The Signifying Storyteller: Harriette Simpson Arnow’s “The Goat Who Was a Cow”

Written around 1932 but unpublished until 2005, Harriette Simpson Arnow’s short story “The Goat Who Was a Cow” explores themes and approaches far afield from her best-known work, The Dollmaker. In the story, a mountain girl named Jezebel tells her schoolteacher about leading a stranger from the North to a moonshine still. Jezebel’s yarn quickly becomes a wry tale that covertly satirizes the teacher's unspoken prejudices through flattery, misdirection and exaggerated dialect, a rhetorical strategy akin to the African American practice of “signifyin(g).”

Just as significantly, Jezebel effectively embodies the trickster, the playful figure of mirth and trouble present in many cultures’ folk tales. Arnow not only put her real-life experiences as a rural-school student and teacher to use in this story by documenting both sides of the culture gap but artfully balanced Appalachia’s oral culture with mimetic dialogue and characterization. One cannot help but wonder if Arnow's fictional analogue is less the indulgent schoolteacher and more the observant, savvy child who tells fascinating, deceptively simple stories.

This paper presentation is based on my own work with the Arnow Collection at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections, both as an assistant archivist and as a researcher-scholar. My conclusion from studying this story is that even by the age of 24, Arnow had intuited the limited understanding of Appalachia during the Great Depression/Prohibition era, and the enduring difficulties regional artists and writers faced when presenting their work beyond geographical and cultural borders.