By Brian Hardman
(From issue seven of Elder Mountain)
Storytelling is often thought of, first and foremost, as entertainment, but in many regions, it is a key to preserving cultural history and memory. In the Ozarks, for example, storytelling goes by many humorous names. If you have spent much time in the region, you have likely heard someone spinning a windy, telling a tall tale, or stretching the blanket, and the seriousness of storytelling is often overshadowed by the entertainment value found in listening to (or reading) a grand storyteller. Beneath the playfulness found in many stories, though, there is something vitally important at work, and that is the subject of this discussion. Storytelling, both the oral form and the print form, allows for marginalized cultures and regions to maintain their traditional values and beliefs, while still negotiating the broader world. Such storytelling has been essential to the survival of Native American cultures, and its significance is largely the same for the Ozarks and its inhabitants, especially in a world of rapid urbanization and increasing technology, where the possibility of losing the storytelling tradition is a significant threat to cultural survival and regional identity. By drawing parallels between the storytelling traditions found in Native American cultures and the Ozarks (particularly in the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and Donald Harington), we may see how storytelling ensures a continuity in cultural and regional memory. In short, storytelling for Native Americans is the most important way to maintain cultural and regional identity and to ensure cultural survival. This is also true for the Ozarks.
In an introductory poem to her celebrated novel Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo author and expert on the oral tradition and storytelling, says:
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything
If you don’t have the stories. (2)
Silko goes on to say that “if you think about it, nearly everything of consequence that we tell one another involves narration or story” (Storyteller xvii). She means that when we explain ourselves or our reasoning in a situation, when we describe what we remember of an experience, we organize that experience in a narrative structure to communicate our vital information: we are telling stories. The development of language and storytelling go hand in hand. The need to share our experiences, to tell our stories to another person, is so strong, Silko argues, that we invented language, in part, to be able to communicate our most important experiences to each other.
Imagine for a moment what some of the first words we spoke to each other must have been. I like to think that our first utterances might have conveyed love or even hunger. Silko, however, suggests those first words must have served a safety or survival function and likely were the earliest versions of “help!,” or “hide!,” or “run!” (Storyteller xvii). She goes on to explain that the moment the danger passed the desire to communicate what had just happened would have been so strong that stories began to develop to recreate the experience.
From this perspective, it is most likely that humans first swapped stories to acquire knowledge as an individual survival strategy, to learn to anticipate the many threats and dangers in a still wild world. This, Silko believes, is the heart of storytelling’s origins: “Considerable details and vivid descriptions—the lifeblood of an entertaining story, if you will—must have been essential to the telling. The most important details and actions were likely repeated and emphasized so that listeners would know what to do to survive in a similar situation” (Storyteller xviii). We can imagine that those early storytelling listeners took a great deal of pleasure in hearing stories told by survivors. These would have been hair-raising adventure tales, but with happy endings. Such stories give courage to others who might face similar dangers, and the hope and faith that if they did exactly what the survivor had done they, too, might survive. For obvious reasons, the earliest audiences for these stories must have paid close attention to the details, and thus, the stories with the richest descriptions and most vivid details were the ones most sought after, and the ones that brought the most pleasure, because they conveyed the most useful and necessary information. For reasons of individual survival, the connection between storyteller and audience begins here. In fact, Silko concludes that the connection between knowledge and power also begins here (Storyteller xviii).
Now, if we expand the importance of storytelling between individuals to that of families, cultures, and regions like the Native American reservations west of the Ozarks, we find that the essential point remains the same. Silko, to use her own experience as an example, says that “Storytelling among family and clan members served as a group rehearsal of survival strategies that had worked for the Pueblo people for thousands of years” (Storyteller xviii). In most Native American cultures, all the knowledge, experience, and beliefs were kept in tribal memories in the form of stories that were told and retold from generation to generation. Moreover, Silko says that her people, like many other Native American tribes, view themselves in a changing world as part of an ancient continuous story composed of innumerable bundles of other stories (Storyteller xviv).
And, of course, the earliest accounts of a marginalized culture in North America (think Native Americans, like the Pueblo people) encountering and being threatened by a dominant culture that seeks to subsume it appear in the stories told between family members and from tribe to tribe. Such a story, on a different scale, is parallel to the experience in the Ozarks region, a region also under the threat of being subsumed by a mainstream American society that is eroding cultural and regional boundaries. For Native Americans, storytelling became a way of maintaining cultural identity, and it was a way of gauging the relative sickness or health of their own culture. To more fully explain how this works, it will help to consider an example in fiction from the Native American tradition, Silko’s Ceremony.
Silko’s novel is a case study in this regard, and it is instructive in our discussion of the Ozarks to first consider some details from this novel. The hero of the book, Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo Indian, has just returned from World War II and is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a sense that he has lost all connection to or understanding of his Native American heritage. In effect, Tayo is caught between two worlds—his isolated native tribe and mainstream American society. After all, in the world of the novel, he has just returned from fighting for America only to find that America still views him as a Laguna Indian, a marginalized figure, and Tayo himself doesn’t know where he fits in. Tayo’s mental health problems have literally led him to forget much of his upbringing and almost all of his family and tribal history. Storytelling, however, is the medicine that begins to heal Tayo. As he hikes, hunts, and rides horseback across the Laguna reservation, he begins to remember stories that his grandmother used to tell about the mountains and the people and the animals.
Tayo’s healing begins with stories, stories about place. In Tayo’s case, the place is his Laguna reservation, and settings like this play central role in many Native American stories, just as place is one of the defining characteristics of the Ozarks, and stories like Tayo’s are most frequently recalled as people are passing a specific geographical feature or the exact location where other stories have occurred (Silko, Ceremony 185). In addition, the turning point of a story often depends upon a special quality of the landscape, a special rock or tree, an important creek or mountain. It sometimes becomes difficult to determine which comes first, the incident or the geographical feature that stirs the imagination. Whatever the case, each story that rushes back to Tayo heals him just a bit more, and eventually these stories reconnect him to the land, to his people, and to his own sense of identity. More importantly, Tayo’s journey to heal himself mentally and to reclaim his tribal identity itself becomes a story that is passed down from generation to generation to remind the community of the sacred power of stories and storytelling, and to remind them of the continuity between their past and their present (Silko, Ceremony 257). For Silko and her tribe, as we find in the example of Tayo, storytelling has the ability to heal, to comfort, to connect people and places. For Native Americans, it is the most important way to maintain cultural and regional identity and to ensure cultural survival. As we will see, this is also true for the Ozarks.
In the Ozarks region, storytelling follows a similar path in that it allows us to preserve our collective memories and unique cultural history and many of our folk traditions. It also allows our region, which historically has been marginalized, not only to just preserve but to keep alive traditional values and beliefs, while still allowing us to participate in a contemporary world where urbanization and new technology make it increasingly difficult to find, let alone define, distinct regions like the Ozarks any more. Storytelling is an antidote to such homogenization, and key examples of this are found in the most recent collection of Ozarks literature—Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology.
The primary example of Ozarks literature in this context is Donald Harington’s “Telling Time,” a short story first published in Yonder Mountain, which appeared in spring 2013. Harington is best known for his many novels dealing with the fictional but familiar-feeling town of Stay More, a small village in a rural and rugged part of the Ozarks in northern Arkansas. “Telling Time” is at its heart about the desire for towns like Stay More to endure, even though they are set in a historical period on the cusp of major change. The plot of the story is fairly simple: There is a growing rivalry between the town’s two main storytellers, Lion Judah Stapleton (with humorous confusion over the name Lion/Lyin’ Judah) and Harry Tongue (with the same humorous confusion regarding Harry/Hairy Tongue).
There are two general stores in the fictional, and representative, town of Stay More, and each of our storytellers sets up on the porch of one of the stores from which he can hold forth to the whittlers, loafers, and other idlers that hang about the place. Many in the audience are there just to pass the time, to be entertained, but the audience also gets the town news and the latest gossip from those front porch sessions. In fact, as the rivalry between storytellers escalates, listeners are getting quite a lesson about the history and people of the region, too, and the significance that Harington invests in the idea of storytelling grows along with the Lion Jude/Harry Tongue rivalry. Although the plot centers on the storytelling competition between Lion and Harry, the story eventually becomes less about the storytellers and more about the significance of storytelling itself.
Now the types of stories and the style of storytelling are quite different between Lion Jude and Harry Tongue, and the difference between the two storytellers contains the serious message that flows below the playful surface of Harington’s story. In terms of style, we hear that “Jude was a taker-outer and Harry was a putter-inner,” and that any story of Jude’s always began with “One time,” no matter whether that time was yesterday or a hundred years ago (Harington 84). This phrase is one of the keys to unlocking the story. Harry, in contrast to Jude’s way of beginning a story, might start off with any offhand introductory phrase so that you weren’t sure when he was starting a story or when he was just talking. But it’s in the matter of substance and subject matter that Harington’s two storytellers differ the most.
Harry’s tall-tales became known as “master histories” because one of his stories first began, “Now it happened that there was dwellin in Stay More a certain ole boy who wasn’t good for nothing, but come the shank of evening around the porch of Miz Latha’s store he shore could charm the peepers down outen the trees with the masterest histories. . . .” (Harington 84). These master histories, the narrator explains, might be about the James Gang’s exploits in the Ozarks, or “the incredible battle of Whiteley’s Mill, during the Civil War, in which Newton County soldiers on opposite sides fought each for two hours with rifle and cannon without one single battle death occurring” (Harington 84). Harry’s stories, we soon find out, are taken from the history of Newton County, and especially the town of Stay More, and its neighboring counties in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Harry would tell legends of the founders of many towns in the Ozarks, stories that not even the locals had heard before, and he would take incidents that had just happened or just been reported and convert them into dramatic and sometimes humorous narratives.
The narrator of “Telling Time,” who sure sounds like Harington himself, calls these stories “memorates,” a term he learned in a folklore class at the local university (82). The narrator explains that these memorates are narratives of actual events that have occurred or even events which the storyteller himself has witnessed (82). These “memorates,” and the few examples of them we are given in “Telling Time,” seem like the ideal type of story to ensure that the cultural memories and the history of the Ozarks and its people would endure, but Harington complicates this view of Harry Tongue’s stories and their function in preserving our most important memories. Harington reveals that the problem with Harry’s stories, if we want to phrase it that way, is that they are always tragic, that there is always a clear end to the stories and usually an unhappy end to the people in those stories. The narrator says that it boils down to Harry’s stories being pessimistic, while Lion Jude’s stories are optimistic (Harington 86). While everything in Harry’s stories supposedly actually happened and was therefore “real,” Harry could not avoid converting all of his stories into tragedies in which the seemingly ordinary people in them become larger than life heroes and heroines who fall prey to extraordinary ends, quite out of keeping with the Ozarkers in Jude’s tales. Due to this difference in pessimism and optimism, Harington suggests that once a Harry Tongue story has ended, it becomes something of a dead history, relegated to dusty bookshelves and the vaults of museums. In other words, the power of Harry’s story dies when the story ends, which is quite unlike the stories of Lion Jude (Harington 87).
Lion Jude’s stories in “Telling Time,” which might be more fanciful than his rival’s, center on everyday people and do not have tragic endings. In fact, we are told that “If a story had to end, people felt, perhaps knowing that Stay More itself was ending, it ought to end with a smile on its face” (Harington 85). A story ought to end, we are told, if not with some revelation that leaves you feeling good, it should leave you with at least some hope for yourself, for your town, and for the region in which you live. Lion Jude’s stories do just that in Harington’s tale, and because they do, he begins to win over the audience and to win the contest between the two storytellers. The town grows to appreciate Lion Jude’s success, not necessarily because they really want to choose one storyteller over another, but because the town of Stay More was dying, the townspeople beginning to disappear from the porches of both stores. People in that part of the Ozarks, we hear, were moving away to California, or at least to the larger towns surrounding the Ozarks, like Springfield or Little Rock. Both stores eventually close their doors for good, due to the fact that modernization has crept into the heart of the Ozarks in the form of the first “supermarket” just outside of little Stay More, Arkansas (Harington 86). As the stores close and the town dwindles, Harry Tongue disappears, too, with rumors of him spinning windys and holding forth on the steps of county courthouses in Harrison, in Little Rock, or in Memphis or New Orleans (Harington 86). Like the stories he used to tell, Harry becomes lost to history.
Lion Jude stays in Stay More, however, and in part because of his refusal to leave, the town itself survives, literally and in the all of the memories that Jude has treasured and kept. To say it another way, the town really survives because the stories about it survive, kept alive by Lion Jude in the world of the short story and by our narrator and Donald Harington himself. This layered effect of the storytelling comes to the forefront as the story itself winds down. In this regard, the last lines of “Telling Time” are remarkable and bear some attention: They transform the simple story about the competition between Harry Tongue and Lion Jude into a story that is really about the significance of storytelling. The narrator, upon last inquiring about Lion Jude, hears that Jude is often spotted telling stories along the banks of the local creek or in neighboring meadows, and that he always has some kind of an audience, even if that audience is occasionally in the form of birds, rabbits, squirrels, and sometimes insects (Harington 87). The narrator tells us in the story’s last sentence, “Harry Tongue made Stay More into a mythical place that belongs in books on dusty shelves; Lion Jude Stapleton keeps the time of Stay More and tells the time to stay more, and be one time” (Harington 87). The significance of this line is that the story ends with the same two words with which it started, coming full circle and forming a story that does not end but, in effect, starts over again.
Lion Jude’s stories, like the story Harington has just told about him, get their power from a sense of what might be termed the “continuous present,” and this last line in “Telling Time” is that transformational moment. The continuous present of Jude’s stories merges into a continuous present with Harington’s own story. Those last words—one time—repeat the first words of the story, which begins “One time there was a man in our town” and thus become not an ending but a sense of starting again, a sense of the story’s own continuous present (Harington 76). Harington says that “To really love a story, [for it to have any meaning] we sometimes have to lie to ourselves, and the biggest lie we tell is a telling of time: We have to believe that the one time of the story” we are hearing or reading “is our time,” that we are in the moment of the story and that it is “now, for the life of the story, for the life of our listening to it” (87). The sense of a continuous present that arises from Harington’s story allows for the past and the current moment to exist together, to mingle together, and this makes the story not a dead story on a bookshelf (like Harry Tongue’s stories), but a living story that suggests a future is out there waiting for us. If we are able to make the story our story and our time, even if the survival of the people and towns in the stories isn’t assured, we are left with a sense of hope.
There is one more detail that is important in the last view we get of Lion Jude, who is telling stories to any creature that will listen, and that is the fact that our storyteller, and the story he is telling, always depends on an audience. Recall the connection between storyteller and audience in stories of individual survival. If it’s an oral story, then the person spinning the windy or stretching the blanket must have listeners to hear the tale, or it is already a dead tale. As the storytelling tradition evolves from an oral to a print form, which has been the case for Native American literature and the stories produced here in the Ozarks, then the poems, stories, and books being written in the Ozarks must have an audience/ readership to survive. They need an expanding readership to thrive, and recent developments indicate this is happening.
In the Yonder Mountain anthology from which Harington’s short story is taken, we are presented with many poems, essays, and stories that convey the same sense of this continuous present in which we may experience the lives, the work, the loves, and even the deaths of typical, notable, and sometimes laudable Ozarkers living in a very real, yet wholly unique and still mesmerizing region: for example, Pattian Rogers’s “Fury and Grace,” Marideth Sisco’s “Butterfield: An Introduction,” or Michael Burns’ “Sweet Potatoes,” in which the poet’s father teaches the son how to harvest vegetables in the garden they have been growing, and the poet realizes that he is, at the moment he is telling his story, the same age his father was when they bent together in the garden that day so many years ago (45).
The examples of storytelling’s serious function, even in a single Ozarks anthology, are numerous, but I hope the point is clear. If a story— and the meanings contained therein—is to endure, then storytelling, as Harington shows us, as we have learned from the earliest survival stories, depends on both a storyteller and an audience. The Ozarks region and its people, like any culture so heavily steeped in the storytelling tradition, will not only survive but thrive as long as new stories are produced and as long as the audience for those stories continues to grow. This ensures a continuity in cultural and regional memory. In other words, through participating in storytelling, we inhabitants of the Ozarks are able to understand who we are, who we have been, and what the future might be like for this special place we call home. We in the Ozarks know that stories aren’t just entertainment; we aren’t fooled.
Burns, Michael. “Sweet Potatoes.” Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology. Ed. Anthony Priest. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2013. 45. Print.
Harington, Donald. “Telling Time.” Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology. Ed. Anthony Priest. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2013. 76-87. Print.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking Press, 1977. Print.
——–. Storyteller: With A New Introduction and Photographs. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Dr. Brian Hardman earned an MA and PhD in English from the University of Arkansas, with a dissertation focused on the role that the environment plays in American literature. His is a Professor of English at University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, AR.