Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins.
(University of Illinois Press, 2017, Pp. 277)
Reviewed by Jason McCollom
J. Blake Perkins, in his eye-opening Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks (part of The Working Class in American History series), provides an original interpretation on the assumed timeless and intractable conflict between rural Americans, in this case those in the Arkansas Ozarks, and federal authorities. The historiography—and popular assumption—posits that white rural Ozarkers have always vociferously opposed government overreach and intrusion. Perkins offers a nuanced counter-interpretation that it was primarily smallholders’ defiance against local elites that shaped Ozarks political history through World War II, and that rural folk had actually championed an active federal government through what he terms the Populist Ethic. In the postwar period of the New Ozarks, Perkins argues, those local power holders found their regional control under attack from federal reformers, and they then manipulated rural whites into viewing the federal government as the real enemy of their freedom and way of life. The author qualifies his interpretation as a work of microhistory, and reminds us that this story should not be assumed to apply to the entirety of the Ozarks; but in doing so, Perkins opens up new avenues in researching the historical relationship between the region’s people and government power.
The argument of the book hinges on establishing the Ozarks’ Populist Ethic, a late-19th-century belief that the federal government could serve as a positive force to balance elite control of Gilded Age economic change and industrialization, forces that were reshaping the Ozarks through extractive industries, railroad penetration into isolated hill communities, and economic integration of the region into the broader American political economy. This ethos manifested itself through smallholders’ antipathy towards the faces of these impersonal forces—merchants and creditors, large landowners, railway magnates, and bankers. To reign in these groups, rural whites in the Ozarks championed a federal government they believed could level the economic playing field.
Perkins fleshes out the Populist Ethic in chapter one, and demonstrates its impact through a series of case studies in the following chapters. In these chapters, smallholders clash with local powerbrokers over prohibition policies, conscription during World War I, federally-mandated tick eradication programs (administered at the local level by regional elites), and rural infrastructure projects such as the construction of dams during the New Deal era. In all this, it was the local elites’ vision of corporate and economic development that served, in the eyes of less-well-off rural whites, as the locus on contention, not conflicts between smallholders and national actors. Working-class Ozarkers realized that local elites were controlling and manipulating these federal programs to their own benefit and to the detriment of the rural, smallholder way of life.
The Populist Ethic melted away in the postwar period, mostly at the instigation of regional Ozark economic and political elite. The final two chapters of Hillbilly Hellraisers chronicles a “new defiance,” as federal policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administration, such as the Ozarks Regional Commission and War on Poverty programs, threatened elite control in the region. In response, local elites worked to erode the Populist ethos of the working classes and turned them against Washington. It is here the reader witnesses the nuances of the shift from the Populist Ethic to an antigovernment crusade composed of the unlikely partnership of smallholders and the lower classes with the same local elites with which they had battled for the previous half century. For instance, several War on Poverty programs operated with the intent to bypass state and local political establishments and directly address grassroots struggles. For elites, of course, this endangered their local power structure, so they engineered resistance, allied with the lower classes, to “federal intrusiveness.” One strategy for local elites was to characterize War on Poverty efforts as undeserved handouts to African Americans. Such racially-tinged negative publicity about the poverty programs helped stoke white Ozarkers’ ire against the federal government.
Federal authorities played right into this approach. Officials with the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, for instance, were dispatched to the Ozarks to implement various antipoverty initiatives. They never jettisoned their preconceived notions about “backwards hill folks” and were unable, or unwilling, to see Ozarkers on their own terms or learn about the culture in which they had been sent to help. One VISTA official revealed that he “never really knew what I was [in the Ozarks] for” (207). VISTA volunteers were easy targets for the local elites’ rhetorical assault.
Hillbilly Hellraisers concludes by putting in historical context the Obama-era Ozarks Tea Party movement. That antigovernment sentiment was rooted in specific historical contingencies stemming mostly from the post-World War II period, rather than representing an eternal, unchanging Ozark political outlook.
This is an important book, one that fills a much-needed historiographic niche, and one that opens the door for further study into the political culture of not only the Arkansas Ozarks, but rural America as a whole.
Jason McCollom is assistant professor of history at Missouri State University-West Plains. He is the author of “‘We are tied together…in a hundred different ways’: Farmers and Farm Organizations Across the Forty-ninth Parallel, 1905-1915,” in ed. Sterling Evans, Farming across Borders: Selections on Transnational Agricultural History in the North American West (College State: Texas A&M University Press, 2017), and the forthcoming article in Agricultural History, “‘We Love You People Better Than We Like Ourselves’: Canada, the United States, Australia, the Soviet Union, and the International Wheat Pool Movement of the 1920s.”