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“How’d You Turn A Billion Steers Into Buildings Made of Mirrors?”

Putting Texas literature in its place.
by Published on

I was on a farmer’s schedule: down with the dark, up with the dawn. Each morning the sunrise bored through the kitchen window by the cupboards as I boiled water for tea and old-fashioned oatmeal. Sometimes there would be a few deer on the outskirts of the yard munching the corn I’d left by the three small gates that opened onto wildflower fields and a forest of oak and cedar. Paisano deer were shy and skittish, not like the deer that frequented the new housing developments farther down Highway 290, the deer that would come to the back door and eat out of your hand.

After breakfast I took my morning walk, sometimes up the hill toward the Mockford property where enormous clusters of prickly pear bloomed yellow and then surrendered their fruit to foxes and raccoons as the season changed. Sometimes I scrabbled along the limestone bluffs or made my way out to the old log cabin, ducking the dew-covered spider webs that spanned the path. By the end of summer, drought had caused Barton Creek, which usually rushes through the ranch, to shrivel until it was bone-dry. Then I walked the creek bed.

Later I settled in at the long table built by the venerable Texas newspaperman and author A.C. Greene (the second Dobie Paisano Fellow), writing and watching the birds. Cardinals and finches skirmished over the feeders and drank at the blue ceramic birdbath, dipping forward with little Japanese bows. There were hummingbirds and robins, tufted titmice, a pair of painted buntings and even one rose-breasted grosbeak, which according to the books on the shelf should not have been in Texas that time of year. At dusk, the whippoorwills raised their voices, calling back and forth across the yard.

Any frustrations over how to move forward with the book I was writing seemed to dissipate in the face of Paisano’s wonder, its reminders that life goes on, how the small picture is really the big picture, too. Before going to bed I stepped onto the porch, out to where the moon illuminated the stone edge where the overhang didn’t reach. The light was a milky picture frame encasing the house and me. I never wanted to leave.

I was the 79th Dobie Paisano Fellow to enjoy custodianship of what was once J. Frank Dobie’s 250-acre ranch. I lived and worked there during the spring and summer of 2008, finishing a collection of short stories set in Texas and working on a book about my experiences in Nigeria. At a time when many people worry that regional distinctions in the U.S. are dwindling in the face of media conglomeration and rootless mobility, the Dobie Paisano seems like a quaint throwback. Only Texans can apply (though writers aren’t required to write about Texas); only one writer lives there at a time; it’s on a ranch, for Christ’s sake.

I was lucky in that the week before my tenure began, the fellowship—sponsored by the Texas Institute of Letters and administered by the University of Texas—held its first-ever reunion, complete with food and bands and returning fellows from as far back as 1967. As the greenhorn, I was regaled with warnings, mostly having to do with snakes and scorpions, but also with what seemed at the time like melodramatic gushing and heehawing over the place.

Vince Lozano told me about being flooded in more than a dozen times when Barton Creek swelled over the low-water crossing. Gary Cartwright pointed out the corner of the kitchen where Dennis Hopper lay passed out for two days after a party. And there were darker stories too, like how one Very Famous Writer, teaching in San Marcos at the time, was asked to stop by the ranch and check on a fellow who hadn’t been responding to phone calls. The Very Famous Writer supposedly found the poor fellow stark raving mad, bunkered down with a loaded shotgun and claiming his in-laws were on the property to kill him.

The best advice I received that weekend was the following: On your first day at the ranch, buy a nice steak and a decent bottle of wine. Grill up the steak, pour yourself a glass, and then sit down and read The Reports, a special binder full of pages written by past fellows, beginning organically with random notes left behind in the ’70s and eventually morphing into officially requested entries.

The reports tell of changes in the land, the creeks, the surrounding development, of longhorns running wild and foxes chasing fireflies, of children. They also betray the inner lives of the fellows themselves, the good writing and the no writing and the awe and the loneliness. Reading these missives from the past, I felt welcomed into the house. These words of men and women into whose footsteps I was literally stepping made me feel connected, not just to Paisano, but also to a kind of tradition.

Yet I wondered if this wasn’t more illusion than anything else. Unlike the Deep South, with its gothic Faulknerian glamour, Texas’ literary history has always been marred by a lack of respect from the outside and an inferiority complex expressed from within. Texas’ own sons and daughters have often been its literature’s harshest critics, from Katherine Anne Porter’s declaration that she was “the first and only serious writer that Texas has produced” to Larry McMurtry’s famous salvo in “Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature,” in which he famously claims that the state’s writers “paid too much attention to nature, not enough to human nature.” (Both statements first appeared in the pages of the Observer.)

As recently as 2004, Benjamin Moser wrote in The New York Review of Books that “For a place of its size and importance, Texas has a remarkably thin literary resumé.”

Texas the myth, all cowboys and wildcatters, may not have a public relations problem, but Texas literature sure does. In a state that requires its students to take at least a year of Texas history, it’s shocking how little we Texans know about our own literary traditions. Recently, I met a friend, a very funny published writer and recent transplant from Houston, at Barton Springs to swim and do the crossword and, as it turned out, be attacked by angry swans. Having arrived early, I seated myself on top of the statue called Philosophers’ Rock and, when he arrived, asked if he’d like to join me and my three bronzed companions: J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb. My Texas writer friend had never heard of any of these men. There’s an ongoing dispute over whether this increasingly common disconnect is properly attributed to the fact that Texas has failed to properly promote the state’s literary heritage, or to McMurtry’s being right when he predicted that Dobie’s generation of writers wouldn’t age particularly well.

I happen to be an exception, a youngish writer very much aware of Dobie, Bedichek and company, but this is more an accident of birth than anything else. I grew up in Abilene, a conservative West Texas city that’s a long way from most people’s idea of a literary hotbed, although it does happen to be just 44 miles from Cross Plains, where Robert E. Howard of Conan the Barbarian fame lived his entire life. As McMurtry wrote in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, “People on their way to Abilene might as well be on their way to hell…” (A side note: An Abilenian friend of mine and I have long planned to write our response to that fine book, with the working title Dave Hickey at the Taco Bueno.)

In fact A.C Greene was from Abilene, and a number of other writers spent time in and around the area, including Webb, Elmer Kelton and Stephen Harrigan. Both my parents are university librarians with a love for Texas and the Southwest—my father even wanted to name me Scooter Bill, the nickname of “Texas Troubadour” Ernest Tubb’s daughter. And my maternal grandfather, who grew up on a ranch outside Pecos, had been a Dobie fan. When I was awarded the fellowship, my mother gave me my grandfather’s copy of The Longhorns, signed by Dobie with his brand.

Some mornings at Paisano, the wind blew such that I could hear the creek from the gallery porch, and I would sit out there reading The Longhorns, absorbing its quirky history and folklore. Even then I realized that the book connected me more to my grandfather—the one who taught me as a child to tap-tap-tap stones with a stick to warn rattlesnakes—than to any flowering of Texas letters.

Not to say I’m especially country. Even though I grew up around people to whom Texas was very important, it wasn’t until graduate school in Boston that I came to join them in their appreciation. As McMurtry in Walter Benjamin remembers having done, I read myself out of that culture growing up, only to read myself back in years later. I chose high school English projects on the Beats and Aldous Huxley, but didn’t read Porter or McMurtry until I was 25. Other than the few weeks I spent each summer growing up at a horse camp outside of Fort Davis, I’d never lived on a ranch before Paisano, though I wrote about one in grad school.

That short story, “House of Guns,” is set on a ranch outside Fayetteville, to which an architecture student returns from the Northeast at Christmas only to find his family in chaos. It’s certainly not a western, but there are horses and feed stores, even an old cemetery. I remember the writing of “House of Guns” feeling something like a literary homecoming for me.

“House of Guns” is exactly the sort of writing that sticks in the craw of folks like McMurtry (ironically enough, if you think about it), who 27 years ago was already railing against worldly Texas writers resorting to the ranch. “Why are there still cows to be milked and chickens to be fed in every Texas book that comes along?” he wrote.

(This was not the first time I’d ended up on the other end of an implied critique from McMurtry. When I was an undergrad at Rice University a decade ago, the English department invited him to speak, but I don’t remember the writer-collector mentioning one book, preferring instead to subject us to a stinging, long-winded tirade about how young people today have no manners.)

But McMurtry was not wrong about Texas; it has changed. And what are writers for if not to document and reflect upon change? Or as Dallas native David Berman, frontman for the band Silver Jews, sings: “How’d you turn a billion steers into buildings made of mirrors?”

Many Texas writers—including Harrigan, Pat LittleDog, Laura Furman, Sarah Bird, Donald Barthelme, Oscar Casares and Bret Anthony Johnston have directly and indirectly explored this very issue over the years, as demonstrated in part by the biased and idiosyncratic but wonderful anthology Lone Star Literature, edited by Don Graham, who now teaches the class Dobie started at the University of Texas at Austin. That book provides a sampling of the breadth and diversity of character and setting in Texas literature. And Graham was probably right when he recently pointed to South Texas as the best place to find contemporary stories demonstrating that “[n]ot everyone in Texas is out in the barn yukking it up with crude humor books or dusty shoot-‘em-ups. Not then, not now.”

But the fact that writers are indeed writing about post-western Texas, with its increasingly urban and suburban lifestyles, doesn’t erase the tension I still see in the field. As time passes, what will distinguish these increasingly homogenous urban and suburban stories as particularly Texan? Ten years ago, Tom Pilkington was already lamenting in State of Mind: Texas Literature and Culture, that “One can walk for blocks at a stretch down almost any busy street in Dallas or Houston or Austin and never hear a Texas accent (except one’s own).”

Graham also had a hard time imagining Texas letters without the myth. Asked in an interview (with the Observer) what the next Texas anthology might look like, he responded, “Will younger writers keep the frontier alive? Only in a genre sense…” As if the next anthology of Texas writers would necessarily have to concern itself with the frontier to be considered legitimately Texan. Even McMurtry, in the collection’s foreword, mentions only three authors he’s “particularly glad” to see included: Bedichek, Webb, and the historian J. Evetts Haley. Not exactly a shout-out for the post-rural writers he’d initially slapped Texas for failing to produce.

Ultimately, I think there is something to be said for keeping alive elements of Texas tradition in Texas literature, and not in any xenophobic, more-Texan-than-you sort of way. As Pilkington argued:

“[Myth is] the handmaiden of culture. Myth ordinarily is the means by which a group’s customary beliefs, social forms and material traits are continuously reinforced and, just as important, are inculcated in newcomers, whether they are outsiders requesting admittance or children and young people seeking full membership in the group.”

In contemporary Texas that may mean mechanical bulls, taco trucks in the parking lot, or that enormous Texas-shaped table at Kay’s Lounge in Houston. But how do young Texas writers, many with little connection to Dobie, Bedichek and Webb, keep alive some semblance of the literary “T” in Texas without resorting to stereotype and the milking of cows? I can’t answer that question in its entirety or pretend to speak for a whole generation of writers, but being out at Paisano I did begin to discover a personal approach. Because while Texas writing may have become more urbane and less stereotypically regional, the Dobie fellowship pulled me back into an earlier tradition, one I suspect even McMurtry is starting to appreciate, in hindsight, in a way his younger self, desperate to escape the tradition’s shadow, couldn’t.

When I’d meet folks in town for dinner or a show, my friends would offer to let me crash at their places in Austin, but I liked driving back to Paisano at night, catching rabbits in my headlights as they darted across the gravel road, unlocking the iron gate beneath the stars as the lions issued mournful cries from the nearby zoo. It pained me to be away from the ranch for long.

Looking back, I can see my experience at Paisano was only partly about the land and the solitude and the writing. After years of living outside Texas, Paisano was also about a return to community. Old Texas buddies came to stay with me during weekends. My college friend Richard book-ended my term—one visit at the start and one at the end—and we sat on the low-water crossing dangling our feet into the creek and drinking strong margaritas, he reading to me from an old book, found in the house, that claimed armadillos taste like sea turtles. And there were new friends, writers I lured out to the ranch for grilled fish or tacos: Bird, Amanda Eyre Ward, Clay Reynolds. They in turn were generous enough to introduce me around the writing community, to make me feel welcome despite my novice status.

I found that connections between writers, regional or otherwise, are not entirely organic. They are also a choice, a decision to read and to attach yourself to people who write or have written in the place you’ve decided to call home. At Paisano, it wasn’t just the people with whom I drank and traded stories who became my chosen circle. It was also the books stacked around the house, books written by previous fellows like Furman and Scott Blackwood, the beautiful report left by Sandra Cisneros, the kitchen shelves built by Dagoberto Gilb, the newspaper article in which Billy Porterfield wrote, “After Genesis, Paisano Ranch was at the bottom of a shallow, steaming sea, slimy with slugs and algae…. Millions of years later, as sun worshippers dreamily count, its progeny crept up a pipe in a toilet in a house on Barton Creek and bit a man named Dobie, who swore like a heathen and squashed the bejesus out of it.”

It was strange, in a way, to be writing a book about Nigeria while living at this Texas ranch, but by connecting or reconnecting with these traditions and these writers, I saw that my experience of Texas shined through the subject matter. The place and culture I came from ended up havin
so much to do with the writer I am and was, even in Africa. Not all Texas writers will feel this way. Not all Texas writers write about Texas in any sense of the word. And not all Texas writers can abide this particular topic without rolling their eyes. That’s OK, too.

Oral storytelling in the traditional sense may be dead, and most young people may not know J. Frank Dobie from a Diamondback rattler, but I’ve learned that it’s at least possible to thread the new Texas I see in front of my eyes, like the housing developments springing up over the bluff, with the old Texas I know only by the paw tracks it leaves in the road after a soaking rain.

Once I caught actual sight of an animal I’d only heard before, howling at night like a ghost with its brethren. On a morning walk during my last week at the ranch there was a sudden rustle in the trees to my left. It was not unusual to startle a deer and, sure enough, a doe came bounding out of the brush, crossing my path at high speed with something hanging from her mouth. Following on her heels was a coyote, grimacing and big. When he saw me he stopped, six feet away, and our eyes met. Then he rushed on.

Mary Helen Specht lives in Austin. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. Her Web site is www.maryhelenspecht.com.