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Texas Historical Literature

Source: The Handbook of Texas Online

(page 2)

1900 to the present. At the turn of the twentieth century historical subjects were much in demand in American fiction, and once again Texas fiction mirrored the national trend. The republic era proved to be by far the most popular historical subject during the early years of the new century. Indeed the Alamo proved so popular that Stephen Crane, after a visit to San Antonio in 1895, wrote, "Statistics show that 69,710 writers have begun at the Alamo." A partial listing of works includes the following, each of which features the Alamo: William O. Stoddard, The Lost Gold of the Montezumas: A Story of the Alamo (1900); Opie Read, In the Alamo (1900); Clinton Giddings Brown, Ramrod Jones, Hunter and Patriot (1905); Frank Templeton, Margaret Ballentine; or, The Fall of the Alamo: A Romance of the Texas Revolution (1907); Eugene P. Lyle, Jr., The Lone Star (1907); Edward Plummer Alsbury, Guy Raymond: A Story of the Texas Revolution (1908); Everett McNeil, In Texas with Davy Crockett: A Story of the Texas War of Independence (1908); and Joseph A. Altsheler, The Texan Star: The Story of a Great Fight for Liberty (1912).

But the most notable work dealt with the more recent past, the era of the cattle drive, captured vividly in Andy Adams's The Log of a Cowboy (1903). Written expressly to counter the romanticism of Owen Wister's immensely popular The Virginian, published the previous year, Adams's book, constructed as a novel but without a romantic plot, depicted the cowboy as a worker instead of a dandy. It was instantly regarded as a classic of cattle culture. In a more popular vein, some of the local-color stories of William Sydney Porter [O. Henry] were set in Texas. His 1907 collection, Heart of the West, is typical.

Literary interest in the past took other forms than the somewhat bloated, over-written historical novels listed above but long forgotten. One of the strongest expressions of this interest occurred in the emerging field of folklore. The Texas Folklore Society, launched in 1909, proved instrumental in locating, collecting, and publishing material of intrinsic interest as well as providing source material for future writers. Francis Edward Abernethy's The Texas Folklore Society, 1909-1943 and The Texas Folklore Society, 1943-1971 provide a valuable historical record of the accomplishments of the society. J. Frank Dobie, the foremost figure in the society, mined the past for stories of gold-seekers, legendary hunters, cattlemen, cowboys, and every species of wild critter from mustangs to rattlesnakes.

His first book, A Vaquero of the Brush Country, appeared in 1929, and his second, Coronado's Children, an account of lost mines and legends of fortune-seekers, followed in 1930 and became a Literary Guild selection. Other members of the society made substantial contributions also. John A. Lomax collected songs and ballads from the cattle range; his Cowboy Songs, and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) is a major early collection. Emily Dorothy Scarborough, a folklorist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University whose curriculum vitae is inscribed on her tombstone in Waco, published a valuable collection of folklore, On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs, in 1925.

That same year she incorporated folkloric elements into her best known novel, The Wind, published anonymously, and famous for its depiction of harsh frontier conditions in late-nineteenth-century West Texas. The Trail Drivers of Texas (1923-24), collected and edited by George W. Saunders and J. Marvin Hunter,q brought together numerous oral accounts of old-time cattlemen and cowboys that has proved a treasure trove for future novelists such as Larry McMurtry. Among later folklorists, Mody C. Boatright, secretary and editor of the Texas Folklore Society from 1943 to 1964, published several works featuring another major Texas industry, oil, in such books as Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields (1945), Folklore of the Oil Industry (1963), and (with William A. Owens), Tales from the Derrick Floor, A People's History of the Oil Industry (1970). Ben K. Green earned a reputation as an folk expert on horses and cows. His Horse Tradin' appeared in 1967, Wild Cow Tales in 1969, and The Last Trail Drive Through Dallas in 1971 (see CATTLE TRAILING).

In 1943 J. Frank Dobie's influential bibliography, A Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, mentioned only a handful of fiction titles dealing with Texas. Dobie ignored a good deal of extant fiction, and since then the number of novels written about Texas has increased exponentially to the point where a substantial book-length bibliography would be required to list them all. The following is an attempt to chart the broad outlines of Texas fiction in the twentieth century.

From the 1920s through the late 1960s, much of the best of Texas writing came from the Southern side of the ledger. This is contrary to received myth, but the facts speak for themselves. There were at least as many writers following in the Southern tradition as in the Western, a point most saliently developed by scholar James W. Lee. The Southern-based novels explored the fabric of life on the farms and plantations of East Texas, sometimes looking nostalgically backwards at the past, but more often looking critically at the present. Sue (Susanna S. H.) Pinckney's In the Southland (1906) was an early attempt to treat East Texas culture as an extension of the Old South. Consisting of two novelettes titled "Disinherited" and "White Violets," In the Southland offers a highly romantic portrait of cavaliers, ladies, and plantation customs familiar to any reader of Southern historical fiction.

Laura L. S. Krey's And Tell of Time (1938), a later effort in the same manner, is a novel marinated in the Confederate worldview and one that, like Gone With the Wind, found much of value in the antebellum social order. Among the novelists who explored cotton-plantation culture in East Texas were a number who, instead of idealizing the past, criticized the present, especially the system of farm tenancy. Dorothy Scarborough alone wrote three novels on the subject. The best of them, In the Land of Cotton, appeared in 1923; the other two are Can't Get a Redbird (1929) and The Stretchberry-Smile (1932). Ruth Cross explored similar themes and materials. The Golden Cocoon (1924) paints a grim picture of life in the cottonfields and an even grimmer one of the faculty at the University of Texas, "a backwash of incompetents whom life had rejected." In The Big Road (1931) Cross produced a melodramatic study of the clash between provincial ignorance (picking cotton) and cosmopolitan values (pursuing a classical music career in Europe).

Several agrarian novels of the Thirties and Forties deserve mention. Edward Everett Davis's The White Scourge (1940) called cottonfields "the great open air slum of the South," an indictment that characterizes much of the fiction written about tenant farming. In Land Without Moses (1937) Charles Curtis Munz realistically portrayed the life of an East Texas sharecropping family. John W. Wilson's High John the Conqueror (1949) is especially notable for its narrative skill in convincingly portraying the lives of black sharecroppers living on an East Texas farm. Though set in Oklahoma, The Stricklands (1939), by Edwin M. Lanham, Jr., of Weatherford, is also a fine contribution to the literature of the tenant farmer. Two other sharecropper novels of the period are Sigman Byrd's The Redlander (1939) and John Watson's The Red Dress (1949).

The most significant of the tenant-farming novels, however, is easily George Sessions Perry's Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941), which won both the Texas Institute of Letters award and the National Book Award, the first Texas novel to be so honored. Set on a small blackland farm near Rockdale in the late Thirties, Hold Autumn in Your Hand is a kind of Texas Georgics, developing themes put forward by the Roman poet Vergil: "The farmer cleaves the earth with his curved plough,/ This is his yearlong work, thus he sustains / His homeland, thus his little grandchildren" (Georgics, Book II). John W. Thomason's Lone Star Preacher (1941) belongs in the Southern tradition as well. It traces the life and times of a fiery Methodist preacher in East Texas during the Civil War era.

On the basis of international reputation, the status conferred by inclusion in major anthologies of American literature, and the respect indicated by academic criticism, Katherine Anne Porter must be judged the most acclaimed Texas literary artist. She, too, belongs indisputably to the Southern tradition. "The Old Order" sequence of stories, contained in The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), includes her most widely anthologized masterpiece, "The Grave." These stories, along with the three short novels of Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), the single greatest artistic work authored by a Texas writer, define a world of fading nineteenth-century moral assurance symbolized by an older generation played off against a younger one, dramatized chiefly in the developing consciousness of Porter's alter ego, Miranda.

In the post-World War II years the Southern tradition in Texas writing informed the careers of three major Texas authors: Charles William Goyen, William Humphrey, and William A. Owens. Goyen's The House of Breath (1950) is one of the more daring works of experimental modernist narration by a Texas writer. Told in highly convoluted oral and rhetorical style, it conveys a powerful sense of a provincial East Texas community giving way before the tide of modernity. Today Goyen's work is more highly valued in France than it is in the United States. William Humphrey has produced a number of novels and short stories grounded in the culture and mores of the corner of Northeast Texas where he grew up, in Clarksville, near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. Home from the Hill (1958) is a tale of a legendary hunter and a Gothic marriage, laced with the sometimes too obvious influence of William Faulkner.

The Ordways (1964) is a comic picaresque tale that rambles across Texas. Perhaps best of all is Humphrey's 1975 memoir, Farther Off From Heaven, a book that charts the changes in East Texas from the 1930s to the 1960s. Also of interest is No Resting Place (1989), a historical novel that explores the lamentable removal of the Indians from East Texas during Mirabeau B. Lamar's presidency of the republic. William A. Owens, folklorist, novelist, and memoirist, produced his best work in an autobiographical trilogy that comprises This Stubborn Soil (1966), A Season of Weathering (1973), and Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983). This Stubborn Soil gives an especially vivid account of the arduous struggle of a youth attempting to obtain an education in dirt-poor rural Texas in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Other recent East Texas writers of note include Bill Brett, whose first-person vernacular narration is reminiscent of Mark Twain. His collection of back-country tales, Well, He Wanted To Know and I Knew So I Told Him (1972), reissued as East Texas Tales (1972), and his novel, The Stolen Steers: A Tale of the Big Thicket (1977 ), bring the old tradition of Southwestern humor into modern times in rural East Texas. Leon Hale's Bonney's Place (1972) captures well the flavor of life surrounding a honkeytonk in East Texas. In his Half a Look of Cain: A Fantastical Narrative (1994) Reginald Gibbons consciously drew upon the example of William Goyen for its East Texas setting and themes. Mary Karr's memoir of a dysfunctional East Texas family, The Liar's Club (1995), received glowing reviews in the national press.

Although the history and culture of African Americans have been treated by most of the white writers in the Southern tradition, often very stereotypically, there is one major exception. John Howard Griffin, a Catholic who studied art in France, underwent skin treatments to darken his skin in order to travel in the South as a Negro and recorded his experiences in an influential book during the civil-rights movement, Black Like Me (1961). There have as yet been few works by black Texas writers, though there is also some indication recently that things are beginning to change in this regard. The earliest black writer of fiction in Texas was Sutton E. Griggs, whose Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, a Novel (1899) was one of several novels that he wrote about race in America.

Two important black writers are folklorist J. Mason Brewer and C. C. White, a black preacher. In his collections of folk tales, The Word on the Brazos (1953) and Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro Folk Tales (1958), Brewer depicted the humorous side of black life, though at the same time revealing the harshness and unpleasantness of life in a segregated society. C. C. White's No Quittin' Sense (1969), told to Adam M. Holland, is the best account in Texas literature of growing up black in East Texas. Albert Race Sample's Racehorse: Big Emma's Boy (1984) is a work of raw power that details the life of a black convict in Texas prisons. A promising recent black author who deals with Texas in varying degrees in his short fiction is Reginald McKnight, whose The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas appeared in 1992. More recently, Anita Richmond Bunkley in Black Gold (1994) combined historical research with a flair for steamy melodrama in a novel about blacks living in a Texas oil boomtown in the 1920s.

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