The Story Thus Far

STATE OF MIND: Texas Literature & Culture.

Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Larry McMurtry’s In A Narrow Grave – the book that changed everything in the polite world of Texas books and writing. Until then, the Texas branch of southwestern studies was pretty much a peaceable kingdom. J. Frank Dobie had constructed a canon of classics that he taught at the University of Texas, largely consisting of books about ranching, the frontier, and cowboys. Dobie was as bookish as McMurtry was to become a generation later, but (although he shared his birthdate with T.S. Eliot) his taste was solidly pre-modernist. Perhaps his signature contribution to Texas writing was his classroom handout, later published in several editions as Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest. This annotated list is long on legend and short on literature, yet it demonstrates both Dobie’s discerning knowledge of regional history and a contagious enthusiasm for Texas stories. Something of his free-spirited proselytizing can be seen in his “not copyright” statement that appeared on the verso of the title page: “Not copyright in 1942. Again not copyright in 1952. Anybody is welcome to help himself to any of it in any way.”

By the time Dobie and the University parted company, his reputation was established – the fledgling Texas Institute of Letters had given its 1939 award for best Texas book to Dobie’s collection of mining yarns, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. The Institute passed over Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a collection of three novellas that many now consider the finest literary work by a writer with Texas roots. After this snub, Porter turned her back on her home state, and with the emergence of the post-World War II writing generation of Mailer, Algren, Jones, and Styron, regional literary efforts by Texans began to look hopelessly dated.

Emerging Texas writers of the fifties looked outside the state for inspiration, and Beat culture found a welcome in the unlikeliest place: North Texas. Alvarado produced Terry Southern, who fled as quickly as he could, becoming a fixture in the bohemian world in New York and Paris. In London, Southern connected with Stanley Kubrick, to co-write Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the blackest comedy ever to come out of a Hollywood studio and filled with wild Texas humor. In Fort Worth there was a coffee house scene, and a gaggle of hepcat sports reporters who wrote for the Fort Worth Press. And the unlikeliest place of all, the North Texas State campus in Denton, produced perhaps the three most talented Texas writers of their generation: Bill Brammer, Grover Lewis, and Larry McMurtry. By the time McMurtry taught at Texas Christian University in the early sixties, he had published his first book, Horseman, Pass By – a novel so shocking to the campus bluenoses that he was placed in the curious position of fighting a pitched battle to keep it in the campus library.

Between 1958 and 1961 four large Texas talents blew the lid off Dobie’s canon. Those four years saw the publication of William Humphrey’s Home From the Hill, John Graves’ Goodbye To A River, and in 1961, Brammer’s The Gay Place and McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The Hollywood success of Humphrey’s and McMurtry’s novels raised these stories of Texas anti-heroes to a level of recognition that put the old myths somewhat in the shade. (Robert Mitchum starred in Home From the Hill, and Hud, the adaptation of McMurtry’s novel, featured Paul Newman at the peak of his studliness.) Times had changed – the closest Dobie ever got to a movie set was when he posed with John Wayne and Chill Wills in front of the faux Alamo in Brackettville.

In A Narrow Grave found the young McMurtry (whose second and third novels were also filmed) riding high and ready to raise a little literary hell. All bets were off as he gleefully ripped into the Texas icons of the period, including the Austin holy trinity of Dobie, Roy Bedichek and William Prescott Webb. His send-up of Houston’s newly-opened Astrodome (“The first promising rumour I heard about the Harris County Domed Stadium was that it was going to be large enough that the Shamrock Hotel could be put inside it”) brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s memorable description of the hotel’s lobby: “I always wondered what the inside of a jukebox looked like.” Perhaps the most bracing chapter was “Eros in Archer County,” McMurtry’s essay on cussing and dirty words. Like some sly, indigenous Margaret Mead assiduously studying his home village, he drolly examined the street language of his childhood: “There was, I believe, a tacit understanding that only one’s friends could call one a cocksucker without expecting retaliation.”

Dobie died in 1964, but his fading presence still fills McMurtry’s chapter on Texas writing, “Southwestern Literature?” It is a plea to move past the generation of “Pancho” Dobie, and to invest in the future work of several young Texas writers. This group, in addition to Brammer, Graves, and Humphrey, included John Howard Griffin, R.G. Vliet, Elroy Bode, Sherry Kafka, Robert Flynn, Bud Shrake, Willie Morris, Larry L. King, Al Dewlin, Hughes Rudd, Max Crawford, Grover Lewis, and Dave Hickey. McMurtry’s high-spirited book ends with a piece that many consider his single best piece of writing, “Take My Saddle From the Wall: A Valediction,” an essay on growing up inclined towards book-learning in a culture of working cowboys and ranchers.

In A Narrow Grave began the modern study of Texas writing, and in the decades since its publication, the field has prospered. J. Frank Dobie’s old course still exists at U.T.—Austin, now in large classes taught by Don Graham, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and José Limón; statewide literary events such as the Texas Book Festival and Texas Writers Month have brought unprecedented attention to state writers, and Dobie’s old house, on the banks of Austin’s Waller Creek, now houses the successful Michener Center for Texas Writing.

Tom Pilkington has been an important contributor to this field since the seventies. For some years now he has been University Scholar and Professor of English at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, and his hand has been evident in several important events and publications, including the Texas Literary Tradition gathering held in Austin in 1983. This ambitious conference, co-chaired by Pilkington, Don Graham, and Jim Lee, brought together everyone who was anyone in the field. Panels of writers included McMurtry, John Graves, A.C. Greene, Pete Gent, Shelby Hearon, Elmer Kelton, José Limón, William Owens, Tomás Rivera, R.G. Vliet, and Bill Wittliff. The published conference proceedings (now almost impossible to find) are the best introduction to Texas writing that I know. Pilkington’s own work appears to be an extension of this landmark event. His previous collection, My Blood’s Country, primarily examined southwestern writers outside Texas – standing out was Pilkington’s very fine essay on Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative of his trek across the southwest in the 1520s.

State of Mind is organized conceptually, using a chronological construct from “ancestors,” early in the book, to writers of the present in the final chapter, “Future Shock.” Pilkington raises several traditional questions in Texas studies: the relationship of literature and the land, the role of the frontier in Texas writing, Texas literature as southern writing, and violence as a theme in Texas fiction. To these often-pondered subjects, Pilkington adds two welcome new ones: the fiction of Texans during war time, and the Texas football novel. “Texans At War” is a wholly original examination of Texans as the “free-spirited and freedom-loving individualists that they are supposed to be,” loving to fight, yet chafing under tight military discipline. Pilkington’s sources include one of the earliest novels set in Texas (Mexico Versus Texas, published in Philadelphia in 1838), and reach forward to Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel Why Are We In Vietnam?, an initiation story which features a rich Dallas businessman, his son, and a friend, on an Alaskan bear hunt. Pilkington is insightful about Mailer’s use of the stock character of “the ugly Texan” (Don Graham’s phrase), a figure that sprang to life in the aftermath of the JFK assassination (although he omits the wonderful last line of Mailer’s book: “Vietnam, hot damn.”). Pilkington also restores to life two good Texas books: Lone Star Preacher, a Civil War novel by John W. Thomason, and Andrew Jolly’s A Time of Soldiers.

The football chapter, “A Fan’s Notes,” benefits from the engaging sound of Pilkington’s own voice, missing in much of the book. Written from the standpoint of a boy who grew up in the fifties listening to Kern Tips doing radio broadcasts of Southwest Conference football, Pilkington’s informed affection for both football and football writing shines through:

For me, the romance sprang from an accident of my youth. When I was a youngster, my family subscribed to the (now defunct) Fort Worth Press. The Press was a tabloid, part of the Scripps-Howard chain. As a news medium it was woefully inadequate. But in its sports pages in the 1950s and early 1960s a legend of Texas journalism was born. The list of sportswriters who worked for the Press during that period is impressive by any standard: Blackie Sherrod, Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Mike Shropshire, and others who went on to illustrious careers elsewhere. Even as a teenager I had heard Westbrook Pegler’s famous description of a newspaper’s sports section as “the toy department.” But gosh, the Press gang seemed to be having a lot of fun. You name the technique, they used it deftly: irony, economy, humor, sublimity to honor the occasional sublime achievement. Employ irony in any other part of the newspaper, and it usually falls flat – I know because I’ve tried it. Sports fans are, above all else, sophisticated consumers of clever analysis.

A bit further, Pilkington quotes a passage from Pete Gent’s North Dallas Forty that serves as an antidote to his own romance with sports writing:

Sportswriters were such assholes. They didn’t know shit and acted as if they understood a game far more complex in emotion and technical skills than they had the ability to comprehend. They couldn’t even transcribe my jokes correctly. That is why they were sportswriters, because they didn’t know shit about anything.

Later in the chapter, Pilkington adroitly pairs his analysis of a fictional West Texas high school football star gone wrong in Terry Allen’s wonderful song, “The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy),” with J. Brent Clark’s biography of Fort Worth’s Joe Don Looney, a real life football fuck-up if there ever was one. There are more good football books than you might think, and Pilkington clearly cares about this sub-genre.

Likewise affecting because of Pilkington’s personal connections to the material are his chapters, “This Stubborn Soil: Texas Earth and Texas Culture,” and “Texas Gothic: the South in Lone Star Life and Letters.” The importance of micro-geography in growing up is made abundantly clear in his description of his childhood. He grew up on a hard scrabble farm outside Burleson, but (through a quirk in school district lines) attended school in Mansfield, a much more southern town ten miles to the east: “I remember thinking, even at the time, that I may as well have been in Mississippi.” Mansfield’s school integration troubles made national news, and the town’s best known resident was John Howard Griffin, author of one of the strangest and most powerful Texas books, Black Like Me.

I remember, as a measure of Mansfield’s xenophobic rigidity, that all through my high-school years I heard whispered rumors about a strange man living on a farm just outside town. I eventually learned his name was John Howard Griffin and that he was a writer, someone who was obviously different. He was said to be a Catholic, and he had published in 1952 what many considered a “trashy” book, a novel set in France titled The Devil Rides Outside. Later, after I had left Mansfield, I discovered that a couple of literary critics had proclaimed Griffin’s work to be one of the best American novels to appear in the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, Griffin would anger white Mansfield to the point of apoplexy by having the pigment of his skin chemically altered and traveling through the South passing as a black man. The account of his painful journey, Black Like Me, published in 1961, would become a national bestseller. But in 1956 Griffin had done nothing, so far as I was aware, to challenge Manfield’s racial views; nevertheless, his mere presence seemed, to those who worry about such things, to threaten the comfortable status quo.

For all of these virtues, and they are real, State of Mind often comes up short. Except for the Preface and the Prologue, every piece in the book has been published before, and in some cases, old pieces are joined together. Oftentimes (as in the essay on violence, “Mac the Knife”), the joining together of two pieces written at different times for different audiences falls far short of being seamless. That is particularly disappointing in this essay because the premise – that Cormac McCarthy (especially in his masterpiece, Blood Meridian) celebrates blood and violence and that Larry McMurtry (in Lonesome Dove and other books) presents us with articulate characters who oppose the use of force – is fascinating. But all that happens here is a rather flat recitation of scenes, and the promising concept is not really developed.

Another recycled chapter is a recapitulation of the Texas literary wars begun by McMurtry in In A Narrow Grave and furthered in his 1984 essay “Ever A Bridegroom,” a Texas Observer classic. In this chapter, “A Prairie Homestead,” Pilkington spottily recites what for him now must appear to be a tired topic. McMurtry’s declaration of enthusiastic likes and dislikes (the passions of a practitioner) is totally lost on Pilkington, who instead mildly reports what by now is very old news. When he does rise up, it is in a gratuitous and misguided diminution of the career of Larry L. King – Pilkington appears to believe, and to be offended, that the financial success of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas allowed King to write or not write whatever he wanted. This lapse almost brings into question his other judgments. (For a much more balanced and entertaining treatment of this subject, see 1989’s Range Wars: Heated Debates, Sober Reflections, and Other Assessments of Texas Writing, edited by Pilkington and his Tarleton State colleague Craig Clifford.)

Texas writing invites strong opinion, and perhaps Pilkington is too contemplative a thinker to be a good controversialist. When he speaks out of his own experiences and relates them to the writing he describes, his writing is supple and persuasive. When this personal grounding is not present, his tone is almost bored, as if he had taught this material one too many times. Distracted and flat, many portions of this book feel as somber and rote as a bad Sunday School lesson.

There is also a shadow figure in State of Mind: just as Dobie appeared to haunt Larry McMurtry, McMurtry appears to loom over Pilkington. One chapter deals directly with McMurtry’s early novels, but his name is laced throughout the book, with Pilkington’s almost sotto voce asides commenting on what Larry is up to at any given time. This is no surprise; anyone dealing with Texas writing is deep in the shadow of McMurtry, whose most recent efforts, Duane’s Depressed, and the non-fiction Crazy Horse, are both hits, so the shadow lengthens. For years, there was talk that Tom Pilkington was writing a book on McMurtry, and the University of North Texas Press finally issued Mark Busby’s solid study of McMurtry that apparently had been Pilkington’s book to write. Nevertheless, at his bes
Pilkington would be perfect to address the many aspects of McMurtry. I still hope to read that book.

Dick Holland was the founding director of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State, and served for ten years until his retirement in 1997. He has edited the selected letters of Larry L. King, forthcoming this fall from the T.C.U. Press. He sat next to Joe Don Looney in the eighth grade at McLean Junior High School in Fort Worth.

This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.

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Published at 12:00 am CST