The emergence into pop culture of quaint and simple Ozarks Mountaineers—through the writings of Vance Randolph, Wayman Hogue, Charles Morrow Wilson, and others—was a comfort and fascination to many Americans in the early twentieth century. Disillusioned with the modernity they felt had contributed to the Great Depression, middle-class Americans admired the Ozarkers’ apparently simple way of life, which they saw as an alternative to an increasingly urban and industrial America.
Catherine S. Barker’s 1941 book Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks sought to illuminate another side of these “remnants of eighteenth-century life and culture”: poverty and despair. Drawing on her encounters and experiences as a federal social worker in the backwoods of the Ozarks in the 1930s, Barker described the mountaineers as “lovable and pathetic and needy and self-satisfied and valiant,” declaring that the virtuous and independent people of the hills deserved a better way and a more abundant life. Barker was also convinced that there were just as many contemptible facets of life in the Ozarks that needed to be replaced as there were virtues that needed to be preserved.
This reprinting of Yesterday Today—edited and introduced by historian J. Blake Perkins—situates this account among the Great Depression-era chronicles of the Ozarks.
“Unlike Vance Randolph and other contemporaries whose work is marked by rural romanticism, Barker offers an unvarnished account of life in the Ozarks through its unflinching depiction of rural poverty. Although her book has largely been overlooked in the years since her death in 1961, Barker’s account offers a rare glimpse of a pivotal time in the Ozarks for those who wish to better understand one of the most misunderstood regions in America.”
—Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 4, July 2020
“When Depression-era social worker Catherine S. Barker’s Yesterday Today was first published in 1941, she described her federal relief clients in the rural Arkansas Ozarks as ‘people well worth knowing.’ In this new edition, editor J. Blake Perkins provides an explanation of the life and times of Barker, shedding light on her filtered perceptions of 1930s Ozarkers struggling to make ends meet. Perkins shows us that Barker, too, was a person ‘well worth knowing’ and that Yesterday Today is a book well worth reading.”
—Susan Young, Shiloh Museum of Ozark History
In the preface to The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society, the first nonfiction book on the people of the Ozark region, Vance Randolph confessed that he sought to entertain general readers with stories of a place divorced from the march of time, its inhabitants a people whose isolation and hidebound dedication to the ways of their ancestors rendered them exotic relics in an age of electricity, radios, and automobiles. Randolph knew he was presenting to his audience an incomplete picture of his adopted region, a place more complex and heterogeneous than even he could appreciate. Yet, his decision to essentialize Ozark people and their culture set a precedent that other chroniclers of the Ozarks would dutifully and willingly follow. Whether infused with a romantic fascination for ancient ballads, fox hunters, and weaving grannies or informed by a modernist critique of the intellect-stultifying poverty and backwardness of the benighted hill country, these chronicles all agreed that “the average urban American” who visited the region would feel “himself among an alien people.” The tens of thousands of readers of these books were almost certain to convert generalizations—and generations—into regional stereotypes.