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Alias Bill Arp: Charles Henry Smith and the South's 'Goodly Heritage.'

David B. Parker's Alias Bill Arp is the most thorough, comprehensive, and meticulously researched study of the life and work of the nineteenth-century Georgia humorist Charles Henry Smith to appear in print. In addition, it is the only full-length book on Smith since James C. Austin's Bill Arp in the Twayne United States Authors Series appeared twenty-three years ago. Parker notes in his preface that he first discovered Charles Henry Smith, alias Bill Arp, in a graduate research seminar in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when the professor, knowing of Parker's interest in Southern humor, encouraged him to focus his seminar paper on a single Southern humorist. Parker responded, not only producing a seminar paper on Smith but also subsequently producing a master's thesis, a doctoral dissertation, several published articles, and finally this book on the Georgia humorist. In short, in Alias Bill Arp, Parker covers familiar territory, ground, in significant part, he has explored before; and the result is a scholarly and provocative revisionist monograph that supersedes all previous work on Charles Henry Smith.

Containing a comprehensive and up-to-date compilation of primary and secondary sources and a logically arranged and "reader friendly" index, Alias Bill Arp has been conveniently organized into a two-part life-art format. Part One, which consists of three chapters, focuses chronologically on Charles Henry Smith's life in Lawrenceville (1826-1851), Rome (1851-1877), and Cartersville (1877-1903), Georgia, respectively. By far, the most extensively researched account of Smith's life yet published, Parker's biographical chapters present a reliably detailed and interestingly informative overview of the life of the creator of Bill Arp, providing findings that were not included in reputable previous studies, most notably Annie May Christie's 1952 dissertation, the single biographical source used most often by earlier Smith scholars.

In an effort to authenticate his findings on Smith's varied life, Parker consulted not only all the published sources for biographical details on Smith but also Smith's extant letters and papers in the Agnes Scott College collection as well as those in other repositories. Furthermore, as a professional historian, Parker supplements important biographical facts about Smith with relevant historical and socio-historical data about the various Georgia towns Smith resided in during his lifetime. While the emphasis of Parker's book is not principally biographical (only forty-four pages are devoted to Smith's life, a little less than one quarter of the total volume), and while, in Parker's words, "the reader is forewarned that this biographical sketch does not raise a great number of issues that will be crucial in the later discussion of Smith's writings" (p. xiii), still his inclusion of biographical material should not be casually criticized as unnecessary padding. Instead, its inclusion can be justified, I feel, on two counts. Most potential readers of Alias Bill Arp, even those professing to be knowledgeable of nineteenth-century Southern humorists, probably know very little about Charles H. Smith; or what they do know reflects, at least in part, an inaccurate and over-simplified impression of the man and the writer. This situation unfortunately exists because the previously published sources containing such information are incomplete, affirming essentially the same half truths, distortions, and misinterpretations, usually by relying exclusively on Christie's dissertation or on Austin, who got his biographical facts from Christie.(1)

Part Two of Alias Bill Arp, consisting of six chapters, represents David Parker's most important contribution to Charles Henry Smith scholarship. The focus is on Bill Arp's published writings - veritably all of his extant published writings, not just the more familiar ones brought together and reprinted and therefore readily accessible in Smith's various book-length collections. Unlike previous critics, Parker seems to have read all the Arp columns (the majority of which have not been reprinted) that were published in the Atlanta Constitution, the newspaper for which Smith began to write in 1878 and continued to do so until his death in 1903. During this period, Smith, according to Parker, wrote approximately 1,250 columns under the Bill Arp pseudonym for the Constitution; however, earlier critical assessments of this final but significant phase of Arp's career have been, Parker argues, misunderstood and misrepresented. The reason for this is that previous scholars have largely based their judgments on only about one-tenth of Arp's Constitution columns. The published collections, containing a small part of Arp's total output for this 1878-1903 period, exhibit what critics affectionately label Arp's "homely philosophy," thereby creating the misconception that the humorist had mellowed and had become after 1878, to quote Parker, "a contented man, cheerful and hopefully optimistic" and "had become reconciled to the Confederacy's defeat and was ready to accept, even to welcome, the coming of a new age in the South" (p. 85). This erroneous critical stance, a perpetuation of the old myth about the persona that Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill designated in America's Humor as "Bill Arp II," was still being advanced as late as 1988, in what, as far as I know, was the last general overview of Charles Henry Smith's life and literary career before the publication of Alias Bill Arp. In it, L. Moody Simms, Jr., writes: "The character of Smith's post-1877 Arp letters is different from that of the earlier ones. The late letters are less satirical, more sentimental. The |new' Arp is an industrious, good-humored farmer who chats about his family, farm life, friends, and social conditions in Georgia. Now a genial, homely philospher, he advocates reconciliation between North and South" (Simms, pp. 399-400).

What is commendable about Parker's book is that he has taken the time to read, reflect on, and ultimately recognize the true significance of the newspaper columns that were not reprinted and thus to discover a very different image of Bill Arp from that of the homely philosopher and New South disciple of Henry W. Grady. Rather than being complacently contented with the so-called "New South," Arp, Parker deftly argues, perceived the post-Reconstruction South as flawed because of the demise of the region's "goodly heritage" reflected in the decline or decrease in the work ethic, personal morality, individuality and self-reliance, appreciation of the virtues of rural life and family as a stabilizing force. In essence, these changes were products of the disappearance of a value system and a way of life that Arp nostalgically associated with the old South.

Parker extends his revisionist argument to include Arp's attitudes toward blacks and race relations, enumerating reasons for Arp's outspoken paternalistic views. As Parker makes convincingly clear, Arp's attitudes toward race (he was expectedly a proponent of white supremacy) were influenced by his dissatisfaction with the New South. Lamenting the disappearance of the contented and subservient blacks of slave times (an acknowledgement of a popular racial stereotype), Arp attributed what he regarded as degeneration to the changes that were adversely affecting Southern life and society: the decline in rural life and the positive values associated with it as well as the corruption concomitant with the emergence of cities, the decline in the black man's dependency on white people, and Northern interference, both in the form of political coercion and chicanery and the strong anti-Southern bias advanced by the Northern press, churchmen, and poets.

In presenting this revisionist picture of the postbellum Bill Arp, Parker quotes liberally from Arp's Atlanta Constitution columns and interprets them cogently, incisively, and lucidly in advancing his thesis. In so doing, Parker constructs a credible and carefully reasoned argument, showing that Arp's attitude toward the New South was ambivalent and complex, a view heretofore overlooked by other scholars of Southern humor. On the one hand, according to the long-held popular contention, Arp advocated industrialization, railroads, and agricultural reforms; but he was also a harsh critic of the New South for abandoning the virtues of the antebellum South.

While Alias Bill Arp will not likely alter our perception of Charles Henry Smith's literary stature - Parker wisely and realistically classifies his subject as a "minor southern writer" (p. xii) - and while Smith will still likely be regarded as an exemplar of the Civil War era's "Phunny Phellows" brand of humor by most specialists, Parker's reevaluation of the Georgia humorist is a needed and useful addition to the scholarship about nineteenth-century Southern humorists. In fine, it is a book notable for the thoroughness of the research, the persistence of the author to do what his predecessors in the field had neglected to do: to undertake a disciplined and painstaking examination of most of Charles Henry Smith's newspaper columns. The positive result of his efforts is a truer and broader picture of the scope and complexity of Smith's accomplishments as Bill Arp.
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Author:Piacentino, Edward J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Words:1427
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