2 August 2005 - Tuesday

Hobbits in Kentucky?

Cliopatria's Ralph Luker has noticed an old essay, "Hobbitry," written by Guy Davenport (published in 1981 in The Geography of the Imagination).

I found a little more of it here:

The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien's. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

"Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that."

And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits' pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality .... Kentucky, it seems, contributed its share.

Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: "I hear tell," "right agin," "so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way," "this very month as is." These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien's imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don't know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.

It would be fun to test this, but it could be difficult. Perhaps we can show an unusual concentration of these names in Kentucky relative to other places, but if the names merely exist there, it's possible that Tolkien and Kentucky had mutual sources. The American backcountry settlements got a lot of people from northern Britain; it is entirely possible that Tolkien borrowed his Shire surnames and speech patterns from people closer to his own home. That would not at all preclude Allen Barnett's story from being true, of course. It could merely make the story slightly less impressive.

Luker says:

I've read and discounted some of the claims that English and Scots-Irish immigrants settled in remote pockets of mountainous eastern Kentucky and preserved 18th century folk culture and language largely unchanged into the 20th century. But Lexington and Shelbyville are in the lush bluegrass central part of the state. They've never been isolated in ways that the mountain communities have been.
What would a well-informed historian do when confronted with this kind of evidence? Did Davenport discover the hobbits, living unbeknownst in central Kentucky or was his own provenance over-reaching?

I don't know what a well-informed historian would do. But I know what I would do, especially if I were procrastinating right before an exam. (Pluperfect and past conditional in French, if it interests you.)

Unfortunately, I don't think I have convenient access to census records at the moment. If I could, I would search the surnames in Kentucky and the United States from several decades ago (since full records are released only after 70 years, that would mean 1930 at the most recent).

However, I did visit WhitePages.com (which made me glad to have a popup blocker). Of course, this is a weak method; some people still do not have telephones, and some of the search results are duplicated or spurious. In any case, below are the results.

KY: 1
US: 36
KY: 12
US: >300
KY: 0
US: 12
KY: 0
US: 1*
KY: 62
US: >300
KY: 0
US: 1**
KY: 0
US: 116
KY: 297
US: >300
KY: 0
US: >300
KY: 12
US: >300
KY: 3
US: >300
* Meriadoc Brandybuck lives in Key West. I'm suspicious.
** Sam W. Gamgee lives in New Jersey. See antecedent comment.

And, for good measure, I looked for surnames similar to other Shire names:

KY: 3
US: >300
KY: 0
US: 5
KY: 0
US: 0
KY: 0
US: 0
KY: 75
US: >300
KY: 0
US: 0
* Meriadoc is actually the name of a saint, I believe.

I'm not terribly impressed with the results. In particular, the disproportionately low concentration of Goodbodies, Tooks, and Proudfeet relative to the rest of the country is disappointing.

Worse still, I found 123 entries for Goodbody, 81 for Took, and 541 for Proudfoot in the British listings at Infobel UK. There are ten British entries for Gamgee, compared with no legitimate-looking listings at all in the US. There are also 58 British Boffins, but only twelve in America and none in Kentucky.

Some of those are business names, but that was disheartening. I was only slightly encouraged by finding a scarcity of Bagginses in the UK; there were just two likely-looking British listings, compared with one in Kentucky.

That does not in any way disprove the account we have from Barnett via Davenport. It merely means I haven't done anything to corroborate it.

Update: In a response to this post, Kenneth R. Gregg notes that the communities under consideration could be more highly isolated than we would expect from Davenport's essay:

Originating from the region that is known as "Kentuckiana" (I'm from the Indiana portion with a fair knowledge of Western Kentucky--my family has been in the region since the early 1800's), I'm not that surprised. There are nooks and crannies of small valleys and wooded hills thereabouts that, in my childhood, I spent much time. Many are out of the way, and not observable from the main roads. The culture there has a different sense of time, of place. The language of Tolkein is akin to that of the area. For many small communities, there was more contact with the Ohio River than with the big cities. Louisville, Cincinnati are far away from these. The Amish with their farms have more connection with many of these folk than city people. I've known people there that could be mistaken for Bagginses and Brandywines, even a few Tooks (talk about family pictures--wasn't that my grandmother?)! They kept pretty much to themselves. Might not even be in most censuses.

| Posted by Wilson at 9:19 Central | TrackBack
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