Bookish on Texas


Bookish on Texas

n the last issue of 2003, we printed a letter from a reader who wrote to ask what it is that makes one a Texan. “I lived in Texas for about seven of the past 12 years,” wrote Matthew Saroff of Baltimore, Maryland. “I voted in elections, made friends, participated in public society there, and paid sales taxes. That being said, I was never a Texan, I was just a citizen of the state of Texas. I did not have whatever it is that makes a Texan.”

One response to Mr. Saroff’s question comes from Naomi Shihab Nye. In the introduction to a forthcoming collection of writing and drawing from Texas, she writes: “It’s rumored that some states won’t grant full-fledged status-of-belonging to residents even if they have lived in those states a very long time. You have to be born there. Texas is happy to claim you after ten minutes.”

Of course, not everyone here is blessed with the generosity of the Observer’s poetry editor.

Mr. Saroff asks a darned good question. It’s a variation on one that we’ve been exploring here for 50 years come this December. As we celebrate our anniversary throughout the year, we’ll be examining the many facets of our larger-than-life state, both in these pages and in events to be held throughout Texas.

In the spirit of generations of Observer editors and writers who have mined the essence of the Lone Star State for all its humor, horror, and yes, nobility, it seems appropriate to start the Winter Books issue with a sharp piece of analysis by fifth-generation Texan Debbie Nathan. One of our favorite myth-busters and border analysts, Nathan reviews historian Randolph B. Campbell’s Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State and examines the “legend of the Textosteroned Anglo Male versus Practically Everyone Else.”

As longtime contributor and former TO editor Bob Sherrill reminds, this year marks another 50th anniversary—that of the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. The end finally came for the witch-hunting Senator from Wisconsin on December 2, 1954 when his peers voted to condemn him “for bringing shame on the upper chamber.” “McCarthyism was not an epidemic, but a series of outbreaks,” writes Ted Morgan, author of Reds, McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, and who better equipped to know the truth of those words than Observer readers.

Both Nathan and Sherrill poke at myths—Texan and national. So does Gabriela Bocagrande, a native Houstonian and resident Washingtonian who covers multilateral malfeasance for the Observer as she roams about the Americas. In “Son of Stiglitz,” Bocagrande once again takes on Nobel laureate and former World Bank VP Joseph Stiglitz, and concludes that most “economists are intellectual practitioners who adopt basic assumptions they know are incorrect, and then extrapolate conclusions they declare to be true.”

Elsewhere in this issue, Peter LaSalle looks at the Texas connections of another Nobel laureate and the winner of this year’s prize for literature, J.M. Coetzee of South Africa. And former UT professor, prize-winning poet and translator Khaled Mattawa talks about poetry and its ability to instill in readers “a sense of the complexity of the world…to live the grayness of uncertainty and to live with ambivalence.”

Finally we close with Naomi Shihab Nye’s sad, sweet obituary, “Meeting Edward Said at the Alamo.” In the piece, she relays Said’s final instructions: “Whatever our own misgivings about speaking out might be, he urged us to move beyond them, to voice our opinions even when they are not popular, as he always did.” That kind of independent spirit embodies what’s best about Texas. —BB