Offering his signature take on Texas literary giants from J. Frank Dobie to Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, and on films such as The Alamo, The Last Picture Show, and Brokeback Mountain, Don Graham demolishes the notion that "Texas culture" is a contradiction in terms.
John Steinbeck once famously wrote that "Texas is a state of mind." For those who know it well, however, the Lone Star State is more than one mind-set, more than a collection of clichés, more than a static stereotype. There are minds in Texas, Don Graham asserts, and some of the most important are the writers and filmmakers whose words and images have helped define the state to the nation, the world, and the people of Texas themselves. For many years, Graham has been critiquing Texas writers and films in the pages of Texas Monthly and other publications. In State of Minds, he brings together and updates essays he published between 1999 and 2009 to paint a unique, critical picture of Texas culture.
In a strong personal voice—wry, humorous, and ironic—Graham offers his take on Texas literary giants ranging from J. Frank Dobie to Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy and on films such as The Alamo, The Last Picture Show, and Brokeback Mountain. He locates the works he discusses in relation to time and place, showing how they sprang (or not) from the soil of Texas and thereby helped to define Texas culture for generations of readers and viewers—including his own younger self growing up on a farm in Collin County. Never shying from controversy and never dull, Graham's essays in State of Minds demolish the notion that "Texas culture" is an oxymoron.
- Introduction: The Ayes of Texas
- I. Texas
- Lucas, Texas, Lucas, Texas
- Owens Country
- White Like Me
- Cotton Tale
- Catcher in the Raw
- II. Culture
- Master Class
- Fallen Heroes
- The Pits
- Accentuate the Negative
- The Write Brothers
- Expatriate Act
- Nation State
- All the Pretty Corpses
- Dear Cormac
- III. Discontents
- Wayne's World
- Picture Perfect
- Donnie Does Dallas
- Brokeback Mountain in My Rearview Mirror
Perhaps another state honors its writers more than Texas, but if so I don't know which one. We have the Texas Institute of Letters, the Texas Book Festival, Texas Writers Month, the Writers' League of Texas, the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and uncounted books-and-authors events held in cities from Amarillo to Beaumont.
We have statues of dead and living authors. The Dobie-Bedichek-Webb installation at Zilker Park in Austin celebrates the Texas Trio, and, odd but true, Sea World in San Antonio sports a statue of Katherine Anne Porter. Texas State in San Marcos boasts a statue of John Graves. A statue of the late Elmer Kelton will soon be on view in San Angelo.
We have local shrines in little towns, avatars of the muse's approbation. KAP's childhood home in Kyle is a National Historic Site. In Rockdale the memory of George Sessions Perry is kept green by an historical plaque, the library, and occasional talks by visiting scholars. In little Cross Plains the little library has a special collection of books and memorabilia devoted to local star Robert E. Howard of Conan the Barbarian fame.
And there is no paucity of centers. The University of North Texas used to have a Center for Texas Studies, now TCU has one with the same title; Texas State has a very active Center for the Study of the Southwest (read Texas); SMU has one; and the University of Texas has the Michener Center for Writers, although its purview is decidedly national. I'm sure I've left out a statue or two, a center or two. And of course there is no dearth of scholarly writing on Texas literature or of courses in universities and colleges devoted to the study of that literature. Scholarship in the 1980s did a particularly good job of bringing to our attention the work of forgotten or overlooked women and minority writers, and that work continues. The full portrait of Texas literature in its multiplicity and, yes, complexity, is a work in progress.
I think the key to understanding all of this literary hullabaloo is that if Texans don't celebrate the writing of their native state, nobody else is going to. Examples of the general disparagement of Texas literary culture by outsiders are abundant. Here, for example, is an assessment of the presumptive tastes of Texas readers: "Even educated Texans have often preferred insubstantial humour books and western pulp fiction to 'highfalutin' writing." This little bit of condescension appeared in The Economist in 1998, in an article by an anonymous visitor to what he or she regarded as a distinct oddity: the Texas Book Festival. Imagine thousands of Texans gathering to listen to writers. Unthinkable.
If the audience is ridiculed, so are the writers. The jacket copy from a collection of stories titled Southwest, published by a New York house in the 1980s, caricatured its own selections: "Some were born among the sagebrush and the mesquite trees. Others traveled here from the soot-choked cities of the East. But all write with their feet dusty from the mesas or with fingers greasy from chicken-fried steak."
In foreign climes northeast of the Red River, there is still a hunger for the clichés and gaucheries that constitute our ignorant lives. Typical is a review by one Benjamin Moser that appeared in the New York Review of Books in May 2004. His piece is devoted to Larry McMurtry's Berrybender saga, but it's one of those reviews that casts a much bigger lariat. Mr. Moser writes of the "louche fictions" of Giant and Dallas (misusing the word louche in the process: it means shady, disreputable). Anyway, these "louche fictions," he opines, lead Texans to think of themselves as "flamboyant playboy millionaires." I think most Texans are just savvy enough to distinguish their lives from those depicted in movies or in television. Mr. Moser lives in a better, more cultivated place than the Houston where he says he grew up. He lives in the Netherlands, where, I can imagine, one never sees a surfeit of poppy paintings and windmill objets in the domiciles of Mr. Moser's neighborhood.
The fact is, Texas has done a much better job of exporting its mystique than it has its truths—aided and abetted, of course, by Yankee expectations. Annie Proulx, a New Englander, provides a good example of a recent caricature of Texas manners and mores in her 2002 novel, That Old Ace in the Hole. The book traces the erratic fortunes of 25-year-old Bob Dollar, who has been sent down to the Panhandle from the Denver office of Global Pork Rind to scout locations for new hog farms. He moves to a place improbably called Woolybucket, where he meets tons of people with names odder than his. Proulx's habit of giving characters eccentric names leads her to such extremes as Ribeye Cuke, Rope Butt, Harry Howdiboy, LaVon Fronk, Wally Ooly, Freday Beautyrooms, and Dick Head, among many, many others. Fanny Proustnot must have heard of Ima Hogg, though there is mention of one Venus Hogg. In a single paragraph Nannie Pootluck gives us Hen Page, Cy Frease, and Coolbroth Fronk.
The other problem, and one that went unremarked upon in all the reviews I read, most of them by Yankees who wouldn't know any better, is Proulx's penchant for dialect or what she might call "dilek." Thus "Granddaddy" becomes "Graindeddy," sometimes "Graindaddy," but never "Grandaddy" which is the way Texuns say it. "Homaseashells" is her most ridiculous stab at regional speech. She also thinks Texans say "crik." They do not. You have to go to Battle Crik, Michigan, to hear that.
It's not surprising that outsiders, distant observers, might well cast a superior eye on things Texan. But it is also the case that within Texas, especially within academic culture, there is considerable resistance to admitting that Texas possesses any sort of literary culture worth mentioning. Back in 1895, when pioneering folklorist John A. Lomax was getting his B.A. at the University, he showed a manuscript of cowboy songs to a senior professor in the English Department. In his autobiography Lomax described the professor's reaction: "Dr. Calloway told me that my samples of frontier literature were tawdry, cheap, and unworthy . . . There was no possible connection, he said, between the tall tales of Texas and the tall tales of Beowulf." Lomax had to go to Harvard to find a professor who appreciated the great, inestimable value of those songs and urged their publication. The result, in 1910, was the groundbreaking Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads. Later on, J. Frank Dobie had to battle similar resistance by professors in the University of Texas English Department to the idea of developing a course in southwestern literature, but Dobie prevailed and that course, Life and Literature of the Southwest, is still offered.
The perception of Texas's uniqueness, and the concomitant fear that the state might lose that special identity, goes back at least to the Centennial Celebration of 1936. That year Dobie, already known as "Mr. Texas," published a collection of essays titled The Flavor of Texas. In the opening essay, "Flavor and Tradition," Dobie piled up colorful examples of the "Texas tradition." (Dobie used the word tradition instead of culture, but it was the same thing.) In one passage he addressed the dreaded prospect of change but managed to reach a consoling conclusion:
The tendency of urban centers, machinery, constantly accumulating regulations over all industries, standardization of newspapers and education, and now all that the New Deal implies have been as active towards standardizing individuals in Texas as elsewhere over the United States. Nevertheless the tradition is still individualistic; the ideal is still against "swallering that."
By 1968, A. C. Greene felt more pessimistic about the prospect of Texas losing its indigenous culture, as he wrote in A Personal Country:
This ability to identify so much with one's place of birth is becoming rare in American culture. I don't think my children have it and I have not tried to give it to them. They have lived in places that didn't strike up through the soles of their feet or assault their eyeballs. If there are fewer of us who retain our identity with a region there are fewer regions powerful enough to force an identity. In our mobility and our conformity, in our ability to shape our physical circumstances and adapt nature to our convenience, we are losing sectionalism, not just in its less desirable ways but in its meaningful sense.
In the twenty-first century I find that students, very good students indeed, who enroll in my Life and Literature of the Southwest class (the one Dobie invented) do not know who Dobie was and have never heard the name except in relation to the Dobie Mall, a high-rise mixed-use building on the edge of the UT campus. I have observed the fading of Dobie's name from general awareness for going on twenty years, but more recently the number of students who have some inkling of who Dobie was has dropped to nil. But there is more news of slippage on the culture recognition front. Many of my students have never heard of Larry McMurtry either, or John Graves, the two best-known Texas writers of the modern era. Even more surprising, to me anyway, is that they have, by overwhelming numbers, never seen Red River, Giant, Hud, The Last Picture Show, or Lonesome Dove—all major texts in the definition and dissemination of what Texas used to be. The erosion of local knowledge in the past few decades has been pronounced.
It was Dobie himself who made the most eloquent case for the study of regional culture. In the essay "How My Life Took Its Turn" Dobie wrote:
If people are to enjoy their own lives, they must be aware of the significances of their own environments. The mesquite is, objectively, as good and as beautiful as the Grecian acanthus. It is a great deal better for people who live in the mesquite country. We in the Southwest shall be civilized when the roadrunner as well as the nightingale has connotations.
In view of Dobie's endorsement of the local, it is somehow unfathomable to hear the most important Texas writer in the state's history assert in an interview that "Texas itself doesn't have anything to do with why I write. It never did." But it is hard to imagine that anybody who has read Horseman, Pass By, The Last Picture Show, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (note the subtitle!), or his great cattle drive epic Lonesome Dove would agree with Larry McMurtry on this score. But then perhaps Larry was simply trying to escape the pejorative associations of being considered only a Texas writer.
I am not so much interested in the material objects of Texas culture—the kitsch, the little found poems (You'll do time/For a Crime/in Grimes County—a sign greeting visitors to that county), the phony idioms ("All hat and no cattle"), the Burnt-Orange Long Horn Junque on sale all over Austin, Texas. My interest is mainly in literary and film culture. Texas writing is a subset of American literature, and the writers who interest me the most are those who have found a way to hitch their narratives to a national star, while keeping in mind the Lone Star from which their work originates.
All of this may change in the future. Tom Pilkington, a longtime and important scholar of Texas writing, has argued that the very idea of a Texas literary tradition may be winding down. Writes Pilkington, "As the American population becomes ever more ethnically diverse, ever more mobile—ever more rootless and transient—regional ties and loyalties are weakened or obliterated. I do not foresee a Texas literary tradition, in anything like its twentieth-century form, surviving very far into the twenty-first century." His point is that if Texas ceases to think of itself as a nation state, then the allure of the mystique will fade away. I think the mystique will continue in the production of consumer products and the rhetoric of politicians. But Pilkington may well be right regarding a literary tradition headed for the barn. I am not nostalgic about this possibility. I have always loved great writing, wherever it comes from.
The present collection is a series of essays dealing with Texas-inflected books and authors. It spans a ten-year period, 1999-2009, and to my mind stands as a bookend to an earlier collection, Giant Country Essays on Texas (TCU Press), published in 1998. Many of the pieces gathered here appeared originally in Texas Monthly as columns and were conceived of as opportunities for expanding the form beyond a book review format. This concept allowed me to connect many of the pieces with my own personal experiences growing up in Texas. Thus the reviews became occasions for observations, larger speculations, and commentary. Here I have taken the opportunity to revise, delete, add, and otherwise bring the material forward in time. Culture is always changing, never static, and the process of reading is always a process of rereading as well. Such a book asks of its audience only an interest in literature, history, and film, in this case Texas literature, history, and film.
“For all Texans, and for anyone with even a passing interest in the state, this collection of essays is an essential read.”
April's Pages, Oxford American