Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995


This Strange, Bright Spell

by Donald Holliday



This "Language and Literature" issue has grown out of OzarksWatch's continuing commitment to bring to its readers an authoritative and sympathetic portrayal of Ozarks land and life. The language they speak and the literature they write, like no other source, show how Ozarkers define themselves and some of the beauty, charm, and grace of their lives, their relationship to their land, and to all the world where outsiders come from.

In Oasis, Missouri-now buried under Table Rock Lake-during the hard times of the 1930s, where a hard land made living hard, Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey wrote,

I stick smart weed and beggar lice
In with my bouquet
And then I smile
When my friends say,
"How beautiful, how delicate!
What can these blossoms be?"

The world scarcely knows Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey. It does not know Oasis, Missouri. It knows the Ozarks but little. It knows little of where the Ozarks lies, only that it is somewhere between Hollywood film makers' and New York publishers' images. It may think it knows, for it has seen a CBS "60 Minutes" segment on the country music mecca of the West. It has seen Regis and Kathy Lee broadcast from the Grand Palace near Branson, Missouri. But it has never sought to know a Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey

"Even as late as the 1940s and 1950's," Ellen Gray Massey wrote,

"anyone using the words beauty, charm, and grace to describe the Ozarks would have been ridiculed. ...What the world read about the Ozarks was from outsiders' points of view, often slanted to meet editors' [and producers'] demands for humorous stories [and broadcast images]. Writers and journalists who visited the area wrote as if they were experts and knew the people, when in actuality few outsiders really got to know and appreciate the Ozarks people and their way of life .... Much of the rest of the country, and even the rest of Missouri [and other Ozarks states], dismissed the Ozarks as backwoods and characterized its people as backward, illiterate, and lazy"

("Commonplace Things," OzarksWatch, Fall 1990).

"Illiterate, he?" Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey asked,

...and yet he sees
Wild gnomes and harps in leafless trees
And pale gold stars bend low to tell
The secret of this strange, bright spell.

This strange, bright spell is a place, an event, a people--Ozarkers being born, wondering, living, dying, in that piece of earth called the Ozarks.

Language is a reflection of place, as well as time. William Jud's humorous "The Devil in The Ozarks" points to obvious strange if not necessarily bright land-forms, places demanding extraordinary names. The Aldridge and Connelly letters highlight immigration patterns into and through the Ozarks, and thus some of the immediate origins of Ozarks English. Michael Ellis's "Just How 'Old' is Ozarks English?" aims at some old fallacies about Ozarks English and defines our language as a product of all our people and all our times. Michael brings the understanding of a native southern highlander to the subject.

Language is one of the raw materials story tellers and poets mold into art. The other raw material is human experience.

A first impulse toward literature is the human tendency to blow our own experiences into larger-than-life proportions, to "tell a good story." The story of the Civil War incident on Cowskin Prairie is a primary example. The story, based on an example of oral storytelling, is representative of a broad body of oral literature once a primary form of entertainment across the Ozarks, a body collected by Vance Randolph, Joseph Cartiere, and others.

To tell a good story is the essential element in the art of entertainment. Janet Dailey, as Wesley Hall portrays her, is representative of writers whose first object is good entertainment, a good story. Few writers are content with mere entertainment, a fact demonstrated by Dailey's movement beyond the most basic of story motifs to more complex forms of historical romance.[1]

In commonplace language, Jerri Palmer tells how she watches her grandfather approach death. To honor and commemorate and to explore and understand our relationship to the subject of honor is another impulse to literature. In her careful control of simple language, this college student shows us how Ozarkers, like people everywhere, may achieve a tense balance of emotions in one of the most complex of human dilemmas--the death of a loved one.

As Jerri Palmer explores one situation, so other authors in this issue explore other human needs, at almost every age. Judy John and Robert Flanders give us insight into how both David Harrison and Crescent Dragonwagon dramatize some of the needs and dreams of children. Flanders shows us Crescent Dragonwagon's celebration of the Ozarks, life, womanhood, adulthood--and garlic. Roland Sodowsky's "Coonhounds" reveals a reluctance among adolescents to do everything expected to enter manhood. R. B. Mullinix portrays a youngster caught up in trying to understand his culture, caught between characters who are attractive and who produce too much information, all questionable, and characters who may be less attractive but whose information, though sure and true, is rarely offered.

Finally, it's good to tell you about Michael Burns. His poetry, in language few will ever have any trouble understanding, touches on each of us--as individual, as human, as son or daughter, as parent. In his work, this strange, bright spell of Ozarks life reflects through human times and spaces.

[2]


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