“I have a love-hate relationship with the Delta:
I hate I love it so!”
—Danny Lynchard, native of Cleveland, MS
In this post and the next one I present reviews of two books written by Margaret Jones Bolsterli, a native of Desha County, Arkansas, in which my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, is located.
I have reprinted them just as they were written with my emphasis in italics and my comments and other inserted information in brackets. I have also inserted photos and broken the copy into shorter paragraphs to fit the format of the blog pages.
Born in the Delta
The first piece is a book review that I wrote in 2001 of Born in the Delta by Margaret Jones Bolsterli. It was published by the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I taught for a short period in the early 1970s. It appeared in volume 32, number 3, of the December 2001 issue, and is reprinted here with permission.
Born in the Delta: Reflections on the Making of a Southern White Sensibility. By Margaret Jones Bolsterli. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000 [originally published in 1991]. Pp. xiv + 132, acknowledgments, illustrations. $19.95, paper)
Since I am from the same Arkansas county (Desha) that Margaret Jones Bolsterli describes so insightfully in her autobiography, her memoirs are of great interest to me.
As noted in the flap copy of the original hardcover edition published by the University of Tennessee Press, the broad, flat Delta of which the author writes is “as much mindscape as topography.”
Willie Morris once observed about the Delta: “I’ve always felt that land shapes the people who dwell upon it. This is powerful land. It just leaps out at you.” [U.S. News & World Report, Sept. 13, 1993.] It also seeps deep within you, as Bolsterli can doubtlessly attest.
This seemingly indissoluble attachment to the land of one’s birth or upbringing, this sense of place so prevalent in Southern literature, is one of the key elements in Bolsterli’s reminiscences of the region about which she expresses mixed feelings. [See my earlier posts titled “Some Southern Stuff V: Sense of Place” and “Some Southern Stuff VI: Love of the Land.”]
This acknowledged ambivalence toward the Delta is evidenced by her choice of the epigraph for her book drawn from William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Quentin Compson answers the question, “Why do you hate the South?” with the anguished self-denial, “I don’t hate it . . . . I don’t hate it!” (pp. 18, 19) [See the opening quote of this post by Danny Lynchard.]
As noted in that flap copy, the other major themes of Bolsterli’s work include “the southern penchant for stories rather than conversation, things rather than ideas; violence; blackness and whiteness as organizers of social relationships; manners (the importance of not being ‘common’); the repressive function of southern evangelical religion; respect for books and learning; special foodways rooted in African and Native American customs; and the presence of the Civil War in the present.” [Except for the “repressive function of southern evangelical religion,” most of these same themes are addressed in my blog.]
As descriptive of the contents of the work as this copy is, it refers to the author’s “thoughtful reflections” as “a convincing new interpretation of southern white female identify.” This gender distinction is noticeably absent from the back cover of the new edition which adds to that list of Southern themes, “the patriarchal family structure, [and] the ‘southern belle’ concept.” [In regard to the “southern belle concept,” see my earlier post titled “My Annual Tributes to the Clique.”]
The crux of this work is the inner conflict the author experienced while growing up in the first half of the twentieth century in a culture, a society, and even a family in which she felt increasingly alien. The source of this inner turmoil centered on her inability to conform to the prevailing attitudes of her time and place, especially in regard to race, religion, gender, and the caste system they produced and protected. [In reference to “the prevailing attitudes of her time and place, especially in regard to race,” see my earlier posts titled “Life Is Reg’lar/My Mother’s Bible” and “Selma Store Evokes Boyhood Memories” about my mother’s lack of conformity to the prevalent societal customs of her day.]
This inability to conform to the expectations of the world into which she was born finally led to a self-imposed Northern “exile” (p. 65) undertaken in search of social and intellectual freedom. However, like most Southern expatriates, eventually she came home—or as close to it as possible. She is now professor emerita of English at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she has taught since 1968. [This information was still accurate when this review was published in 2001.]
It would be interesting to know Professor Bolsterli’s view of the Delta today, a full decade after this incisive examination of the mystical “mindscape” about which I too [like many others] still harbor deep and conflicting emotions.
Update: According to an article by Cindy Smith in the August 15 issue of the McGehee-Dermott Times-News, the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock is currently presenting an exhibit by Dr. Margaret Jones Bolsterli. Titled “Things You Need to Hear: Memories of Growing Up in Arkansas from 1890 to 1980,” the exhibit features five videos with oral histories relating to family, work, school, play, and culture. Memorabilia and photos complete the exhibit. To learn more about this exhibit, click here. To learn more about the book on which it is based with memories from such noted Arkansans as Johnny Cash, Maya Angelou, former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, musician Levon Helm, and others, click here.
Note: To view a video titled “Delta Mud in Your Blood” set to Delta Blues music performed by Marty Denton of McGehee, Arkansas, with scenes of Bayou Bartholomew, sharecropper shacks, cotton picking, the Mississippi River, the flat Delta landscape, Blues music and musicians, scenes in McGehee, etc., click here. For additional information and photos on many of the subjects presented in this review, see next week’s post titled “During Wind and Rain,” as well as my posts titled “My Bucket-List Trip II: The Arkansas Delta,” “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton I” and “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton II,” “Some Additional Quotes about the Delta,” and “Days Gone By: A Delta Passing.”
Special Press Release on Lakeport Plantation Fifth Anniversary:
Lakeport Plantation, often featured on this blog (see the close of the preceding post titled “Days Gone By”) will be celebrating its Fifth Anniversary on September 28-30. The three-day event will showcase newly installed permanent exhibits in the house. See the press release below for more information and how to register.
The plantation home is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site, built ca. 1859 for the Johnson family of Kentucky. One of Arkansas’s premiere historic structures; it has changed little since its original construction and is the last antebellum plantation home in Arkansas on the Mississippi River. The Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village deeded the house to the university in 2001. Restoration began in 2002, using the highest level of U. S. Department of Interior standards for rehabilitation, and the restored home opened to the public in 2007.
Since its opening, thousands of visitors from all over Arkansas, the United States, and the globe have toured the plantation. Lakeport now enters a new phase with the installation of permanent exhibits, designed in collaboration with Quatrefoil Associates in Laurel, Maryland. Exhibits are based on years of restoration and research in family records, archives and oral histories.
“The house itself will always be our major exhibit,” stated Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at ASU. “We wanted to enhance the visitor experience, however, with unobtrusive exhibits that tell the stories of the house, the restoration, and the people who lived and worked at Lakeport.”
New exhibits also will display artifacts found during restoration and original items donated back to the house. Dr. Blake Wintory, director of Lakeport Plantation, said his personal favorite is a case full of artifacts, dating between 1860 and 1970, which were found behind mantels during restoration. “From the time the Johnsons moved into the house in 1860, people began losing pictures, letters, business cards and other objects behind the mantels,” Wintory said. “These lost and found artifacts are a fascinating record of their lives.”
The Lakeport Family Reunion will include descendants of the Johnson family, other residents of Lakeport, and descendants of African Americans who lived and worked at Lakeport as enslaved laborers and later as tenant farmers.
Early registration will take place from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 at the Guachoya Cultural Arts Center in Lake Village. Permanent exhibits will be unveiled at the plantation house at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, followed by presentations related to new discoveries at Lakeport from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the Lakeport lawn.
Saturday afternoon events will include a 2 p.m. tour of the Epstein Cotton Gin in Lake Village, led by Sammy E. Angel, and a 3:30 p.m. guided walking tour of downtown Lake Village by Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. A social hour at the restored historic Tushek Building begins at 5 p.m., followed by a Homemade Spaghetti Dinner at 6 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Parish Hall. The dinner will include a presentation by community historian Libby Borgognoni on Chicot County’s Italian history.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, a panel of Johnson descendants will present “Memories of the Family” at 10 a.m., followed by “Memories of the Community” featuring Lakeport area residents at 11 a.m. A noon barbeque lunch will end the celebration.
The three-day event is open to the public, but registration is required by Sept. 14 and there is a charge for the meals. For information on registration, visit http://lakeport.astate.edu/, call 870.265.6031, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.