevail on this river, respecting the Osage Indians, and corroborated what we had before heard of their robberies. He considered the journey hazardous at this season, as they had not yet, probably, broke up their hunting camps, and retired, as they do every winter, to their villages on the Grandosaw river (Grand Osage). He recommended us to abandon our guns for rifles, to take with us as little baggage as possible-thought we should find it a poor season for game, and made other remarks of a discouraging nature. The fact was, he had an old rifle for sale, thought we had money, and wished to get double the worth of it, and wished us to engage an idle hypochondriac, who hung about him, as a guide. We were inclined to do both, but could not agree as to the price of the former, and the latter could not be prevailed to go at any price.”
There is just the right amount of curiosity, distance, annoyance, amazement, awe, and disdain here to make wonderful, even humorous literature. Notice how Schoolcraft contrasts hospitality. Mr. Coker is described as being in possession of “frankness and blunt hospitality” after Schoolcraft has noted our people to hold in general, “a contempt of labour and hospitality.” And how delicious that Mr. Coker’s report of the dangers ahead resolves itself in large part to be selling points for a rifle and the guide services of some local layabout, both of which Coker wishes to be shed of, and for a profit! We are in character revealed in this our Ozarks archetype, our core, quite adept at the hunt and already honing the sell. I think all the elements of true Ozarks character start right here in this sublimely cranky, yet often lovely journal told from the outsider’s eye. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow.