Sunday, January 11, 2009

Payton & Payton: "Mystery of the Irish Wilderness"

[Mystery of the Irish Wilderness: Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan's Lost Irish Colony in the Ozark Wilderness by Leland and Crystal Payton (Lens and Pen Press, 2008). Softcover, full-color maps, illustrations, and photos; bibliography. pp. 128. ISBN: 978-0-9673925-4-7 $18.95]

Mystery of the Irish Wilderness is the story of Catholic priest John J. Hogan's mission to establish agricultural "colonies" in Missouri for poor Irish immigrants. Much of the text comprises lengthy excerpts from Hogan's own published memoirs describing his journeys and interactions (positive and negative) with the existing populace. Fr. Hogan's efforts were widespread, establishing settlements in SE Missouri between the Eleven Point and Current rivers -- the "Irish Wilderness", now a Federal preserve -- and in far off Chillicothe. However, by war's end, the more isolated wilderness colonies had been abandoned. The narrative of co-authors Leland and Crystal Payton provides background information as well as their own take on the 'mystery' behind the dispersal of the Ozark settlements during the Civil War. Hogan's post-war career is also discussed.

The book's presentation is beautiful, with full-color illustrations on almost every page. Both period and professionally executed modern photographs are included. Archival and modern topographical maps also support the text well, giving the uninitiated reader a good geographical orientation. Combined with the quality construction and materials used, the book's physical appearance is impressive. On the downside, while there's a short select bibliography, those with a scholarly interest in the material will not find footnotes or an index.

Readers looking for a detailed explanation of why the settlers abandoned their claims and where they went will not find one. The authors were unable to uncover any conclusive evidence, and Hogan's own writings add little to our understanding, as he traveled to Chillicothe in December 1859 and never did return to the Ozark settlements. What is left is speculation, but the most reasonable conclusion appears to be an incremental dispersal brought on by community isolation in combination with wartime social and economic dislocation -- a fate similar to that of large numbers of communities throughout the southern and border states. As a conclusion, this is perhaps the most reasonable that can be made; however, the text is uncited and the reference material supporting the book's coverage of the civil war years contains unreliable secondary sources such as the work of the late Jerry Ponder, a highly partisan and controversial [I would go so far as to say discredited] regional writer and researcher.

Red flags aside, there is more to Mystery of the Irish Wilderness than the war years. The book is a visual feast, with rare insights into frontier missionary work in Missouri and American Catholic history in general.

1 comment:

  1. Authors should be thankful for a fair and positive review of their work such as this – and we are. We appreciate that the review also took note of the quality of the design, illustrations, maps and overall construction of the book itself.

    There was however criticism of citing Jerry Ponder, the late southeast Missouri local historian. We received objections from others interested in Civil War history. But we defend the inclusion of material from the “discredited” Jerry Ponder in a book subtitled “Land and Legend …” The specific material that we used from Ponder he had borrowed from uncontested sources, a literary practice all of us employ. Note that we did not include his more speculative and parochial musings. In retrospect, we agree that we should have noted in the text that some of Ponder’s other theories and writings are suspect.

    From our perspective now, perhaps we should have included his speculative accounts because they are indicative of the still-hot feelings about the Civil War in this formerly Confederate sympathizing stronghold. Had we done so, we would have certainly acknowledged the hostility that scholars have toward the likes of Jerry Ponder.

    In the context of a generally favorable review we accept a little knuckle rapping. Without becoming too postmodern, there is some risk in excluding highly partisan, folky, and possibly completely fictitious viewpoints. These partisan stories are a part of the heritage of the Civil War. It’s an interesting philosophical question: Where are the boundaries of “objective” history and “folk” history? Sometimes they are clear; other times they are foggy. From what we know of Ponder’s writing he wandered in and out of accountability.

    Possibly we should have been more diligent in citations but this is not a scholarly work and footnotes and extensive bibliographic information are not always well received in a book intended for the general public.

    We take it as a compliment that the book was well reviewed on this Web site. Civil War Books and Authors is a service to authors, publishers, and anyone interested in these specialized books. With the decline of the print medium this is valuable and we feel honored to be selected and grateful for the largely positive review.

    Leland and Crystal Payton, authors of Mystery of the Irish Wilderness


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