Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hobbits in Kentucky

From 2007. I keep just picking the first thing that looks interesting in a random month. I should be home tomorrow.

Not a joke or a misprint. Bumbling around doing research for the Beowulf post, I happened across an essay by Guy Davenport, literature prof in KY who studied under Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford. Back in the US, he became friends with Alan Barnett, who he later learned had been a student at Oxford with Tolkien. Barnett related how fascinated JRRT had been to hear about the country folk of Kentucky, growing tobacco and having such English country names as Burrowes, Barefoot, Proudfoot, and Baggins. Two versions of the same story, each with information the other lacks, are here (scroll down) and here. Barnett, BTW, had not heard that his friend Tolkien had later become a novelist and knew nothing of The Lord Of The Rings.

Davenport wrote a NYT piece on it in 1979, but the Times archive only goes back to 1981.

Commentary. The rural West Midlands area that Tolkien patterned the Shire after had become more urban by the time of Tolkien's writing, and the idea of something even remotely like it being preserved in America might well have charmed him. To a European classicist, rural America had much the same remoteness that Professor T was trying to capture about the Shire. Americans would immediately associate Kentucky with Appalachia, which was settled by rambunctious Scots-Irish and English Borderers, and discount the idea of any connection. But Tolkien may not have had that association, and in this case it is not accurate anyway. That section of KY between Frankfort and Louisville was actually settled by a higher percentage of West Midlanders, more like Ohio was.

I looked up all those Hobbit-names, comparing that part of KY with the rest of KY, and with other places across the US. There weren't any Bagginses,* Gamgees, or Bracegirdles, but there were Tookes, Grubbs, Barefoots and Proudfoots, Burrowes, and Pippins. There were no Butterburs, but there were Butterbaughs. BOOderbaw my son pronounced immediately after I'd told him. "We had a Butterbaugh in my class (at Asbury College in Kentucky)" There was indeed a greater concentration of all these names around Shelbyville and Louisville. These names occurred elsewhere in the country, but were much less common - only a few in huge California, New York, and Texas, for example.

The attempts to show a similar speech pattern I find less convincing. Rural archaic constructions all sound very similar at first go until you take them apart. That archaic constructions persisted at all, however, would have been known to Tolkien but still likely to intrigue him.

One commenter on a Tolkien site suggested that examining the census records for 1910 - 1930 for that area might be more revealing than a current phone listing. Likely true, but I'm not likely to do it myself.

Update: There is a Cooter Baggins who graduated from a HS in Indiana, right across the river from that part of KY. Hmm.

*There is a Bilbo Baggins in Louisville, but I assumed that was a taken name, not a christened name.. 


Christopher B said...

One of the things that still gives me a "we're not in Kansas any more" feeling about moving from heavily Scandinavian-German (with a touch of Czech) Iowa to Louisville is the unfamiliar names of people and places.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It was strange to me that the French names which I easily pronounce from growing up in NH are different in other parts of the country, such as Louisiana. I can say Polish and Greek names effortlessly because of Manchester. Other nationalities have been less automatic.

Christopher B said...

Bilbo is no longer in the phone book, at least in the paper one I got but I have no idea how comprehensive they are now.

There is a Sidebottom running for County Clerk in the county south of Louisville (Nelson or LaRue).

RichardJohnson said...

It was strange to me that the French names which I easily pronounce from growing up in NH are different in other parts of the country, such as Louisiana.

That may be the difference between Nova Scotia and Quebec. Cajuns were exiled from Nova Scotia. By default, New England French came from Quebec- perhaps a few from New Brunswick.

Texas has some French-surnamed people from the North. I know an Hebert from NH- a surname also common in Louisiana. I dealt with a tradesman with the surname of Lagace, whom I assumed was Cajun. He was from Quebec. His father was born and raised in New England, and had gotten drafted when he spent some time in Quebec. He ended up staying in Quebec. Or was it that he was somehow stationed with the US Army in Quebec, and ended up staying there. Probably the latter.

Growing up in NE, one acquires a knowledge of what surnames indicate what nationalities, such as "-ian" is Armenian, "-inski" Polish, "-off/-ov" Russian etc.