Arkansas. It’s the state in which I’ve lived the last thirty-seven years. We are situated close to the middle of the United States, an area known to many as “flyover country.”
Though Arkansas is a tourism location, people don’t generally know much about the state. I’ll offer additional details specifically about Arkansas at a future date, but for now, I thought it might be more interesting to introduce an Arkansas storyteller who doesn’t get much attention nowadays, but whose ability and talent brought her considerable fame in her time.
She was born Julia Burnelle “Bernie” Smade in April of 1868. She was actually born in Ohio but her family moved to Russellville when she was a youngster. She began writing verse around the age of five or six, and by the time she turned sixteen, she was a regular contributor to several periodicals of the time. When she was eighteen, she married and bore five children before her husband William Babcock died suddenly, leaving her a 29 year old widow with children to feed and clothe.
According to the Companion of Southern Literature, Babcock was among the “… first Arkansas women to support herself, as well as her children by writing.” She authored more than forty novels. She was also “… the first Arkansas woman to be listed in Who’s Who in America” in 1903, and received numerous other awards for her writing.
Other interesting tidbits about her life include being expelled from kindergarten for lying. (Her mother took an open-minded view of the infraction, believing Bernie simply created an alternate narrative.) When Bernie was fifteen, she read an original essay for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) convention. The essay was well-received and led to multiple opportunities for the developing writer.
Babcock’s debut novel appeared in 1899. Titled The Daughter of A Republican, this first novel sold 100,000 copies within six months. As her debut work, Bernie didn’t shy away from revealing her core values at the get-go. Historians commenting on this period in Arkansas considered Babcock a good writer but readily fixed her with the label “propagandist.”
Consider her background. Her grandfather was a minister in the Methodist denomination, a man with abolitionist sentiments. Her mother was an active member in the WCTU. During the era in which Babcock wrote, stories commonly contained moral statements and Bernie was a product of her time.
Debut novels often set the tone for a writer’s body of work. Babcock begins setting her tone on the dedication page where she notes: “Because of the loving interest she has always taken in my every ‘first attempt,’ I dedicate this little volume to MY MOTHER.” Writers who mention their mothers in dedicatory notes are probably legion, but the theme of Babcock’s earliest novel reflected her mother’s values as well.
ASIDE: Rereading the book now, I can’t help but be amused. Chapter 1 begins: “Let me introduce the reader to the Crowley family.” In Babcock’s case, it is the Crowley family, but my thoughts diverted momentarily to the Crawley family of Downton Abbey fame.
Babcock’s opening paragraph continues: “… in this broad land of ours there are thousands upon thousands of families in a condition as deplorable, and some whose mercury line of debauchery has dropped to a point of miserable existence …” In the pages that follow, this novel contrasts one family ravaged by the excesses of liquor consumption to the heroine’s family, people who are proverbial pillars of the community and … sober.
At its most basic level, the novel is an unabashed morality tale. One biographer characterizes Babcock as “an eager propagandist.” Another writer calls the novel a “biting attack on saloons.” Such descriptions may facilitate easy categorization, but they minimize a crucial component. The book is faithful to its WCTU roots.
WCTU borrows the words of Greek philosopher Xenophon (400 B.C.) to define its mission: “Temperance may be defined as moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.” Babcock’s novel camps on the harmful nature of demon rum and she uses her story to portray this perceived evil. Babcock’s heroine also denounces civil government for not applying Christian moral authority to the scourge of “evil saloons.”
The 115-page novel ends as one might expect, with a hopeful, on-the-cusp-of happily-ever-after scenario. Perhaps more curious is the final page (once the narrative is complete). It’s a page-long reference of Section 17 of the Army Act, passed by Congress March 2, 1899 which begins by saying: “That no officer or private soldier shall be detailed to sell intoxicating drinks as a bartender or otherwise, in any post exchange or canteen …”
Babcock follows (in a few sentences and brief comment) how the Attorney General and War Department agreed to evade this quoted section of the law by hiring civilians to tend bar and sell intoxicating beverages to Army personnel.
So my question: Was Bernie Babcock a propagandist or a woman who believed she had a mission? (Or both?)