When C.D. Wright mentioned in 2013 that she'd like to see her Reader's Map of Arkansas updated, Hope Coulter thought, "How hard could that be?"
As it turned out, it was nearly three years hard, as Coulter, director of the Hendrix-Murphy Programs at Hendrix College, and her colleagues on the steering committee found themselves laboring over a number of questions. Who should be included? Well, they should have published a book. What does publish mean? What sort of a book? What does it mean to be an Arkansas writer, anyway? What is literature? What if we left someone out? And so forth.
In the end, the committee came up with 462 authors. Their names, alongside one of their writings, appear, in no particular order, on the new 2-by-3-foot Readers' Map of Arkansas, unveiled April 12 at the Oxford American Annex.
Wright's original Reader's Map, which was part of her "Lost Roads Project" with photographer Deborah Luster, an exhibition of writings, photographs and an accompanying book, contained around 150 names and included musicians and journalists as well as writers. It was her belief that Arkansas's writers and artists stood apart in the way the state's geography and topography is distinct from the named regions around us. "My stance is that Arkansas culture, the artful expression of an internally autonomous territory in letters, has been both precisely and uncommonly expressed, and that this record is cause for assertion," Wright said in her introduction to the "Lost Roads" book. "I arkansas," she wrote, much as you would say "I write" or "I read."
There is no such lyrical introduction to the new Readers' Map, but the map's website explains, "Arkansas is still relatively small in population, close-knit, and uniquely tied to the land. These are among the factors in its distinctive literary heritage ... ." There is still cause for assertion, but our knowledge of who is writing in Arkansas — our ability to know — has grown by leaps and bounds.
The new map, designed by H.K. Stewart, includes only authors of published — but not self-published — books. No more musicians. No more Alan Leveritt, the publisher of the Arkansas Times, who was listed by virtue of founding the newspaper. (But Mara Leveritt is there, having published several books since the 1994 map.) Writers need not have been born in Arkansas, but their time here must have left a mark on their writing. The Gentleman of Elvas — a Spaniard who wrote a chronicle of his travels to Arkansas with DeSoto in the 17th century — remains on the map.
The new map also differs from the 1994 map, in a WPA-ish woodcut design (and "Reader's" instead of "Readers' ") in that names are not listed alphabetically, a device that encourages readers of the Readers' Map to explore Arkansas letters in the way you might go through a bin of old 33s, knowing jewels are there. Readers won't find academic tomes, but they will find all their favorite Arkansas writers, as well as writers they never heard of. Besides great poets and novelists, there are nonfiction writers as well, like George William Featherstonhaugh ("Excursion through the Slave States," published in 1844) and Joseph Neal ("Arkansas Birds, Their Distribution and Abundance)" and Bill Clinton ("My Life"). Orville Henry is on the map ("The Razorbacks: The Story of Arkansas Football") and so is Arkansas School for the Blind alumnus Ved Mehta ("Sound-Shadows of the New World.") And while musicians no longer appear, critics are there, such as Marvin Schwartz ("We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers.") Readers will find romance writers — Christian, paranormal, Amish and suspenseful. Science fiction. Vampire literature. It is democratic: No particular test of taste or literary merit was applied. ("Who am I to judge?" Coulter said in an interview.) It is, as the website says, as diverse as Arkansas, "from John Gould Fletcher to Maya Angelou, Charles Portis to Padma Viswananthan." Around 200 of the authors are living.
Tuesday night's unveiling was bittersweet, as two people crucial to the project did not live to see it completed. Wright, a poet and writer of prose, died unexpectedly in January at her home in Rhode Island. She was 67 and a professor at Brown University. Amy Edgington, the cataloger for the Central Arkansas Library System and the new project, died after a brief illness in November.
Authors who appear on the map read not from their own writings but from those of writers they admired: Jo McDougall read a poem of Miller Williams; Jay Jennings read the first few pages of "Dog of the South" by Charles Portis. Sanderia Faye read from Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"; Guy Lancaster read from Sanderia Faye's "Mourner's Bench." Sandy Longhorn read from Wright's "One With Others," about Mrs. Vittitow and her journey with Sweet Willie Wine and the racist Delta. You don't get much more arkansas than that.
The Arkansas Humanities Council, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas Library Association, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the Central Arkansas Library System Foundation, The Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language, the Porter Fund, Pulaski Technical College and the University of Central Arkansas supported the project.
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