Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Gillyclicker Project

One of my first university English professors was Francis Irby Gwaltney. "Fig" to his friends, chief among them being his army buddy and lifelong corespondent Norman Mailer. Mailer had met his fifth and final wife, Gwaltney's former student Norris Church Mailer, when she crashed a party at Gwaltney's home. Gwaltney was the inspiration for the gruff sergeant in Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and his own novel rooted in their WWII experiences, The Day the Century Ended, was made into the so-so 1956 movie Between Heaven and Hell with Robert Wagner, Buddy Ebsen, and Broderick Crawford. At a gathering associated with Gwaltney's funeral I met Mailer, which was sort of like encountering three Harlan Ellisons packed into one large Brooks Brothers suit.

Gwaltney was the first "real" writer I ever knew. His bylines included TV episodes of The Fugitive and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. But he was best known for his novels, each to one degree or another steeped in the distinctive northern Arkansas regionalism that he had experienced growing up during the 1920s-40s in the woo-pig-soo. That regionalism included the local customs, mores, dialect, and — a key tent pole of Southern fiction — sex, typically presented with such straightforward and unobscured élan that it's like to give you a case of the fantods.

My aunt and uncle in Fayetteville, Ark. were on "Fig" terms with Gwaltney and his wife "Ecey." Unlike my parents, my aunt and uncle were both readers and educators, my Aunt Ann being a librarian and Uncle Harry now memorialized with a school named after him. And unlike my parents' house, they had books. Shelves and stacks and tabletops of books. While visiting them as a kid of about 11 or 12, I recall reaching for Gwaltney's novels lined up next to a table lamp, then being told that they were "too old" for me to read. And it's true, they were — what did I care about a bunch of talky grownups before and during WWII? But that admonition against opening such forbidden pages (I had a fair inkling of what actually was being forbidden therein) snared me as surely as a trout on a split-shank hook. So when I was left to my own devices and no one was looking....

Oh, that sweaty southern summer carnality! The best part wasn't the fact that these conniving, hard-talking characters were "screwin'" or "doing it" — although that was pretty great as no book in my house ever had such, um, reality in it. It was the language. The sexual lexicon was like something out of William Faulkner by way of Dr. Seuss. Not just "pecker" and "pussy," which were common enough argot, but (respectively) tallywhacker and twitchet. And my favorite: gillyclicker. Clear via context, that was another term for the vagina or the clitoris, depending on how close the third-person POV was in the moment.

Urban Dictionary defines twitchet as "southern slang for a vagina." The usage example given, "I diddled her twitchet," suggests that whoever wrote the entry drew from a reliable source. That said, Urban Dictionary's auto-filled clickable ad exhorting me to "buy twitchet mugs, tshirts and magnets" doesn't much help with my Christmas gift-giving options.

For spelling purists, Google is split regarding tallyw(h)acker, with "about 27,200 results" for tallywhacker (with an h) and "about 26,200 results" for tallywacker (h free).

Growing up in Arkansas decades after the settings of those novels, I'd heard "tallyw(h)acker" only rarely, and probably not at all outside the occasional ribald joke or literary/folktale commentary pointing at the word from an academic remove. It possesses a quaint, Dogpatch-like ring long since superseded by "pecker" and "cock" and all the other more familiar monikers. "Twitchet" was totally new to me, though over the years I've noticed that it's not quite as obsolete as its male counterpart.

But gillyclicker? Until recently, Gwaltney's novels were the only places I'd encountered that word, and I've never heard it spoken out loud in any context. I have no doubt that Gwaltney's use of it was authentic, genuine, true to his experience of his books' time and place. But it was a bona fide rarity, like Momo the Missouri Monster or compassionate conservatism. Because I haven't cracked open any of Gwaltney's novels in years (for me they're anthropologically interesting, but they don't quite make my list of crackerjack reads) I haven't bumped into a single gillyclicker (ahem) in all that time.

Until a few days ago.

Among my foremost reading pleasures over the past year have been Donald Harington's "Stay More" novels. (NYT obit, Guardian obit, official website, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry.) There are about a dozen of them, all set in or near the fictitious hamlet of Stay More in the Arkansas Ozarks. Altogether the novels span more than a century, from the town's founding in the 1800s to the 1970s, after the place has all but vanished from maps and memory.

I love these books. Through their beautiful, bawdy saga we come to know well roughly a dozen characters at various stages of their lives, with a walk-on character in one novel becoming the central lead in another. Harington's world-building is as rich as Tolkien's, just scaled more compactly, or as viewed from the other end of the telescope — and considerably more satisfying, by my lights.

Harington experimented uninhibitedly and accomplished so much with voice, setting, character-creation, point of view, narrative swirl, humor, and ... spirit? ...  that his books are rewarding for their craft and sheer pleasurable storytelling buttressed by their humanist authenticity. One of his novels, The Cockroaches of Stay More, is an Aristophanean comic satire told from the perspective of the town's hidden subcommunity of cockroaches, and yet it's more "true" than just about any designated "fantastical fiction" novel I've read in years.

Seriously, I can't recommend Harington's books highly enough. Pretty much by osmosis he has become the #1 influence on my own nascent novel, Jasper, set in the real town of Jasper just a few miles north of "Stay More," albeit in the final months of this century.*

I'm currently reading the final Stay More novel, Enduring, published just before Harington died in 2009. It's just a coincidence that its main character is named Latha Bourne; however, at about the time Harington was spending his boyhood summers in nearby Drakes Creek, my father was growing up with the Bourne clan just one county over in Van Buren. So maybe Harington had known of them and I can therefore feel justified in imagining a sidelong connection. In any case, Latha Bourne is one of the most finely wrought characters I've ever come across. She is a woman of great and admirable agency, as they call it in lit-crit circles these days, and her long life is the watch-stem of the series. I'd be proud to be somehow related to her.

And in Enduring, there it is again: gillyclicker, used exactly the way Gwaltney did, in a setting just up the mountains and around the hollers from Gwaltney's lascivious rednecks.

Okay, I harrumphed, interest piqued. What's the etymology of that word? Its roots, its cultural history? Where the hell did it come from? Naturally, let's go to Google for the answer!

Holy shit! It's not there! Right now as I sit here, when I put "gillyclicker" into Google all I get is a photo caption on some guy's MySpace page, apparently the name of some now-extinct garage band. The second hit is a new item (it didn't show up yesterday), a books.google scanned page from Arkansas, Arkansas: Writers and Writings from the Delta to the Ozarks, edited by John Caldwell Guilds — and that's a passage from Francis Gwaltney's Destiny's Chickens. **

Period. Full stop. That's the end of it. Apparently, as far as the Internet is concerned, gillyclicker might as well have never existed. Nor is it archived...
  • as regional slang preserved alongside twitchet or its poetical kin in trochaic dimeter, tallyw(h)acker;
  • as a relic of linguistic Americana ambered in a niche lexicon for cultural-historical study or folk language anthropology;
  • even as an arcane but amusing word that deserves better than to go the way of the dodo (an arcane but amusing yet ultimately pointless bird that, by the way, has its own Wikipedia page).
I would have thought that by now every word in the English language, no matter how regional and obscure, would be "on the Internet" and eminently Googleable. I mentioned this inexplicable omission to Elizabeth, noting the aforementioned closely related slang terms that are easy to find there.
Elizabeth: "Are there twitchets on the Internet?"
   [wait for it]
Me: "Honey, there are twitchets all over the Internet."
So now I'm a man with a mission. It may not be sending a crew to Mars, but it's mine and it's important, dammit.

I'm putting gillyclicker on the Internet, starting with this blog post.

That's Part One.

Part Two is a asking you to find a way to use gillyclicker somehow in your own writing for the Web. The only proviso is that you use it with its original meaning and in an appropriate context. Naming an alien species "the Gillyclickers from Epsilon Eridani" won't cut it. However, you're welcome to apply it to something like, say, "When she encountered the lost aliens in that cave near their broken ship stranded in the deep woods of the Missouri Ozarks, Prof. Janice Duncan felt a thrill in her gillyclicker she'd not experienced since the first night she had become acquainted with Prof. Jamison's SETI-tattooed tallywhacker."

Think of the opportunity. Think of the history. Think of the language. And for god's sake, think of the children.

* I've coined the term "coondogpunk" as a flippant elevator-pitch neologism for Ozarkian science fiction or contemporary southern spec-fic. I've tried it on a handful of readers/writers whose opinions I respect. A few love it, some others approve noncommittally, and one told me without hesitation that she no no no no hates it. Care to weigh in? "Science fiction Lake Wobegon" sort of works, despite the geographical dislocation, as it captures the tenor and texture well enough.

** John Caldwell Guilds' intro graf above the quoted passage tells me that Gwaltney "was charged with the use or prurient language and phallicism in Destiny's Chickens (1973). In the 'Acknowledgment' to Destiny's Chickens, Gwaltney defended the realism of the novel's language, describing it as 'English as it is spoken in Franklin County, Arkansas, south of the River.' " Note the use of the present tense. Was "gillyclicker" still in active use as recently as '73? Is it still in that area today? ***

*** "Phallicism"?

Music: Béla Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra
Near at hand: Penelope Gilliatt, Unholy Fools