- Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins
J. Blake Perkins
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017
ix + 277 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper)
J. Blake Perkins brings impressive research and a lively narrative to bear in his challenge to scholars such as Bethany Moreton (To Serve God and Walmart, Harvard University Press, 2009) and Darren Dochuk (From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, W.W. Norton, 2011) who have portrayed late twentieth-century rural people's antimodernist and antigovernment ideologies as a static feature of southern rural culture since the nineteenth century. Focusing on his native Arkansas Ozarks, Perkins explains that while these principles among rural southern whites enjoy a long history, their motivations and undercurrents have remained anything but static since the populist insurgency of the 1890s. The faith poor Ozarkers placed in the federal government to create economic opportunities for rural folks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he argues, eroded over time as local elites tasked to administer the programs of a largely decentralized federal state enforced policies in ways that maintained the local status quo and thus their own political and economic positions. These circumstances, Perkins concludes, led to intense resistance to local management of federal policies until the last half of the twentieth century, when decades of unfulfilled promises left poor Ozarkers open to the pro-states' rights and anti-federal government arguments of the New Right and Tea Party movements.
The final two chapters are the most significant and strongest sections of the book, as Perkins explains how in the late twentieth century local elites maneuvered themselves into position to exploit or resist federal policies aimed at the poor. More specifically, local elites' administering of federal policies allowed them to take credit for programs' successes while shifting blame for their failures onto the federal government. Under these circumstances, the federal government could not receive anything but blame for the inadequacies of a program like the Ozarks Regional Commission (ORC), an underfunded federal effort to revitalize chronically depressed sections of the mountainous region. The few resources available to the ORC were focused primarily onto urban areas, where local business elites received the lion's share of the benefits while the most destitute sections of the region remained untouched by the program. Yet when the rural poor complained of this arrangement, "local leaders passed the buck to federal bureaucrats in Washington" (185). Decades of buck-passing and the continued failure of the federal government to relieve rural Ozarkers' economic plight had essentially eradicated the optimism of the old populist movement and helped create cross-class opposition to the War on Poverty and subsequent uplift polices that relied on federal bureaucracies for their administration.
In part 2 of the book, Perkins aims to reveal the underlying populist motives of individual Ozarker resisters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through a series of "microhistories." Here his arguments pack far less of a punch. While I do not disagree with Perkins's claim that many poor Ozarkers were populists and that this would have led to some resistance to how federal policies were carried out, the author too [End Page 190] often speculates as to the nature of his subjects' resistance, leaving us to wonder whether resistance to local elites' exploitation of populist-inspired federal laws was ideological or practical. The individuals he features do not appear to fit the familiar populist molds of the agrarian state-builders who distrusted a corrupt federal bureaucracy (Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform, University of Chicago Press, 1999) or the rural modernists who hoped to seize the reigns of the federal state and wield its bureaucratic power to fit their aims instead of those of big capital (Charles Postel, The Populist Vision, Oxford University Press, 2007). Instead, they often come across as angry and frustrated at any person or institution that would advance the interests of elites instead of those of the common man, especially themselves.
A case in point is the moonshiner Harve Bruce, featured in chapter 2. During his 1897 trial for shooting and killing...