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Texas Historical Literature

Source: The Handbook of Texas Online

(page 3)

In addition to agriculture, East Texas was also the site of several important oilfield discoveries, and several novels have explored the impact of the oil industry on the lives of small communities in that region. Karle Wilson Baker's Family Style (1937) describes the changes wrought by the oil boom upon the life of a farm woman. Mary King O'Donnell's Quincie Bolliver (1941) also looks at oil-boom days from the perspective of the working class, in this instance a muleskinner's daughter. Jewel H. Gibson's Black Gold (1950) humorously examines the rowdy life of roughnecks in the oil patch. William A. Owens's Fever in the Earth (1958), set during the boom days following the opening of the Spindletop oilfield, studies the effects of instant wealth upon rural Southerners in the Beaumont area at the turn of the century.

Two other writers round out the picture of the Southern tradition. Madison A. Cooper's Sironia, Texas (1952) is a whopping two-volume, 1,100,000-word portrait of postbellum aristocratic families in Waco. Frederick B. Gipson of central Texas enjoyed considerable success with novels dealing on agrarian and hunting themes that embodied the flavor of Southern mores. Hound-dog Man (1949), The Home Place (1950), and Old Yeller (1956), a very popular juvenile novel set on the frontier, were all made into films.

Despite the accomplishment of Southern writers in the state, however, those who have written in the Western tradition have dominated the nation's popular conception of Texas. Two seminal writers in this configuration are J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb. Dobie's prolific reading and collecting of ranch lore led to such books as The Longhorns (1941), The Mustangs (1952), and Cow People (1964), instant classics in the literature of the cattle culture. Webb, probably the most influential Western historian since Frederick Jackson Turner, is best known for The Texas Rangers (1935), a romanticized, celebratory account of the exploits of the state's most famous frontier law-enforcement agency, and The Great Plains (1931), a work of lasting impact in the study of the economy and ecology of the arid Western plains states. By ignoring East Texas and cotton culture, the work of Dobie and Webb strongly contributed to promulgating a picture of Texas as a Western state dominated by dust and cattle. Unintentionally, their version of Texas accorded perfectly with the Wild West, shoot-'em-up images being circulated in the works of popular novelists such as Zane Grey and in hundreds of Western movies.

Though other writers in the Western tradition active in the 1930s have been all but eclipsed by the popularity of Dobie and Webb, three deserve to be better known: Edward E. Anderson, Winifred Sanford,q and Edwin M. Lanham, Jr. Anderson's Thieves Like Us (1937) is a hard-boiled tale of Bonnie-and-Clyde-type outlaws that has been filmed twice. Lanham, who produced several serious novels in the 1930s before turning to detective fiction, is easily the most neglected of Texas novelists. His The Wind Blew West (1935) is a complex study of the shifting fortunes of a small town bypassed by the railroad. The novel includes a fascinating retelling of the Warren Wagontrain Raid and the subsequent trial of the Indian defendants. Thunder in the Earth (1941) is a noteworthy addition to a largely undistinguished body of Texas fiction that deals with the oil and gas industry. Winifred Sanford, a protégé of H. L. Mencken, published a number of excellent stories about women in Texas in the 1930s that were collected in Windfall and Other Stories (1988). Another writer of the Great Depression era who has recently resurfaced is Chicago-based Nelson Algren. The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, edited by Betinna Drew, appeared in 1994.

Nonfiction writers following in the wake of Dobie and Webb have produced a number of notable works dealing with Western life in Texas. Edward C. Abbott's rollicking We Pointed Them North (with Helena Huntington Smith, 1939) is a wonderfully entertaining account of cattle drives and flesh-and-blood cowboys. Tom (Thomas Calloway) Lea's two-volume The King Ranch (1957) is a sumptuous history of the state's most famous cattle ranch. Paul Horgan's Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (1954) retells crucial events in Texas history better than anyone ever has. J. Evetts Haley's Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman (1936), the definitive biography of the state's most famous cattleman, is a rich source of information about the cattle kingdom. Sally Reynolds Matthews' Interwoven: A Pioneering Chronicle (1936) offers an engaging account of ranching life in West Texas from a patrician woman's point of view.

Dobie's interest in nature, a strong corollary of his devotion to ranch life, influenced the work of subsequent writers. One was his close friend, Roy Bedichek, whose Adventures of a Texas Naturalist (1948) ranged far and wide in its depiction of natural lore, including memorable chapters on the northern mockingbird and chickens. Bedichek's letters to Dobie, Webb, and many other correspondents, collected in Letters of Roy Bedichek (1985), edited by William A. Owens and Lyman Grant, are one of the real treasures of Texas writing. In the next generation John Graves became the heir of the Dobie-Bedichek vein of natural history and legend. His Goodbye to a River (1960), an account of a canoe trip down the Brazos River in the late 1950s, is one of the most honored books in Texas letters. Hard Scrabble (1974) and From a Limestone Ledge (1980) are substantive additions to the bookshelf of Texas nature lore.

More recently, Stephen Harrigan has followed the Dobie-Bedichek line of close observation of man's interaction with his ecological environment in two collections of essays, A Natural State (1988) and Comanche Moon (1995). His two novels, Aransas (1980) and Jacob's Well (1985) also pursue ecological themes. Another follower of the naturalist tradition is Rick Bass, whose The Deer Pasture (1985) and Oil Notes (1989) provide scrupulous examinations of local conditions, of how men and women exploit or revere the earth. Dan L. Flores's Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys into the Heart of the Southern Plains (1990) won the admiration of ecologists and nature writers.

In fiction, two Western-oriented novelists of the post-World War II era have consistently mined the Dobie-Webb legacy. Benjamin Capps has written about cattle drives (The Trail to Ogallala, 1964), told the story of the settlement of West Texas by a Goodnight-like pioneer (Sam Chance, 1965), retold the story of Cynthia Ann Parker (A Woman of the People, 1969), portrayed the clash of Comanche and white culture at the turn of the century (The White Man's Road, 1969), and recreated the failed Utopian community of La Réunion (The Brothers of Uterica, 1967). All are narrated in a low-key manner reminiscent of Andy Adams.

Elmer Kelton, whose best work has dealt with twentieth-century ranching, began his career by writing for Western pulp magazines and broke into hardcover after a succession of well-researched but formulaic paperbacks. His hardcover publications include novels about the past: The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971), based on the "cowboy strike" of the 1880s; The Wolf and the Buffalo (1980), a novel of the clash between Indian and United States Cavalry troops on the West Texas frontier that features an Indian warrior and a black soldier; and Stand Proud (1984), another frontier saga of a rugged individualist. Kelton's novels about twentieth-century ranch life are probably his best. The Good Old Boys (1978) is a comic study of a charming, footloose cowboy who resists the blandishments of the automobile and marriage in favor of a rambling life. Best of all is The Time It Never Rained (1973), the portrait of a dogged old rancher named Charlie Flagg, who survives the terrible drought of the 1950s without succumbing to federal assistance. Several of the novels of Capps and Kelton have won awards from Western Writers of America.

Although Capps and Kelton represent an earnestness of spirit and a reliable base of research and experience, their novels are generally characterized by a provincial flatness not unlike the sparse landscapes from which they spring. They are also curiously genteel in language and incident, as mild as Dobie. But flint-hard Protestantism has its limitations when it comes to representing "the way we live now," the goal of all novelists working in the terrain of their own time. The same genteel hands-off tone handicaps the productions of West Texas women novelists of the post-World War II period. Loula Grace Erdman's The Edge of Time (1950) and Jane Gilmore Rushing's Against the Moon (1968) equally suffer from a tameness of language and vision.

If literary history were as tidy as the historian would like, then Capps and Kelton would have written all of their works in the 1950s, leaving the field open to the iconoclastic Larry McMurtry, the most important figure in Texas writing since Dobie. But it did not happen that way. In 1961, before Capps, before Kelton, McMurtry published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By. It inverted the classic form of the genre (Shane) and introduced a level of irony and sexual frankness into the old pastoral world of the courtly cowpoke that made old-timers cringe and made McMurtry for a time the enfant terrible of Texas letters. All through the 1960s McMurtry continued to explore the passing of an era and its replacement by a less kind, less gentle way of life, in novels such as Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show (1966), and a book of valuable reflections, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968). At the end of the decade and into the next, he turned his attention to urban life in Texas in the so-called Houston trilogy: Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972), and Terms of Endearment (1975). No fewer than four of these first six novels were turned into films, three of which won major Academy Awards.

Having said all he had to say about Texas, it seemed, McMurtry then wrote several novels set either completely or mostly outside the state. Cadillac Jack (1982) is the best of these. Then, in 1985, in a famous reversal of his published animadversions against Texas writers enfeebled by a nostalgic love of the past, he brought out Lonesome Dove, a blockbuster novel of epic sweep that drew upon all the old traditions of cattle-drive lore and Texas Rangers, salted with a healthy and by now familiar dose of sex and ultraviolence. The result was a best-seller that outstripped James Michener's sodden doorstop of a novel, Texas (1986), and garnered its author, now transformed into the éminence grise of Texas letters, a Pulitzer Prize. Since that high point, McMurtry has continued to produce novels at a rapid rate, though none has achieved the popularity of Lonesome Dove.

In two novels he turned to other legendary Western materials, the Billy the Kid (see MCCARTY, HENRY) legend in Anything for Billy (1988) and Calamity Jane in Buffalo Girls (1990). He also recycled many of his earlier novels in a series of sequels. Texasville (1987) comically updated the characters of The Last Picture Show; Some Can Whistle (1990) reprised the Beat writer Danny Deck from All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers; and The Evening Star (1992) was a lackluster sequel to Terms of Endearment. Lonesome Dove itself spawned two spin-off novels. Streets of Laredo (1993), one of McMurtry's darkest works, told the story of Woodrow Call and other survivors from the precursor novel; and Dead Man's Walk (1995), a "prequel," placed a young Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae amid the bloody events of the Mier expedition of 1842.

McMurtry's claim to being the most important Texas writer in the Western tradition has received a very strong challenge from Cormac McCarthy, a Tennessee-based author who, before moving to Texas, had established himself as a writer of impeccable credentials with several novels deeply imbued with the influence of William Faulkner. In the early 1980s McCarthy moved to El Paso and since then has produced three novels of extraordinary merit. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) is an elegant and incredibly violent frontier saga of torture, murder, and redemption. All the Pretty Horses (1992) won for its author just about every prestigious literary award in the country and, on top of that, was a national best-seller. A coming-of-age story written in beautiful cadences, it was the first in a projected "Border Trilogy"; the second installment, The Crossing, appeared in 1994. McCarthy's brooding artistic commitment sets a standard for all Texas writers to emulate.

The brand of realism inaugurated by McMurtry and others in the early 1960s led to a considerable amount of revisionist, post-Dobie-era fiction dealing with the Western side of Texas culture. Though writers in this category are too numerous to mention, some stand out. Russell G. Vliet brought a poet's sensibility to his highly subjective, lyricist fiction in such novels as Rock Spring (1974), Solitudes (1977), and Scorpio Rising (1985). Robert Flynn has displayed a wide fictional breadth, first in his parodic cattle-drive novel, North to Yesterday (1967), which anticipated many of the themes of Lonesome Dove, and then in the witty, satirical small-town novel Wanderer Springs (1987). John Irsfeld's gritty Little Kingdoms (1976) adapted multiple-point-of-view techniques to tell a modern outlaw story set in West Texas. Max Crawford produced a wild, exaggerated, stylistically exuberant tale of modern West Texas in Waltz Across Texas (1975), then turned to the frontier clash between cavalry and Indians in Lords of the Plain (1985), narrated in a quiet period voice of the 1870s.

Andrew Jolly, in the underrated novel A Time of Soldiers (1976), told a history of a family of soldiers spanning the years from the Mexican Revolution through the Vietnam War. James Lee Burke's Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971), a political novel set in the explosive 1960s, looked back to Texas history and the Korean War. C. W. Smith's Thin Men of Haddam (1973) offered a sensitive, carefully wrought story of conflicts between Anglos and Mexicans in South Texas. Edwin Shrake's Blessed McGill (1968) possessed an originality rarely seen in historically based Westerns. Clay Reynolds exhibited a great deal of versatility in three novels set in West Texas: The Vigil (1986), a town-centered allegory; Agatite (1986), released in paperback as Rage, a brooding, violent novel; and Franklin's Crossing (1992), a big-canvas historical novel about a black frontiersman.

West Texas has also produced a number of essayists. Larry L. King's collections such as ...And Other Dirty Stories (1968) and The Old Man and Lesser Mortals (1974) represent the best of his work. A. C. Greene's A Personal Country (1979) describes manners and mores in and around Abilene, his home region. Allan R. Bosworth's New Country (1962) is a lively memoir of growing up in West Texas. Two works set in the brush country and south of there, in the lower Rio Grande valley, are J. Houghton Allen's Southwest (1952) and Hart Stilwell's Uncovered Wagon (1947). Also of note are three collections of essays. James Ward Lee's Texas, My Texas (1993) offers a slumgullion of perceptive comments on Texas popular culture; Gary Cartwright's Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (Including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime and Other Hobbies) (1982) is a consistently lively and entertaining account of subjects ranging from Jack Ruby to newspaper reporting in Fort Worth; Joe Bob Briggs's A Guide to Western Civilization, or My Story (1982) is an extremely funny and clever look at Texas from a vernacular redneck perspective. Briggs is the pen name of John Bloom, who achieved national prominence in the 1980s for his comic reviews of drive-in movies.

In 1981 McMurtry, in a controversial essay, "Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Writing," faulted Texas authors for having ignored the life of the cities. Although no Texas writer could lay claim to having produced a significant body of work about urban life, many had set novels in cities. The best urban novel is unquestionably Billy (William) Lee Brammer's The Gay Place (1961), an elegantly written work set in Austin that depicts the life and times of a larger-than-life governor based closely upon Lyndon B. Johnson. Other notable urban novels include Philip Atlee, The Inheritors (1940), Fort Worth; George Williams, The Blind Bull (1952), Houston; Al Dewlin, The Bone-Pickers (1958), Amarillo; Edwin Shrake, But Not For Love (1964), Fort Worth, and Strange Peaches (1972), Dallas; Bryan Woolley, November 22 (1981), Dallas; Laura Furman, The Shadow Line (1982), Houston; Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty (1973), Dallas; and Peter LaSalle, Strange Sunlight (1984), Austin. Shelby Hearon deserves special mention in this context.

In a series of novels set variously in Austin (Hannah's House, 1975), New Braunfels (A Prince of a Fellow, 1978), San Antonio (Owning Jolene, 1989), Waco Hug Dancing, 1991), and rural Texas (Now and Another Time, 1976, and Life Estates, 1994), Hearon has proved herself a shrewd and prolific observer of upper-class manners and mores in modern Texas. Beverly Lowry also contributed two novels about Texas: Daddy's Girl (1979) was set in Houston, and The Perfect Sonya (1987) caused a minor stir in Texas literary circles for its transparent portrait of an affair between the heroine and the state's most distinguished writer of rural beatitudes. Dan Jenkins has mined his native Fort Worth for humorous Texas stereotypes in a number of popular comic novels, including Semi-Tough (1972), Baja Oklahoma (1981), and Fast Copy (1988). Sarah Bird also treats urban life in comic terms in such novels as Alamo House: Women Without Men, Men Without Brains (1986), a very funny look at Austin academic culture, and The Mommy Club (1991), set in San Antonio.

Any reckoning of urban literature in Texas should also take into account what is almost a separate type-the true-crime story. Foremost in this genre are Thomas Thompson's Blood and Money (1976), which deals with the John Hill murder case in Houston, and Gary Cartwright's Blood Will Tell (1979), a study of the Cullen Davis murder case in Fort Worth. Both were national best-sellers. Formulaic detective and crime fiction has also produced a readership for an increasing number of crime-genre novelists, including David L. Lindsey, A. W. Gray, Jay Brandon, Bill Crider, Kinky Friedman, Doug Swanson, and Mary Willis Walker.

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