In four decades of writing for magazines ranging from Texas Monthly to the Atlantic, American History, and Travel Holiday, Stephen Harrigan has established himself as one of America’s most thoughtful writers. In this career-spanning anthology, which gathers together essays from two previous books—A Natural State and Comanche Midnight—as well as previously uncollected work, readers finally have a comprehensive collection of Harrigan’s best nonfiction.
History—natural history, human history, and personal history—and place are the cornerstones of The Eye of the Mammoth. But the specific history or place varies considerably from essay to essay. Harrigan’s career has taken him from the Alaska Highway to the Chihuahuan Desert, from the casinos of Monaco to his ancestors’ village in the Czech Republic. Texas is the subject of a number of essays, and a force in shaping others, as in “The Anger of Achilles,” in which a nineteenth-century painting moves the author despite his possessing a “Texan’s suspicion of serious culture.” Harrigan’s deceptively straightforward voice, however, belies an intense curiosity about things that, by his own admission, may be “unknowable.” Certainly, we are limited in what we can know about the inner life of George Washington, the last days of Davy Crockett, or the motives of a caged tiger, but Harrigan’s gift—a gift that has also made him an award-winning novelist—is to bring readers closer to such things, to make them less remote, just as a cave painting in the title essay eerily transmits the living stare of a long-extinct mammoth.
By Nicholas Lemann
When Stephen Harrigan started publishing the essays in this book, the anointed mid-twentieth-century giants of Texas letters, Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Prescott Webb, had passed from the scene. Their rebel child, Larry McMurtry, was in physical and psychological exile in Washington, D.C. And in Texas, the literary world, unofficially but firmly led by John Graves, insistently conceived of Texas as a rural civilization, not too far removed from the frontier. This view certainly worked on the page, but it did not conform with the demographic reality of the state or with the lived experience of most Texans. Because so much of its countryside was dry and spare and its city limits were so generous, Texas, if simple percentage of the population was the measure, had become one of the most urban states in the country—though it was first-generation urban, like Dreiser's Chicago, and that made all the difference psychologically. If you were comfortable with the identity of a Texas writer, as Harrigan always has been, then it was your assignment to deal with this uncomfortable truth.
I don't know that Harrigan ever conceived of his literary mission in exactly this way, but over the years he certainly accomplished it. It was a happy accident that from the beginning he had a primary home for his reportorial and essayistic work in Texas Monthly, a commercial magazine operated by people who care deeply about editorial quality, and who for economic reasons as well as personal preference had to figure out how to create a large, mainly metropolitan audience to which the idea of what it meant to be distinctively Texan was important.
In the early years of Texas Monthly, Harrigan wrote about just about everything, but he was the primary holder of the nature account, and a good portion of this work is reproduced here. One could argue that the natural world is unaware of state boundaries, but in retrospect Harrigan was using natural subjects partly as a way of working out the question of Texas identity. It's noteworthy that he often wrote about designated natural areas in Texas, like parks and beaches; these are not the primary point of contact with the natural world for a frontier or agricultural society. In that sense these essays are implicitly about a modernizing Texas, even though that is not their direct subject. Often Harrigan found a recognizably Texan main character, an expert who guided him through the place he was writing about. And, in his customary calm, clear, lyrical voice, he always found a way to communicate his profound fascination with and love of his home state without ever venturing into boosterism. Padre Island doesn't have to be the Amalfi Coast for us to treasure it, or for us to be able to understand it as an aspect of who we are.
Texans of my generation (I'm from Louisiana, where the distinctive obsessions are different) often remember receiving the admission of Alaska to the Union as a crushing blow—Texas wasn't the biggest state any more! As a defining quality, the bigness of a place poses a problem to a serious writer. Small almost always is easier to make work on the page, because it entails creating an enclosed world; merely insisting that something is big doesn't confer life on it. Harrigan's Texas is certainly big in the sense that it provides him with a very broad range of material to write about, but he is an intimate writer, one who doesn't need the artificial help that comes from claiming importance for his subjects. He makes us care deeply about the particular and specific. In so doing, in the aggregate, he is making a powerful argument to Texans: you can love Texas, and you can identify deeply as a Texan, without having to yield to the stereotype of Texas bragging. Even to yourself! The ways Texans live, what they think, where they go, how they speak, is distinctive. It isn't superlative, and it isn't generic either. The state is a collection of places that Harrigan sees for what they really are and loves anyway, and together they make a culture, which he loves also.
What Harrigan has always seen clearly is that Texas, at least during his adult life, has not been another country, as it was briefly in the early nineteenth century; on the contrary, it is the most American, or Middle American, of places—a state big and central enough that its governor will naturally think he ought to be president. Texas is enormously various, as one sees in Harrigan's work, encompassing desert and beach and plain and mountain and forest; Latin America and the Great Plains; immigrant culture, native culture, and longtime resident culture. It is also typical, in the sense that one is never very far away from the statistical national center in how people choose to live and in what they believe. It's no use pretending that the picture of a family with children, living a middle-class life in a suburb—a single-family house with a small yard, two cars in the driveway, a daily commute to an office job—is somehow profoundly un-Texan. It's how the plurality of Texans live, and that has to be accounted for. Harrigan's unassuming, honest writing and his unobtrusive, lapidary way of constructing essays makes it easy for him to acknowledge these difficult (by light of Texas literary tradition) truths, casually and without making a big show of it. And the ordinariness of Texas means that Texans can leave home base and range freely throughout the world, with curiosity and interest, without that project carrying any taint of disloyalty or insecurity. Harrigan does that regularly in these pages, bringing a wide range of places into the particular world of his writer's consciousness.
Finally, though, in order to be as significant a writer as Harrigan is while also being identifiably Texan, you have to be able to make at least an implicit claim about what Texas is, and this leads almost inevitably to consideration of the Texas past. Harrigan has done this throughout his career, including in his fiction, and we see copious evidence of it here. He doesn't burden us with the details, but offstage, for decades, a kind of border war has been raging among historians of the West, between an older (well, by now mainly deceased) generation that saw the conquest of the frontier by Americans of European descent as heroic, and two or three subsequent generations that have emphasized ecological despoliation, ethno-cultural oppression, and economic exploitation. With great deftness, Harrigan's work pulls together the best aspects of both camps. Nature and indigenous populations are at the heart of his territory as a writer, but, damn it, it's simply impossible to be a Texan and not be moved by the old legends—the Alamo and the cattle drives and all that. Harrigan has delved into this material to create a more usable and more accurate past for Texans with relatively gentle and humane inclinations. That is a great gift.
One of the fascinating aspects of the historical culture of the American West is how little space there was between at least some aspects of historical action and historical myth-making. Buffalo Bill shuttled back and forth between the frontier and the theater. Movies, television, and other forms of popular culture, energetically springing off from Texas history into quasi-fantasy, are inescapably a part of what it means to be Texan. And most of the leading Texas-resident writers, including Harrigan, have made part of their living from this process by creating Hollywood versions of larger-than-life Texas events for a mass audience. This can be done honorably and memorably (think of Lonesome Dove, or Apollo 13), or not, and Harrigan is completely clear-eyed about which is which, but he memorably and funnily demonstrates here that the reality of Texas tradition and its mythologization form a never-ending, mutually reinforcing feedback loop. All attempts to disaggregate them will be quixotic, and it's perfectly all right to consider them together.
A writer's life—especially the life of a writer as dedicated and prolific as Stephen Harrigan—has a lot of aspects. In most cases, books are generated from within and represent, to some extent, a conscious design, or at least what the writer most wants to say at that moment. The kind of essays reproduced here are usually produced on assignment. An author has some freedom to suggest assignments to editors, or to decide which proffered ones to accept or reject, but it's a more responsive, less planned form of literary production than writing books. So it is a special pleasure to see how much, over the decades, Harrigan has pursued a unified mission in his reporting and essay-writing. Was it by design, or was the larger project something neither he nor his various editors were aware of, assignment by assignment? I don't know, but however he got here, this is a coherent body of work, and a large achievement. It's as good a picture as we have, not only of Texas during the past generation, but, more importantly, of what being a Texan has meant.
“This exquisite book will make you see the world anew. It is a delight to wander the world with Stephen Harrigan, experiencing through him the vastness of Big Bend, the mysteries of the mummified Ice Man, the absurdities (and successes!) of his Hollywood career. Harrigan is a man of meticulous observation and wit, and The Eye of the Mammoth abundantly provides readers with those pops of pleasure one gets from the perfectly turned phrase. This book amply illustrates that Stephen Harrigan is a national treasure.”
—Emily Yoffe, Slate columnist and author of What the Dog Did
“The Eye of the Mammoth is Stephen Harrigan at his best, and Harrigan at his best is one of the great pleasures available to readers of the contemporary essay. Relaxed and conversational in tone, yet always substantive and enlightening, he demonstrates absolute mastery of both the essay form and his fascinating subject matter.”
—Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
“Word by word, book by book, Stephen Harrigan has proven that he’s the best writer Texas has ever produced.”
—Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
“A veteran screenwriter and novelist (The Gates of the Alamo, 2000, etc.), Harrigan displays in abundance the trait all great essayists possess: curiosity...Like sitting next to a loquacious, genial and informative passenger on a slow trans-Texas train.”
“Under Harrigan’s eye and pen, such obscure and enigmatic objects as a nineteenth-century painting, photos of a destroyed tree house, and surprise checks for decades-old screenwriting projects pulse with energy and significance. Each affords an opportunity to investigate the often-neglected history that continues to shape our identities and our sense of place. These essays speak with the same acuity and matchless prose that won Harrigan national acclaim in his best-selling novels The Gates of the Alamo (2000) and Remember Ben Clayton (2011); readers of Harrigan’s fiction are sure to find this definitive collection of his nonfiction no less arresting.”
—Brett Beasley, Booklist
“These pieces convey a deep and rewarding connection with place. Reaching across the history of Texas, both natural and cultural, he creates a paradoxical effect—collapsing the sweeping distances of a vast and varied state while giving it's immense particularly its due… Best of all, he has an uncanny knack for ending his essays in exactly the right place, more often than not carrying what would otherwise have been pleasant and serviceable to a stirring and unusually satisfying conclusion.”
“Harrigan has written beautifully about the various natural wonders of the state…Through it all, Harrigan writes with ease, with a straightforward, friendly thoughtfulness that lures you in and makes you wonder how someone can be so nice, so modest, so self-deprecating at times, when it’s obvious that writing as concisely and clearly as he does is quite difficult.”
—Charles Ealy, The Austin American-Statesman