Lit, Crit, ‘N Grits

Wyoming Lit? Rhode Island Lit? Please, Texas Lit? Now you're talking. A Conversation with Don Graham


Not for one split second, as I naively did before picking up Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande (W.W. Norton), should you even remotely entertain the possibility that “Texas literature” is an artificial literary category. Of course I realize that, me being a Texan, such advice sounds chauvinistic. “Wyoming literature,” after all, wouldn’t pass for squat; “Massachusetts literature” merges with a transcendentalist tradition that covers New England like fog; and even “Mississippi literature”—the fictional Yoknapatawpha and non-fictional Oxford notwithstanding—loses its state identity in the tangled moss of “Southern literature.” So what makes the Lone Star State’s literary output from 1903-2001 special enough to deserve a 700+ plus page anthology whose most explicit criterion for inclusion is a Texas affiliation?

Texas pride, for starters. Texas literati have every reason to feel intellectually defensive, given the galling habit of the Eastern establishment to parody our cultural ways as uniquely bumfuckish. Don Graham, editor of an engaging and meticulously crafted first anthology of Texas literature, can relate. In his brief introduction, he comes out throwing punches against The Economist on account of a nitwit writer who once said of Texas’ literary tastes that, “Even educated Texans have often preferred insubstantial humour books and western pulp fiction to ‘highfalutin’ writing.” Graham, not a man to suffer this kind of horseshit lightly, responds, “Pass the grits, Ma,” and then adds by way of clarification, “even the founding Texans were able to read and write. Astonishing but true.” He’s evidently had some practice launching such retorts. Writing in these pages back in 1999 (“Perspectives on McMurtryville,” July 23, 1999), he recounted a story about “a snob of the sort one reliably runs into in academic circles,” who sniffed at the concept of “Texas culture” while dining at a Texas Book Festival dinner. “I should think that’s an oxymoron,” the snob opined, to which Graham thought, “You’re the fuckin’ moron… but I didn’t say it.” Which is just fine because, in the end, this volume says it for him.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a distinct Texas flavor infuses the short stories, essays, book cuttings, and memoirs that Graham tactfully arranged into “The West,” “The South,” “The Border,” and “Town and City.” Perhaps it’s needless to say, but the defining elements of our state’s literature aren’t always the most buoyant in tone. Despite gut-busting contributions from the likes of Kinky (“We Texans believe if it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible”) and Molly (paraphrasing Sen. Carl Parker, “If you took all the fools out of the Lege, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.”), the state’s literature (as I read it) tends to assume a decidedly melancholic disposition. Melancholic, though, without being whiny or melodramatic. Melancholic while being deeply affecting and droll. Melancholic in the best sense of the word.

Rural isolation, loneliness, the physical landscape, and the allure of the cowboy myth unite these 63 stories under the overarching rubric of “the frontier.” A.C. Greene’s “The Girl at Cabe Ranch” perhaps most poignantly embodies and balances each of these themes. This remarkable story concerns a historian, Dr. Powell, who revisits the small Texas town where he grew up. “I’d taken up history and books,” he explains, but “Pretty soon they couldn’t understand me and my history books, and I didn’t try to understand them and their horses. So I left.” Sid, a precocious 18-year-old girl who Powell encounters while doing research on Cabe Ranch, desires but ultimately lacks this self-assurance about her own impending departure. Sid has tentative plans to leave for college in the fall but her sort-of-boyfriend, Harris, can’t comprehend why anyone in her right mind would leave the range for a bunch of books. He thus mocks Sid’s pretension, insisting, “You’ll flat hate it, being gone from here.”

Powell, caught in the middle of this long-simmering face-off, knows full well that modern rural Texas is only a dim reflection of the real ranching life (whatever that is), a mere “outpost” where “television tells even the cowboys how to dress.” But, strangely enough, he remains quiet. Sid, too, is perceptive enough to recognize the shallowness of the romanticized culture that frames her dull existence, but isn’t quite confident enough to leave it without the door smacking her in the back, reminding her of the emotional risk she’s taking. The scene—set in Sid’s parents’ home, where she sat alone reading a magazine when the men arrived for a glass of water—intensifies until Sid, reduced to a puddle of adolescent emotion, looks to Powell for a thin rope to pull her from the confusion in which she’s mired. But Powell fails, pathetically noting that “[y]ou learn not to disturb family legends when you’re a historian,” and defers to Harris. As the two men leave Sid’s house in Harris’ pick-up truck, headed down a “gravelly hill,” Powell says, “It didn’t look like a road to me. But the boy knew where he was going. I leaned back and let him drive.” One can almost still hear poor Sid sobbing inside the lonely house, stuck both literally and metaphorically smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

For me, then, it was Greene. But that’s just me, a historian obsessed with a sense of place. For others it could just as easily be—oh, take your pick—Gertrude Beasley’s horrifying tale of incestuous family values on the frontier (excerpted from My First Thirty Years), Robert Flynn’s heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone sour from a 13-year-old boy’s fragile perspective (“The Saviour of the Bees”), Pat Carr’s maddening tale of the biggest womanizer in Texas and the woman who repeatedly buys his sclerotic lines (“An El Paso Idyll”), or Aaron Latham’s uproarious but also scary Esquire article that became the basis for the movie Urban Cowboy (“The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy”). You may or may not have heard of these writers and, as it turns out, most of the stories in this anthology (with the notable exceptions of those by Dave Hickey, Katherine Anne Porter, John Graves, Molly Ivins, O. Henry, Larry McMurtry, and Donald Barthelme) come from authors without household-name recognition. But that decision was intentional and, in a way, you have to admit that an anthology that dedicates more space to a slew of relatively unknown writers than to Katherine Anne Porter makes for a reading experience that’s wonderfully unpredictable.

Any anthologist is bound to take some critical heat, with “diversity” being perhaps the most obvious target. In my discussion with Graham (excerpted below), he more often than not referred to a traditional 19th-century, quite literal notion of “the frontier,” a frontier dominated by the storytelling skills of dead white men like Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek, and not quite so dead white men like Larry McMurtry. The concept of more metaphorical frontiers—racial, ethnic, gender, urban—didn’t seem to engage Graham nearly as powerfully as did the actual range where cowboys wrestled cattle (or, more often, failed to) and drank whisky and told windys around the fire.

And yet many stories in this volume expand well beyond a literal notion of “the frontier.” As a whole, they deal quite poignantly with racial, ethnic, and gendered themes—albeit not explicitly. There may not be, for example, “African American,” “Hispanic,” or “Women” sections, and there may only be (for those who care) two black writers, 13 women, and eight Hispanic writers, out of the 63. Nonetheless, stories like Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “Exile,” William Owens’ “Hangerman John,” and Robert Caro’s “The Sad Irons” are poignant explorations of diverse identities. Germans, Czechs, and gays are short-shrifted, but what else is new. Native Americans, it must be said, make rare appearances as menacing cattle thieves and certainly deserve more. For his part, though, Graham says that he’s been most pleased that reviewers have praised the diversity of the writing (and insists that Oscar Casares would have been included had Brownsville come out a bit earlier).

Beyond the diversity question, the next impulse might be to say, “Hey, where’s … ?” But rather than bitch and moan because your favorite Texas writer didn’t make Graham’s cut—there’s no Cormac because “he does not allow reprints, period,” nor will you find William Goyen, Tom Lea, or Horton Foote—accept this “overview of the diversity, excellence, and characteristic tropes of Texas writing” for what it is: a generous, learned, convincing, and forthright interpretation of a category you’d originally have every right to doubt—Texas literature. Then go ahead and make this request, as every literary Texan has God-given a right to do, knowing that even the eastern establishment will now have to approve: “Pass the grits, Ma.”

Texas Observer: As you compiled the anthology, what did you learn about Texas literature that you didn’t already know?

Don Graham: In the arrangement of the works, I kept thinking about the difference between men’s experience of Texas and women’s experience of Texas. And that was very clear in the western section. And the other thing that I think is a running motif through these stories is the movement from the epic, external, outdoor conquest of the land, adventure story—going from Andy Adams [“A Dry Drive”] through what I consider the exhaustion of the century at the end of the book with that funny piece by Bill Gruben [“The Last History Ever of Fatigue in Texas”]…. One of the other things that I discovered is that running from the earliest material of the twentieth century, from [J. Frank] Dobie, the most famous of those early guys, I guess, and maybe in O. Henry a little bit as well, and running all the way to Mary Karr is this use of the tall-tale kind of folk exaggeration. There was a thread of humor all the way through. And the other thing, maybe, is that there aren’t as many cowboy and Indian stories as everybody would think.

TO: What do you think readers will find most surprising about the book?

DG: To me, the book must seem kind of surprising to people that have not had a chance to look at the variety and extent of this writing in a concentrated way. Like, nobody’s ever read Gertrude Beasley, basically—there’s no audience—and she’s amazing. There are other people like that. And because I’ve been involved in this field for a long time, there’s this stuff that I knew automatically I was going to put in. But I think [there are] great pieces of writing that nobody knows about and it’s too hard to go out and find—like “Whores,” that James Crumley story—which I think is a very moving story. There are so many things that I like that are in rare books collections and you’ve got to work in the field to know where it is. So it was a kind of a rediscovery. I wanted the obvious, but I also wanted a few surprises.

TO: Katherine Anne Porter got less space than a lot of lesser-known writers. What does that mean in terms of the audience you wanted to reach?

DG: In my view, the greatest short story ever written about Texas out of Texas is [Porter’s] “The Grave,” so from day one I knew I was going to do “The Grave.” “Noon Wine” is great, but “Noon Wine” is too long. It’s 60 pages. So, it’s true, sometimes a piece will be longer by a lesser writer but “The Grave” is a perfect story, very deep, very rich, and it grows profoundly out of this region…. Virginia Woolf talks about the common reader, (although the people who read Virginia Woolf had degrees from Oxford and Cambridge), but what she meant was not an academic and not a professional literary person but just somebody who likes books and who goes to bookstores and buys books. There is a common reader in Texas, and this was my audience for this book. A lot of people, when they hear it’s W.W. Norton, everybody has in mind the Norton Anthology. You know, it’s weighed down their book bags for four years in college. And this [book] was never meant to be that.

TO: You write in your introduction that you want to challenge the “accretions of myth” surrounding Texas literature. How do these stories collectively do that?

DG: It’s a very complicated issue, but the Northeast, for better or worse, has always had ideas about regional literature and the regional literature that they’ve always privileged is Southern literature. The North loves to read stories about Southerners, Southern culture, and race. And the South happened to produce some great writers who dealt with these issues. So these Southern writers kind of won favor in Northern literary critical circles. Texas has never enjoyed that. Texas somehow is just totally associated with shoot-’em-ups and cowboys and this pervasive mythology of Texas as a Western or Southwestern state is actually something that’s fairly new but its very pervasive…. The word that more reviewers [of Lone Star Literature] have used more than any other in their leads is the “diversity” of Texas writing. I tried to get to diversity by means of a regional cultural grid and not by calling attention to race, or calling attention to ethnicity. But, if you look at the stories in the border section it turns out that more of the stories have a political edge to them. And if you look at the stories in the South, there’s stories in there about race, and if you look at the stories in the West, etc. That came out of the way I have been organizing my course [at the University of Texas] for a long time. So when I was asked to do this book, I just already knew that I was going to organize it on the basis of my experience of taking Texas and dividing this big state that has essentially one mythology—the Western mythology—and try to show that, well no, there’s a Southern part of Texas and there’s this border region and there’s this complicated and hard to classify town and city region. So that was kind of driving it. And once I put all that stuff in there, then you wind up thinking that there’s a fair amount of diversity.

TO: You suggest that Texas is unique, in part, because of its proximity to the frontier. Could you elaborate on the role of the frontier in Texas literature?

DG: [Andy] Adams and those early guys, all the way through Dobie, were all born in the nineteenth century and either they had direct or close to direct experience of the frontier…. So the people they knew, their parents and certainly their grandparents, had this primary frontier experience and the frontier was still very much alive in their consciousness… Dobie could tell his students in the 1930s to talk to their grandparents and gather material for their essays. And they could talk to grandfathers who had driven cattle at the Long Trail. Today, I guess our kids would talk to people who worked for NASA. You understand what I’m saying? So the point is there was this tremendous field of reference, and Texas was a very rural place, and it was a much bigger space…. It’s when you get to contemporary writers like A.C. Greene, John Graves, McMurtry (who I put in the border section), and Dave Hickey, that you get these interesting twentieth-century frontier riffs on the persistence of that frontier memory.

TO: What will the next Texas anthology look like?

DG: Will younger writers keep the frontier alive? Only in a genre sense. I don’t know of anybody who is going to write seriously literary-type novels about nineteenth-century Texas. I do believe that for Texas writers wanting to find stories that have to be told the place to go is south Texas…. There may be somebody out there. You know, yo
can always get blindsided by foolish predictions.

James McWilliams has lived in Texas for 10 years—and he’s married to a fifth-generation Texan.