- A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1: The Old Ozarks by Brooks Blevins
In The Old Ozarks, the first volume of a planned historical trilogy, A History of the Ozarks, Brooks Blevins explores the evolution of the Ozarks from the region's uplift a billion and a half years ago to the eve of the American Civil War. As an unquestioned expert on the region, Blevins deploys engaging prose to examine the complex, diverse, and often misrepresented history of "the middle-American highlands" (p. 9). Much of The Old Ozarks seeks to refute the myriad historical inaccuracies and cultural stereotypes that have plagued the region and its scholarship. Strikingly similar to Appalachian regional scholars who refute enduring historical and cultural falsehoods related to the southern mountains and mountaineers, Blevins utilizes the long-standing historical and cultural distortions of the Ozarks as an entry point to examine the region's past.
Throughout The Old Ozarks, Blevins challenges notions of regional isolation and homogeneity and their supposed consequences on the socioeconomic development of the Ozarks. In chapter 1, "The Primitive Ozarks," Blevins reveals that the region was not cut off from the outside world during its prehistoric period and exhibited a remarkable level of physiographic and cultural diversity that defies many contemporary popular regional myths. Chapter 2, "Natives and Newcomers," explores the diverse and connected world of the region's Native peoples (including the Osage). Challenging the image of a monolithic and backward region painted by early scholars, Blevins suggests that the entrance of European Americans into the Ozarks led to the creation of a "market-oriented, multicultural," hierarchical, "technology dependent," and "thoroughly integrated" region (p. 37). As Blevins recounts the rapid development of the region after the American Revolution, the remaining chapters also call into question enduring ideas of cultural, economic, and geographic isolation in the Ozarks. Blevins describes a dynamic and deeply interconnected region in which, contrary to many early depictions, Ozarkers did not hide from modern mainstream America but rather attempted to recreate it. From the development of the natural resource–driven extraction economy (lead mining) to the spread of the slavery-based political economy, the antebellum Ozarks was a region undergoing a remarkable transformation and was rapidly integrated into the rest of America.
Another key theme Blevins addresses in The Old Ozarks is the concept of regional exceptionalism, a topic all too familiar to Appalachian scholars. Throughout his study, Blevins unearths the origins and misconceptions associated with the notion that Ozarkers and their cultural identity were outside the normative mainstream of middle-class America. Challenging the European germ theory of regional development, the "retarded frontier" thesis of cultural and economic stagnation, and the subculture of violence theory, Blevins convincingly asserts that the Ozarks' people were ethnically varied, deeply connected to national and international socioeconomic trends, and part of a truly [End Page 661] American tradition of extralegal vigilantism (p. 121). In short, there was nothing truly exceptional about the antebellum Ozarks, save the natural world, that could not be found across the southern United States and much of rural America.
Blevins's history of the antebellum Ozarks explores a wide range of interesting developments in the region, including the impact of eastern Indian migrations and resettlement (such as with the Cherokees), the role of ethnic diversity in regional development, the growth of the region's market economy, and the significance of slavery in the region's political and economic maturation. While the diversity of topics covered is impressive, it is Blevins's entertaining writing style and deeper understanding of the complex invention and reinvention of the idea of the Ozarks that are the strengths of this work.