Owens Country


This past year, 2005, marked the centennial of Texas author William A. Owens (1905-1990), and in his home country, northeast Texas, they remembered. On November 9-11, at a conference hosted jointly by Texas A&M University-Commerce and Paris Junior College, family, friends, scholars, and the general public came together to celebrate the life and work of the man from Pin Hook. This is a part of Texas I know well, having grown up on a cotton farm in Collin County, two counties southwest of where Owens lived and therefore considerably closer to that magnet of cosmopolitanism for country youth in those days. Dallas. Owens’ early life, like mine, was one of cotton farming culture, on blackland prairie, where the crops were best, or on sandy land, where they were not.

On my way to Commerce, I saw with surprise that the Audie L. Murphy Cotton Museum, formerly located on the square, had moved to a location south of town, the better to entice visitors—children who have grown up without cotton fields forever or their grandparents on a nostalgia trip. Greenville, it will be recalled, was once known round the world because of the famous sign over Lee Street that circulated globally in the form of a picture postcard: Welcome to Greenville/The Blackest Land/The Whitest People.

I first met Bill Owens in the late 1970s, when he came to the University of Texas to offer a summer course in the English Department. I was teaching that session as well, but we didn’t meet until a friend of his, Tom Hatfield, Director of the Extension Program then (as now), arranged for a get-together in his office. I wasn’t sure why I was invited, but I was eager to meet Owens. Bill was very friendly and energetic, and the first thing he did was to query me about what he felt was the shabby treatment he had received in the English Department. The Chairman had not welcomed him, he said; in fact nobody had. He wanted to know why. I told him, Shoot, that’s the way the English Department treats everybody. I told him if Jesus H. Christ his own self got a teaching job there, they’d treat him the same way. I said, Bill, no need to take it personally. Years later, I could have muttered the swaggering mantra of the present: We’re Texas.

I don’t remember now what the luncheon was about; Hatfield and Owens had some plan in mind for a book, but I didn’t see how I fit into it. Still, I very much enjoyed talking to Bill Owens, and in the years to come I saw him from time to time. Once was at North Texas when they held a symposium on his work. This was in 1981. They published a little collection of the talks from that day. My subject was Owens’ remarkable autobiographical project, beginning with This Stubborn Soil followed by A Season of Weathering. My remarks were in the nature of a preliminary assessment, as later there would be two more volumes added to the list.

From time to time Owens would blow into town, and I use the word blow deliberately. He was always in motion and he came in like a spring shower—freshening and invigorating—and what I remember most is that he’d call and say you want to have lunch, and I’d say yes, and directly there’d be another call, moving the time because there was going to be somebody else at lunch, and finally it would be all set and there would be three or four people for lunch. Owens didn’t want to waste lunch on one person; he had about five irons in the fire every time I saw him and he wanted that lunch to be productive.

I saw him again in 1983 when he came to a big conference on Texas writing that was held at the University of Texas. He delivered a talk titled “Regionalism and Universality,” providing an overview of his career. His main point was the need to leave one’s region in order to apprehend a larger world. He described the limitations of his early views in a manner familiar to most people who grew up in rural Texas: “All that time I was an unreconstructed southerner, as well as a Texas chauvinist of the J. Frank Dobie persuasion, with no waverings at all until I traveled in the world north of the Red River and encountered other ways of thinking.” And from that conference, I find, in my copy of Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (the third volume of his autobiographical project) this inscription: “To Don Graham With deep admiration and appreciation for a wholly satisfactory symposium on Texas traditions, and all there are to come in the future. William A. Owens.”

I don’t remember the last time I saw Bill Owens. By the time he came to publish Eye-Deep in Hell in 1989, the fourth volume of his autobiographical memoir, I was publishing, that same year, my own book about WWII, a biography of another kid, Audie Murphy, who grew up in a cotton field as Owens had—poor and hungry for a wider world. I did not read Owens’ book at that time—in fact I just read it for the first time a couple of months ago—and I have no idea whether Owens read my biography or not. Probably not. He was beginning to fail, and he died the next year.

The future that Owens alluded to in that inscription back in 1983 is now here, 23 years later. By this time you’d think that Owens’ place in Texas letters would be secure. After all, there aren’t many books in the same league with This Stubborn Soil. John Graves, for example, has called it “one of the best books ever written about our part of the world.” Yet Owens belongs to the part of Texas that keeps being forgotten or erased—East Texas. The most recent evidence of this tendency is the special section on Texas literature published in the Dallas Morning News (“Beyond the Texas Myth,” October 30, 2005). So far as I can tell, the people behind it were all associated with the Texas Book Festival in Austin, or as author Bill Clinton insisted on calling it during his speech at the event, the Texas Book Fair, and some of those folks can’t tell the difference between a Texas author and an armadillo.

Among the entries in the Dallas Morning News special was a list of the seven most important Texas authors. The list included some obvious choices: Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, John Graves, and Cormac McCarthy—but it also included Stephen Harrigan, Edwin (Bud) Shrake, and Terry Southern. You will notice that the magnificent seven does not include anybody east of I-35. No William A. Owens, no William Humphrey, no William Goyen, no George Sessions Perry. Instead a place is made for Terry Southern, author of the camp porno send-up, Candy; the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove, which contains only one Texas-based character; and a collection of undistinguished short stories set in Texas (Red-Dirt Marijuana), and one undistinguished short novel set in Texas (Texas Summer). Terry Southern is not a major Texas writer. William A. Owens is. Just for the record, my list would consist of Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, John Graves, Cormac McCarthy, J. Frank Dobie, Américo Paredes, and William A. Owens.

There was also a literary map of the state, but it too ignored all the important East Texas authors, containing no mention of Owens, Humphrey, Goyen, or Perry. The only writer east of the great I-35 divide singled out for praise was Edward Swift of Splendora whose novel Splendora relates the adventures of a man returning to his small-town East Texas roots dressed as a woman.

Rereading Owens has been a salutary experience, as I knew it would be— especially This Stubborn Soil, my favorite among Owens’ writing and a book very close to the marrow of my own experience. But increasingly that world is now so remote as to seem hopelessly unfamiliar, foreign, and unfathomable to many Texans, including my students. A year ago I had a strange experience when I realized that not one member of my Life and Literature of the Southwest class, the one invented and made famous by J. Frank Dobie, had a clue as to what I was talking about when I was talking about cotton farming. I was in fact going over a passage from Dobie himself (Some Part of Myself) where he relates a story about the time Ab Blocker, an old-time trail driver, planted, tended, and picked a crop of cotton. Writes Dobie: “While he was chopping cotton he saw Kansas-bound herds of longhorns stringing by on the unfenced prairies.” Dobie ends the anecdote by describing the traumatic year that he himself put in in a cotton patch: “All ranch work was congenial to me as I grew up, even doctoring wormy calves by day and skinning dead ones by lantern light, but the year we boys tried raising a bale of cotton remains a dark blot.”

When I finished reading, I realized that my students didn’t know what the phrase chopping cotton meant. They were bright students, but nothing in their experience led to an understanding of that phrase. I could tell from their blank eyes. So I asked them what they thought chopping cotton meant. They allowed as how it meant cutting the cotton. After I picked myself up off the floor, we went on.

I forgot about this incident until the same thing happened this past fall. The exact same thing. At a certain point in your teaching career, everything happens again and again.

So when I saw those same blank looks, I decided to try to give them some idea of what chopping and picking cotton might be like. As it happened, one of my students was going to Rockdale to visit sites featured in George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Hand, and I asked her to bring back a cotton boll if she could find one. Well, she did bring back a nice full boll with fluffy cotton in it and I passed the cotton artifact around and tried to describe how long a cotton sack was and how long it took to fill one up, etc. I did the whole cotton thing. And I might as well have been talking about the Bronze Age. The only thing that seemed to make any impression on them was when I asked them why that old stadium in Dallas where the UT—OU game is played is called the Cotton Bowl. Why not the Oil Bowl or the Cattle Bowl? Because, I shouted, once upon a time Cotton was King! Then the bell rang and everybody got out their cell phones.

The cotton side of the Texas experience is fading, fading. Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb each had something to do with that, incidentally. Here is Webb on farming (he means cotton farming): “I never appreciated the nobility of farming. All I ever got out of it was sore fingers.” And here is Bedichek: “So I quit right in the middle of a row, chopping cotton.” Bedichek walked out of that cotton field and moved to Austin to attend the University. I have written elsewhere of my own cotton field conversion. It was much the same as Bedichek’s, except that I went to work caddying for a country club, a job that seemed more like play than work, and one that pretty much spoiled me forever.

The fact is, Dobie and Webb didn’t have a lick of interest in what happened east of I-35. All they cared about was cows, aridity, sagebrush, barbed wire, coyotes, windmills, longhorns, a great long list of western critters and icons. Their imagination, which always stayed west of the Pecos and rarely strayed east of I-35, was scarcely indistinguishable from that of Zane Grey.

Finally, one more note on the slippage of cotton culture from the consciousness of Texans. Mary Karr, who is often an unconscious source of amusement, writes in The Liars’ Club of her grandmother who moved out to West Texas and bought a “cotton ranch.” A cotton ranch? What the hell is that? The distinction between farm and ranch is being lost. A percentage of my students routinely speak of the farm in Horseman, Pass By. The term farm now seems to cover ranch, the way novel seems to mean any book. I cannot begin to explain why these things are so.

Owens wrote about life on a farm, just to get that out of the way. There might be a milk cow on a farm, and there usually was, but not a herd of cattle. Farm=cotton; Ranch=cattle.

What Owens set out to do in This Stubborn Soil was to create a time and place already disappearing in 1966, when the book was published. (He had actually finished the book in 1947, but his agent told him to wait until he was “bigger,” i.e., better known as a writer, before telling his own story. Would that many confessional memoirists of our own time had followed this admonition.) The time is pre-World War I America and on into the 1930s. The place is, well, let Owens’ opening paragraph, which is worthy of Dickens, speak for itself:

If one was born in Paris or London or New York, or even in Dallas, to name a place closer to home, he has, when writing about himself, only to mention the city and the reader pictures place, buildings, people and he can go ahead to particulars about himself and his family. But since I was born in Pin Hook, Texas, a place whose character has not been made known to the world generally, I must begin by writing all I know or ever heard about it.

For those interested in visiting Pin Hook today, it is about a half-hour’s drive north of Paris and just five miles from the Red River. All that remains of Pin Hook—there was never much there—is a graveyard.

Owens subtitled his best book A Frontier Boyhood, a significant designation in light of the fact that Frederick Jackson Turner, in 1893, declared the frontier over (based on the census of 1890). But Owens, looking back on his childhood, knew it wasn’t over in northeast Texas where he lived, not by a long shot. And this was not the frontier we normally think of; it was not a romantic site of open range or unexplored, unsettled territory. Owens’ frontier was that of small tenancy cotton farms, an agrarian zone of hard times mixed with sporadic religious fervor and, in Owens’ case, a dogged determination to acquire an education against all odds. Before he started school, weather and dirt defined a boy’s existence. Owens is very good on dirt: “My toys were the dirt, and a stick to dig the dirt. No one could live closer to the earth than I did. I dug the sand, I rolled in it, I covered myself with it. Before my first year had passed I had eaten the peck of dirt everyone, Pin Hook people said, is entitled to. I had learned the feel, the smell, the taste of earth.”

The phrase “this stubborn soil” is so striking that Bert Almon, in a very fine study of Texas memoirs, adapted the title thus: This Stubborn Self: Texas Autobiographies (2002). There was hardly any self more stubborn than that of Owens; he had to be stubborn just to survive in that country, pursuing, as he did, decade after decade, the goal of achieving an education.

The first edition (1966) ends by calling it a “fictionalized autobiography.” Today I suppose that would make it creative nonfiction. But not a confessional or recovery narrative. Owens wasn’t interested in psychology in the modern sense, or at least not in this book. In that vanished world nobody had time to be dysfunctional; they were too busy trying to make a living, to survive.

As we move forward or i
it backward into the future, Owens’ book will become all the more important, and eventually, the way things are going, its language and content will become as remote as Chaucer. Future editions will need careful annotation because nobody will know what the simplest words or phrases mean. Except perhaps in Northeast Texas, where people are not as likely to forget what it once meant to chop cotton.

Don Graham is the editor of Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande A Texas Anthology, which was recently released in paperback. He teaches creative writing and literature at UT-Austin.