A revisionist historian tackles the curse of T.R. Fehrenbach
BY DEBBIE NATHAN
Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star StateBy Randolph B. CampbellOxford University Press500 pages, $35
few years ago I was traveling Texas’ Ivory Tower circuit to talk with self-styled “revisionist” historians who are refashioning how we understand the state. A productive and cheerful bunch, they nevertheless seemed mildly frustrated. People like David Montejano, formerly of UT and now at Berkeley, Neil Foley at UT Austin, Char Miller at Trinity, and Robert Calvert, Walter Buenger, and Julia Kirk Blackwelder at A&M—for a generation, they’ve been resurrecting facts that go beyond, and often contradict, the old saga. You know the tale: noble Jim Bowie against the evil Santa Anna, greedy Yankee Carpetbaggers versus vanquished and suffering Confederates, valiant Rangers fighting perfidious Injuns and Mexicans. That’s what you learned if you go back a ways in Texas. Later you realized it was bullshit. Or—and this is what was bothering the revisionists—maybe you didn’t.
It depends on whether you’ve read their work, which is not likely unless you’re one of the revisionists’ colleagues and students. Their readership problem supposedly derives from the fact that their books are published by scholarly presses and have too much abstruse language and statistics about items such as the number of women who wove homespun cloth in the Stephen F. Austin colony, the percentage of African-American males murdered by whites during Reconstruction, the proportion of ranches in turn-of-the-century Webb County that were swindled from Tejanos by Anglos, the rate of solved to unsolved homicides of Jews in the cattle-drive town of Fort Griffin. All this is said to be too dry for mass consumption. In addition, a curse lurks behind the scholarly press dilemma: the curse of T.R. Fehrenbach, an elderly military vet and former insurance agent in San Antonio who smokes rank cigars, engages in secret, communal rituals every year at the Alamo, and jeers at books by the jealous revisionists.
They’re jealous because Fehrenbach has his own history book, Lone Star, which came out in 1968 and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The revisionists wish they could compete, but they’re in a Catch-22. After all, Texas is one big, long-time national myth, whose Wild West tropes remain as popular among white guys as the baby Jesus is to these fellas’ women. The legend of the Textosteroned Anglo Male versus Practically Everyone Else is gospel to Fehrenbach. Unlike academic historians, he ignores any pretense of objectivity and simply preaches—sometimes until he is possessed by the voices and cojones of the machos he lauds.
Fehrenbach’s Sam Houston, for instance, leads the charge at San Jacinto, “his heart thudding in a tremendous passion, coolly, coolly with his soldier’s brain, knowing no power on earth was going to stop this headlong charge.” Non-white-man types, meanwhile, get the Lucifer treatment: Indians are “Stone Age savages,” and blacks after the Civil War “lacked motivation.” For this, the author earns fame and fortune. “Every woman loves a fascist,” wrote Sylvia Plath, and to the revisionist historians, it seems every Texan loves a Fehrenbach. (For his part, Fehrenbach loves those victims of fascism who’ve gone sabra rather than Sylvia: In Lone Star, he approvingly compares Anglo-Texans to Israelis. For scholars too scholarly to conflate Palestine, Texas with the Gaza Strip, that’s a hard act to follow).
Still, when we spoke in the late 1990s, the revisionists said that one of their ilk was crafting a challenge to Fehrenbach—or so they hoped. The buzz then was that University of North Texas historian Randolph “Mike” Campbell—a former president of the Texas State Historical Association—was writing a comprehensive book about the state’s history. Though tailored for a lay as well as academic readership, it would repudiate heady Texana teleology about God marching our great state to a state of grace. It would narrate ethnic, racial, class, and gender conflicts without reflexively making rich, hunky white men the protagonists. It would challenge reductionist myth, inject complexity. Yet it would be readable, dramatic! At least, that was the plan.
Campbell’s Gone to Texas finally came out this year. Does it go head to head with Fehrenbach? Well, yes and no. But please, keep reading.
The publisher is Oxford University Press, which fact alone suggests that Gone differs greatly from Lone. London-based Oxford is famous for printing serious, definitive books about this or that big subject—books you can line up next to the hoary dictionary of the same name, and use as reference works. An Oxford book may coddle lay readers with a paucity of footnotes, but it will include a staunch bibliography. Yes, Virginia, it will seem like some teacher’s required reading. Yet it will also be expert and punctilious enough to contain information you didn’t know, and you may get very fired up about instances of human goodness or badness that you didn’t know before. Still, Oxford books are measured, judicious, staid. Seldom will you read one for pure excitement. Instead, you’re probably taking a class and have to write a paper.
That’s kind of what Campbell’s book is like. Even his title seems like a sop to schoolmarms. “Gone to Texas” used to get abbreviated “GTT” and written on abandoned homesteads in the South. Leading off with the phrase is supposed to keep readers thinking about how Texas has always been a magnet for immigrants, beginning with the Native Americans. True, but it’s hard to imagine a Karankawa writing GTT on a teepee, or for that matter a 21st-century obrero from Monterrey writing it on a jacal before he pays the coyote to get him past the migra. Campbell’s conceit seems Fehrenbachian, which in this case is to say, market-oriented. As does his surfeit of “Spanish-Texas” and “Texas Revolution” maps (What’s with maps and Texana freaks, anyhow?).
But Gone to Texas isn’t boring! You just have to be in the right mood, especially if you’re not currently matriculated. In this case the mood is, “Shit, I am a thoughtful adult and the Alamo happened almost 170 years ago, and I know things have occurred in this state since then besides cattle drives and Spindletop, but what the hell were they and how can I read about them all in one place without feeling like I’m back in seventh grade being tested on the spelling of ‘Llano Estacado’? Besides, I just read Michael Lind’s Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. It’s a roller coaster ride, and I want to double check his facts when he argues that Texas is a pre-Civil War Southern culture and President George W. Bush has the political-economic mentality of a slave holder. And then there’s that weird new Alamo movie that’s got all the historians in an uproar.” If you ever get in this frame of mind, you will like Campbell’s book just fine.
In fact, the most illuminating aspect of Gone to Texas is its take on the state as Southern rather than Western. Campbell should know: He is also author of a brilliant earlier book, An Empire for Slavery. It opens by noting how almost a third of the population of antebellum Texas was black chattel: a proportion equal to that of Virginia. Then, much as Claude Lanzman’s Shoah used endless, boring Nazi railroad manifests to demonstrate the transport of human freight to the camps, Empire employs moldering Texas county courthouse records to make a devastating case that 19th-century Texas slave owners rented out or sold their property, then used the proceeds to pay for their kids’ private education—while blacks remained illiterate.
Now, in Gone to Texas, Campbell notes that by the 1850s, three out of four Texas families were Southern-born, and many owned slaves. How had they gotten this merchandise into Texas after 1827, when Mexico outlawed the peculiar institution? As Campbell describes it, immigrants from places like Tennessee and Alabama simply had their slaves sign “contracts” agreeing to indenture themselves and their issue for the rest of their lives—so that owners could instruct their grateful male property in “the art and mystery of farming and planting,” and females in “the art and mystery of cooking and housekeeping.” (The mystery of decent clothing was ignored. Campbell details intimate aspects of master-slave inequality in Texas, including the provision of special “Negro shoes,” made without sizing, from leather so stiff that it often ruined wearers’ feet.)
Gone to Texas rejects the Southern view of Reconstruction as a time when rapacious Northern Carpetbaggers took advantage of ignorant freedman and oppressed whites. In fact, Campbell notes, most members of Texas’ Reconstruction regime were long-time Texans, not interloper Yankees. (The old Carpetbagger myth is so ingrained, he writes, that even Robert Caro’s 1990 biography of Lyndon Johnson erroneously cited it.)
Texas was also Southern in the widespread practice of sharecropping and tenant farming. In 1890, four out of 10 Texas farms were worked by tenants, and by 1930 the ratio had risen to six in ten. The crop was cotton, which has always swamped cattle in the Texas economy, despite all the blather about ranching. As Campbell points out, the cowboy and cattle drive period in Texas lasted for only a generation after the Civil War. And a cowboy’s life was nothing to write home about. Those who rode the Chisholm Trail were mostly underpaid teenagers who “plodded along with the herd”—without guns, since, as Campbell writes, trail bosses worried that gunshots would cause stampedes. By the late 19th century, vaqueros had much in common with working-class immigrant New Yorkers: In 1883, cowboys on five Texas ranches went on strike to protest their $40 monthly pay. (Ranch owners broke the strike by hiring scabs.)
It’s this kind of organizing—especially when blacks or Mexicans are involved—that has always given white Texans the willies. Thankfully unlike Fehrenbach, Campbell devotes hundreds of pages to events from the late 19th century to just last year. It’s here that we learn how Southern racial and economic attitudes have made Texas what it is today. Animus toward Reconstruction, for example, with its state-financed, integrated institutions such as schools, “contributed heavily to the popular opposition to taxing and spending for public purposes that still characterizes Texas politics.” And when movements like agrarian Populism went multiracial, the powers that be got hysterical. That’s one reason Texas women didn’t win suffrage until the 21st Amendment mandated it in the 1920s. Before that, politicos in Austin always rejected suffrage because they feared giving females the vote would lead to the same thing for Negroes. Campbell’s chapters on the 20th century will give you a nice introduction to tycoons like Houston’s Jesse H. Jones, who grew rich off of New Deal and federal defense spending while chalking up his success to rugged individualism (a phenomenon that survives quite robustly in the 21st century). And you’ll get an overview of the one-party system that has long dominated the state: first with Dixiecrats, and lately with dixies who quit the crats for the Republican Party. Everyone is here, from Ma and Pa Ferguson to James Allred, Pappy “Pass the Biscuits” O’Daniel, Martin Dies, Lyndon Johnson, Allen Shivers, Ralph Yarborough, Barbara Jordan, and finally, the Bushes. By the time you’ve turned the last page—and after you’ve digested Campbell’s comment that most Texans still had Southern roots as late as the 1970s—you’ll realize that staid Randolph Campbell really does back up ranting Michael Lind’s caricature of Dubya as an antebellum dinosaur.
Maybe that’s the point of Gone to Texas—to serve as scholarly broker between impassioned good-ole-boys like Fehrenbach and impassioned newbies who think the Fehrenbach types are jerks yet are mutually distant from the dry confines of academia. Both sides echo obsession with the myth that Texas’ rough, tough laissez-faire history makes it special. But, Campbell writes, that supposed history is special “not because it is so greatly different from the other states but because it is such an exaggerated version of the United States.” Now, of course, other nations are invading the Texana myth and even creating new versions. In 1968, Fehrenbach praised Texas for resembling Israel. Today, Lind makes the same comparison and is horrified.
Gone to Texas says nothing about Israel, and because of that studied absence, it says everything. Stick it in the middle of your shelf. Check out its bibliography and buy a few more revisionist histories. Bookend the lot with Fehrenbach, Lind, and any other Texas romances and screeds that strike your fancy. Then frame your collection with the OED on one side and a diccionario on the other. Now you’re set for the next time you get in the mood. Contributing writer Debbie Nathan is a fifth-generation Texan who now lives in Alta Manhattan.