By the 1840s American literature tradition had become fascinated with the frontier. The rural folk humor of the “Devil’s Fork” letters that a young Charles Fenton Mercer Noland (1810–1858) of central Arkansas began writing in 1837 was something the country wanted. His pieces were published regularly in New York’s Spirit of the Times, and he quickly achieved a reputation as one of the southwest’s best humorists. His tall tales told in dialect reflected the peculiar characteristics of the people of a backwoods region.
Noland’s semiautobiographical “Letters” were built around the experiences of Pete Whetstone, who, along with his neighbors, devoted himself to hunting, fishing, and an outdoors lifestyle. Through his first-person narration readers were able to experience an ideal southwest frontier existence. Here was a land of natural beauty, with clear rivers, forested mountains, and abundant game, a place where a person could live a free and rustic lifestyle.
Here too were horse races and bear fights, politics and balls. Unfortunately for Noland, an early death cut short a promising career. Had he lived longer and written more, he could have become one of America’s great nineteenth-century humorists. Midcentury America was certainly looking for one.
Leonard Williams published Cavorting on the Devil’s Fork with Memphis State University Press in 1979. Williams taught at the University of North Alabama in Florence. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1988, and was one year younger than Noland was when he died.
George E. Lankford is an emeritus professor of folklore at Lyon College in Noland’s hometown of Batesville, Arkansas. He is the editor of Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections, now in its second edition.
With the publication of A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819 by Thomas Nuttall, edited by Savoie Lottinville, the University of Arkansas Press inaugurated its new paperback reprint series, Arkansas Classics. This hallmark series will bring back into print, and keep in print, important works about Arkansas and by Arkansans. These books are essential reading for scholars and for general readers who wish to know more about the state’s history and literature, its people, and its cultural heritage. Titles will come from all eras of Arkansas’s past and will include fiction and nonfiction, personal accounts and scholarly studies, many with new introductions and annotations. This list as it develops will reflect the diversity of voices and experiences that is Arkansas.