“Un des plus beaux [pays] du Monde.”
(“One of the most beautiful [countries] of the World.”)
—A reference to Arkansas in
Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales
(New Voyages to the West Indies) (Paris, 1768),
as cited by James Masterson in a footnote in Arkansas Folklore
In this, the fourth post on Arkansiana, which I wrote in 1981 as part of a proposal for a newspaper column on that subject, I combine two themes.
The first, as indicated by the title of the piece, is Arkansas’ French connection, which was based on the movie The French Connection that was popular at the time.
I have already discussed this theme in earlier posts on the French exploration and possession of the Louisiana Territory, which included what is now Arkansas and from which Arkansas derived its official name.
The second theme in this piece is the “bad name” that Arkansas—and hence Arkansans—developed over the centuries since that original French exploration, settlement, and transfer to the United States.
That subject is deep and far reaching. I have included negative quotations about Arkansas in previous posts such as “Keep Arkansas in the Accent.” I will continue to explore that subject in next week’s post titled “Some Additional Quotes about Arkansas: A Tribute.” Meanwhile, in this one I offer this humorous observation about both subjects from the past.
Of course, the original version of this piece, written more than thirty years ago, was directed to an Arkansas audience. Since then some of the facts in it are no longer accepted as accurate by modern historians, geographers, and linguists. Also the boast of “my near-native fluency and flawless Parisian accent” in spoken French is no longer true due to a lack of opportunity to use the language.
Arkansas’ French Connection
“Quand nous étions en Arkansas, dix des Français qui m’accompagnaient ont demandé un établissement sur la rivière Arkansas.”
(“When we were in Arkansas, ten of the Frenchmen who accompanied me requested a settlement on the Arkansas River.”)
—Henri de Tonti,
Explaining establishment of Arkansas Post (1686),
Historical Collection of Louisiana, Vol. 1, p. 68
“I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did.”
—H. L. Mencken
If you have ever lived or traveled out of state for very long, sooner or later you have undoubtedly found yourself the unwilling victim of the Arkansas stereotype.
In other words, you have discovered that many non-Arkansans still seem to think of our fair state as a rural, backwoods region populated by poor, ignorant, barefoot mountaineers and uneducated, poverty-stricken sharecroppers both much given to houn’ dawgs, moonshine, tall-tale tellin’, flea scratchin’, and racial bigotry.
Whenever you are confronted with this “ignernt Arkie” syndrome, how do you react?
The late Arkansas Congressman and Southern Baptist leader, Brooks Hayes, used to like to tell of the Arkansan in Washington, D.C., who, whenever he was asked where he was from, always replied: “Arkansas. Go ahead and laugh.”
Well, that’s one way to handle it, I suppose. My approach is a little different.
As a former French instructor, translator, and interpreter, I have had numerous occasions to find myself providing involuntary diversion to out-of-staters who seem to find the concept of an “Arkansaw Frenchman” somehow devastatingly amusing. The reactions range from a bemused raising of the eyebrow to outright guffaws.
Somehow some people just can’t seem to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive images—the suave, sophisticated, cultured Frenchman and the good-ole-boy Gomer Pyle drawler in bib overalls and brogans from the “wahls of Orkinsaw.”
I don’t really blame them. “Ah reckin them two pitchers is ‘bout lack ohl and warter—they gist don’t mix none too good!”
But I have also found that (in all modesty) after hearing me converse in French with a near-native fluency and a flawless Parisian accent, folks’ condescending smirks soon give way (sometimes rather begrudgingly) to reluctant admiration—especially when they are informed to their utter amazement that this “ignernt Arkie” managed to learn to speak the language of the elite and the intelligentsia without ever having set foot in any French-speaking nation (an occurrence which was to take place twenty-five years after his initial exposure to la langue française).
“But where did you learn to speak such perfect French?” they ask incredulously.
“In Arkansaw,” I humbly but proudly reply. “After all (I never fail to point out), we were French before we were anything else!”
Then, like a salesmen with his foot in the door, I ply them with as many facts about “Arkansas’s French Connection” as I can:
Like the fact that the very name Arkansas is the French spelling and pronunciation of an Indian word;
That the French were the first to claim the Arkansas region as far back as 1682;
That the first permanent white settlement west of the Mississippi River was established by the French at Arkansas Post (Poste de Arkansea in those days) in 1686 (and not in St. Louis, for instance);
That the name of the mountains which they consider “backwoods personified”—the Ozarks—was given by the French (aux arcs) and refers to the bow-toting tribes they found there (les tribus aux arcs);
That the name of our lovely capital city of Little Rock (the only such city in the U.S. to boast three existent capitol buildings: territorial, ante-bellum, and modern) was originally La Petite Roche (so named by one Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe—not exactly your average rednecked, tobacco-spittin’, Coors-swiggin’ George Jones fan);
And so on and so on, as long as they will listen.
And, as a topper, just to sort of put the icing on the cake, I show them a picture postcard I bought somewhere (in Arkansas) featuring a painting of a curly-wigged, ruffled-shirted, snuff-pinching, effeminately aristocratic seventeenth-century Italian nobleman turned French army officer.
“This is a picture,” I innocently purr, “of the first Arkie, Henri de Tonti. In recognition of his services to the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, he was given a seignorial grant upon which was established la Poste de Arkansea in 1686.”
“That’s funny,” I then remark quizzically, “he doesn’t look boorish!”