Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature
An essay first published in the October 23rd 1981 issue of the Observer.
About fourteen years ago, as I was trying to force several rather disparate essays to join hands and look like a book about Texas, I complicated the problem by adding an essay called ”Southwestern Literature?”—emphasis on the question mark.
At the time the piece was thought to be harsh, not because I had questioned the existence of a Southwestern literature but because my attitude toward the Holy Oldtimers—Dobie, Webb and Bedichek—was less than reverent. In fact, it wasn’t much less than reverent: The books of all three men were given more in the way of praise than they really deserved. A recent attempt to retrace the literary steps that led me to that essay proved very rocky going indeed. Time has begun its merciless winnowing; today the sheaves these three men heaped up look considerably less substantial than they seemed only fourteen years ago.
J. Frank Dobie, by far the most prolific and most popular of the three, has fared much the worst. It is now clear how much his books needed the support of his forceful and infectious personality. Like Will Rogers and other raconteurs, he was better in person than on paper. Less than two decades after his death in 20-odd books are a congealed mass of virtually undifferentiated anecdotage: endlessy repetitious, thematically empty, structureless and carelessly written.
His reputation was declined so swiftly that it was recently possible for the editor of the state’s most popular magazine to refer to his writings as ”bed-time stories for ten-year-olds.” True, although the world he wrote about must now seem irrelevant to most ten-year-olds. Dobie had the energies of a Mencken, but not the reach. It is his energies and his application, rather than the literary result of them, that makes him seem still worthy of salute.
In years to come Roy Bedichek’s Karankaway Country and Adventures with a Texas Naturalist are apt to give more pleasure to readers than all the books of his friend Dobie—merely because they are written well. I don’t think Bedichek had much to say, but his eye and his whimsy were prose style. He is as appealing—if as minor—today as he ever was.
Nonetheless, I am not sure that the Bedichek influence has been wholly benign. The bucolic essay may be a sweet form, but it is also a limited one—indeed, almost a retrograde form, the most likely route of nostalgic retreat from our increasingly urban realities. I think we have too many bucolics, too many Richard Jeffreises, W. H. Hudsons, Gilbert Whites. Now what we need is a Balzac, a Dickens, even a Dreiser. Texas writers have paid too much attention to nature, not enough to human nature, and they have been too ready to fall back on the bucolic memoir or country idyll rather than attempting novels, poems and dramas. Minor forms only rarely prompt major books, and the lack we suffer from most is a lack of major books.
So far, by my count, we have a total of one.
Our literature is not evenly minor—some Texas books are better than others—but none of it is major.
Were I set the task of seeking an exception to that dictum, I would probably try and make a case for Walter Prescott Webb. Unfortunately, I think the case would fail. Webb’s achievement was genuine, but small. He had a first-rate mind and he continued to extend its reach throughout his life, but the yield, finally, was two important books, The Great Plains and The Great Frontier, the latter being by far the more impressive. It is one of the few Texas books that bespeaks a true intellectual vitality. By contrast The Great Plains, comprehensive though it is, seems dull and rather wooden. Webb lost much of his energy to academic store-keeping, and more of it to his huge romantic work on the Texas Rangers. Though he matured late, he matured fully, and might finally have delivered a masterpiece had he not been killed. The longer Webb wrote, the greater seemed his potential, an unusual thing. In writers late growth is not the norm, in Texas or not.
When I say Texas has produced no major writers or major books, the exception I most expect to hear argued against me is Katherine Anne Porter. Again I think the argument would fail, but hers is a subtle case and merits more prolonged address than I can give it here.
Alone among Texas writers of her generation, Miss Porter thought of herself as an artist and had the equipment to be one. Though often sharply critical of modernism, she touched most of the modernist bases, usually at a time when no one else was occupying them. A large part of her artistic equipment was dedication—or stubbornness, as she called it. Another part was what might be called a high neurosis, driving her from place to place and prompting her to leave, like dumped baggage, a remarkable body of evasions and misrepresentations, though which her biographers will be sorting for the next few decades.
In her Paris Review interview she speaks of the various other ”half-talents” she possessed: for dancing, singing, acting. Reading through the Collected Stories now—Miss Porter being no longer around to distract one with her charming accounts of their composition (some of these are better stories than the stories)—one is forced to think that all but the best of her work— perhaps a half a dozen stories—is, like her singing and dancing, the work of a half-talent.
Oh, the whole talent was there, and a fine talent it was: but a talent seldom either fully or generously put to use. Miss Porter believed in a pure style; hers, at times, is purified almost to the vanishing point. By her account, she did this in the name of an aesthetic, removing the local and the immediate in order to reach the timeless and universal.
Unfortunately for her aesthetic, and unfortunately too for many of her stories, the local and immediate is the true street of fiction—at least of the sort of realistic fiction she was trying to write. The great ones, the Dickenses and Balzacs, Flauberts and Hardys, Faulkners and Tolstoys, wasted none of their time attempting to boil the accents of their own times and places out of their fiction.
I doubt, though, that it was aesthetics that drove Miss Porter to smooth her sentences so carefully. More likely what was at work was her profound evasiveness, an uncertainty not so much about what she knew as about what she could bring to herself to admit about what she knew. For all her trafficking with revolutionaries and mad poets, for all her scorn of middle-class convention, she was genteel to the core. It may be that all that purification of style was undertaken in order that she might conceal her own experience perfectly—perfectly meaning even from herself.
Within her terms she is very skillful, but her terms are seldom embracing, or even interesting. Too often she reminds one of a minor French belles-lettrist: an intense purity of style concealing a small—very small—grain of experience. Compare her stories to Chekhov’s, or Flannery O’Connor’s, and they seem fragile, powdery, and frequently just plain boring.
Of course, there are a handful of noble exceptions, when the artist won the battle with the lady. These few line stories satisfy—despite the alabaster prose—because Miss Porter has for once not been able to hide her own fascination with—and terror of—such primal concerns as lust, revenge, birth and death. But these stories are few. In too many cases the story struggles against the all but opaque language, and loses; one very seldom feels that the experience has been allowed its full life.
Ironically—how often this happens to those who think they live solely by their fiction—Miss Porter’s passionate, often vengeful essays now seem more alive and probably more permanent than all but a few of her stories. In attack she was always quite confident, and far less genteel.
In her own time Katherine Anne Porter virtually eluded criticism. The surface she presented, both in person and in her fiction, was taken to be impeccable when in fact it was merely inscrutable. Edmund Wilson paid her a few compliments, chided her gently for irrelevance, and that was about it. Both as an artist and as a person she seems to have needed to attract attention, and yet to escape it, and in large measure she succeeded. Gertrude Stein, whom Miss Porter did not like, once made a famous remark about — I believe — Oakland, California. There was no there there, she said. I feel very much the same way about the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter. The plumage is beautiful, but plumage, after all, is only feathers.
Despite its criticism of the Holy Oldtimers, my fourteen-year-old essay seems on the whole a surprisingly optimistic document. It was written in the mid-’60’s, when there was every reason to think that Texas was about to experience a literary coming of age. There were at least a dozen young writers loose in the state whose potential everyone was ready to welcome. Goodbye to a River had appeared, and The Gay Place, and Adam’s Footprint, all interesting beginnings. A flowering seemed not merely imminent, it seemed already to have occurred.
One reason for my optimism was my sense that the country—or Western, or cowboy—myth had finally been worked through. It was clear by then that this myth had served its time, and lost its potency; insofar as it still functioned it was an inhibiting, rather than a creative, factor in our literary life; the death of the cowboy and the ending of the rural way of life had been lamented sufficiently, and there was really no more that needed to be said about it.
Moreover, this realization seemed widespread. Most of the young Texas writers I knew were quite willing to face the fact that they were city people; they all seemed well aware that the styles which would shape their lives and sustain their fiction were being formed in Houston and Dallas, not back on the homeplace, wherever it had been.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, my mid-’60’s optimism was unfounded, generally as regards our literary flowering, specifically as regards the Western myth. At a time when the latter should have ceased to have any pertinence at all, drug-store cowboyism became a minor national craze. Boots became trendy in New York just as the last of the real cowboys took to wearing the dozer caps and other gear more suitable to the oil patch and the suburb.
I recognize now that in the sixties I generalized too casually from a personal position. In a Narrow Grave was my formal farewell to writing about the country. It had dominated four books, which seemed enough, and I began rather consciously to drain it from my work. I proceeded to write three novels set in Houston, one set in Hollywood, and—most recently—one set in Washington, D.C.
I didn’t deplore country living—still don’t—but I had no doubt at all that urban life offered me richer possibilities as a novelist. Granting certain grand but eccentric exceptions, virtually the whole of modern literature has been a city of literature. From the time of Baudelaire and James, the dense, intricate social networks that cities create have simulated artists and sustained them. No reason it should be any different in Texas, since we now have at least one or two cities which offer the competitions of manners upon which the modern novel feeds.
It was thus something of a shock, as I started looking at my shelves of Texas books in preparation for this essay, to discover how few of them deal with city life. Not only are there few readable city books, but many of the country books are filled up with explicit anti-urbanism. Writer after writer strains to reaffirm his or her rural credentials.
Why? The vast majority of Texas writers have been urbanites for decades. Many are veterans not only of Texas cities but of the cities of the East Coast, the West Coast, and Europe.
Where has this experience gone? Where are the novels, stories, poems, and plays that ought to be using it? Why are there still cows to be milked and chickens to be fed in every other Texas book that comes along? When is enough going to be enough?
Part of the trouble, I am afraid, lies with Texas readers, who, if my experience is an indication, remain actively hostile to the mere idea of urban fiction. Virtually every time I give a lecture in Texas I find myself being chided by someone in the audience because I have stopped writing ” the kind of books I ought to write.”
Evidently, in the eyes of these raiders, only my first three books were the kind I ought to write—the ones that happened to deal with small towns and cowboys. Leaving Cheyenne forever is what my readers seem to want.
Speaking at the University of Texas a year or two ago, I was confronted by a young lady who suggested, in distinctly resentful tones, that my next book would probably be set in Princeton, which, in her innocence, she took to be synonymous with the East. When I pointed out that I was more familiar with Virginia than New Jersey, she said ”Oh well, all those places up there are so close together.”
Her attitude, though severe, was not much different from that of many old friends, who sigh wistfully and cast fond glances at their copies of Leaving Cheyenne when they ask me what I’m writing now.
The reader’s attitude, reduced to basics, is that the writer who doesn’t want to keep rewriting the book that pleased them most is merely being selfish. Once a writer manages to write a book that gives a reader pleasure, his duty, presumably, is to repeat the pleasure. Attempts to offer the reader more advanced and subtle pleasures—or, indeed, pleasures that are in any way different—are not only unnecessary, they are unwelcome.
This is an understandable prejudice, but one which any healthy writer will ignore.
Unfortunately, not enough Texas writers are ignoring it. Too many of them love repeating themselves—after all, it’s easier than thinking up something new to say. Many seem to find offering up an endless stream of what might be called Country-and-Western literature an agreeable way to make a living. Easier to write about the homefolks, the old folks, cowboys, or the small town than to deal with the more immediate and frequently less simplistic experience of city life.
What this amounts to is intellectual laziness. Most Texas writers only know one trick, and seem determined to keep from learning another. The result is a limited, shallow, self-repetitious literature which has so far failed completely to do justice to the complexities of life in the state.
The Dallas Critic A.C. Greene is plainly aware of many of these problems. In the April issue of The Lone Star Review he comments forcefully and perceptively on the very anti-urbanism I have been describing. A few months later, in Texas Monthly, he published a list of his 50 favorite Texas books, which, in my view, merely confirms the tenacity of the bias he himself has criticized.
He was kind enough to list two of my books in his selection and they were Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne, the first two. It seemed incredible to me that a critic as intelligent as Mr. Greene could choose a piece of juvenilia such as Horseman, Pass By over, say, Terms of Endearment, unless a) he hadn’t read the latter, or b) was approaching the material from a position of deep bias.
The deep bias is the more likely explanation. I think this bias operates against all Texas writers who deviate from whatever type-casting they may have acquired. In the same essay Mr. Greene prefers prefers Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill—a Western book—to the same author’s Strange Peaches, a city book. Within the minuscule context of our local literary life, Blessed McGill—like Leaving Cheyenne—is over-praised, Strange Peaches completely neglected. Not much time has passed since the two books were written, but the little that has has been kinder to the latter than to the former. Blessed McGill is an interesting tour de force that seemed to work when it was published—our Sotweed Factor, as it were. Now, like The Sotweed Factor itself, it seems alternately grandiloquent and stilted. Strange Peaches addresses itself to more complex material and treats it well, with a humor and a balance that is more difficult to sustain than the archaic style of the earlier book.
What one wonders is whether Mr. Greene, or anyone, has attentively reread those books or any of our literature lately. Or were his choices, like those of the many readers who sigh for Leaving Cheyenne, made on the basis of fond memory?
If I suspect the latter, it is because I now know from experience how difficult most Texas books are to reread. There are none that one would want to go back to time and again, and very few that can be read with genuine pleasure even twice.
If Texas Monthly wants to do us a real service, it ought to solicit not merely A.C. Greene’s list of 50 Texas books, but a listing of the favorite non-Texas books of 50 Texas authors. My own sad impression is that there are plenty of Texas authors who haven’t read 50 non-Texas books in the last decade. Books about Texas cross my desk constantly and I search them hopefully but in vain for any sign of the author’s reading. Where are the borrowings and subtle or not-so-subtle thefts? Where are the echoes, allusions, correspondences, and restatements with which most richly textured books abound? Where, in our books, will one get a sense of a mind actively in contact with other minds, or a style nervously aware of other styles?
Almost nowhere, that’s where. The most shocking but also the fairest charge that can be leveled at Texas literature is that it is disgracefully insular and uninformed. Writing is nourished by reading—broad, curious, sustained reading; it flows from a profound alertness fine-tuned both by literature and life. Perhaps we have not yet sloughed off the frontier notion that reading is idle or sissified. At the moment our books are protein-deficient, though the protein is there to be had, in other literatures. Until we have better readers it is most unlikely that we will have better writers.
If some of the above seems overstated, it is because I’ve concluded that nothing short of insult moves people in Texas. This is perhaps another aspect of clinging frontierism. Gentle chidings go unheard. In these parts the critical act has never been accepted, much less honored: Literary criticism generally means two writers having a fistfight in a bar.
Not only do we need critics, we need writers who are willing to get along without one another’s approval. Literary comradeship is a fine thing up to the point at which it begins to produce a pompous, self-congratulatory, and self-protective literary culture. In Texas, rampant good-old-boy-and-girlism has produced exactly that: a pond full of self-satisfied frogs.
In my opinion the self-satisfaction is entirely unjustified. There are as yet no solid achievements in Texas letters. Those who fancy otherwise probably haven’t tried to reread the books. Cyril Connolly felt that the minimum one should ask of a book was that it remain readable for ten years. When this modest standard is applied to Texas books their ranks are immediately decimated—indeed, almost eliminated, in view of which it seems the more unfortunate that our in-state literary culture has begun to exhibit the sort of status-consciousness characteristic of literary society in New York or London, without the excuse of talent or anything resembling the intellectual density to be found in those cities.
The hunter who is reluctant to use a gig might as well avoid the frog-pond of Texas letters. Gigs are what’s needed. As it is, most Texas writers work for a lifetime without receiving a single paragraph of intent criticism, and if they should get one now and then it will usually come from out of state. Anything resembling a tough-minded discussion of Texas books by a Texan is thought to be unneighborly. The writers get reviewed, but reviews are merely first impressions. Criticism begins as the second impression, or the third, and even the thumbnail variety, which is all I can offer, is almost never practiced here.
The need for hard-nosed, energetic and unintimidated local critics is plainly urgent. It’s one thing that our literary society has gotten so clubby and pompous, quite another that the books which constitute the reason for having a literary society are still predominantly soft, thin, and sentimental—not to mention dull, portentous, stylistically impoverished, and intellectually empty. The large majority of them are dead where they sit, and reading them is about as pleasant as eating sawdust.
In fairness I should point out that I realize this is a condition not unique to Texas. Minnesota hasn’t produced a great literature either, nor Idaho, nor perhaps even California. Fortunately I am not from any of those places, and their failings are not my concern.
This brings me to another point, or another aspect of our literary immaturity — i.e., the habit we have of attempting to annex any writer who happens to stray across the state line. Recently I received a prospectus for a bibliography of Texas authors which included such well-known Texas boys as Max Apple (Detroit), Michael Mewshaw (Takoma Park, Maryland), and Willie Morris (Yazoo City, Mississippi).
The inclusion of Willie Morris is particularly amusing, since he has spent much of his life proclaiming—with almost every waking breath—that he is a Mississippian.
Michael Mewshaw has probably spent more time in the South of France then he has in Texas. Does a job at the University of Texas automatically make one a Texas writer? If this strange standard were rigorously applied I would have to consider myself a Virginia writer, since I once held a teaching job there.
There is no point in wasting space on these claims, which are almost never made by the writers themselves. Attempts to bolster our ranks with latecomers or temporary residents won’t work. Joyce found it convenient to live much of his life in France. Did this make him a French writer? Beckett even learned to write in French, without, however, ceasing to be Irish.
I am mainly going to hew to the simple rule that only those born and raised in Texas have the dubious honor of literary citizenship. Even writers who become absorbed in the state, and make good use of some part of it—as Beverly Lowry has of Houston, in Daddy’s Girl—shouldn’t have to consider themselves Texas writers. Graham Greene has used a great many places as well, while remaining thoroughly English.
The one case that could be called either way is Donald Barthelme, who has lived enough of his life in Texas to be considered a Texas writer if he wants to. Whether such a designation matters to him I have no way of knowing, but what is obvious is that his fiction has no need of Texas. Barthelme is a brilliant, high-risk modernist who operates on a hairline, with no greater margin of error than that of a lyric poet. In quality, his work has almost no middle. The stories that are perfect are wonderful; those that are off by a millimeter fail completely. He is the one prose writer I know of to whom an analogy to a trapeze artist seems exact: a miss means death. In the best stories, just watching him not miss provides an intellectual excitement so high that it often brings emotion with it. The perfect stories accumulate slowly, usually one or two a year, but Barthelme keeps working; the recently published Sixty Stories, despite many misses, is an impressive achievement.
In the hasty survey which follows, I am going to concentrate mainly on books published since 1950—it seems to me it has been within this 30-year span that Texas literature has failed to realize itself. It would prefer to talk mainly about fiction, but see no way to avoid some discussion of the reminiscential literature which has, from the first, been so popular with Texas writers. One explanation for this may be that lying doesn’t come easy to children of the frontier. It is ironic that Texans, known the world over for being big liars, still can’t lie well enough to write interesting novels, preferring, for the most part, the milder fabrications allowable in reminiscence.
As I said in my previous essay, there’s not much Texas fiction earlier than 1950 that needs to be looked at, other than that of Porter. James Phillips’ The Inheritors (1940) seems wooden as any plank; the same can be said for Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. George Sessions Perry’s fiction is now as dead as the magazines he wrote it for. Hold Autumn In Your Hand, his farming novel, seems workaday indeed when compared to Edith Sumners Kelley’s Weeds, the one masterpiece of this genre.
In general, the best Texas books of this period confuse honesty with artistry. Their writers produced, without self-consciousness, what might be called novels of information, for readers who had not yet grown accustomed to getting their information off a television screen. Such writers told it like it was, but unfortunately didn’t tell it very well, and their books now have only a period interest.
In the mid-’50’s a considerably more interesting generation began to be heard from, its principal voices being John Graves, William Humphrey, William Goyen and John Howard Griffin, all of whom differed significantly from the Texas writers who had come before them. In their differing ways they were our first literary aesthetes, the first writers after Miss Porter to feel that literature should be elegant as well as honest. Also, they were internationalists, well-educated and well-traveled, and all had been to the school of the masters of modern literature. They were more likely to echo Faulkner or Joyce or the French Symbolists than to imitate J. Frank Dobie or Roy Bedichek.
The most obvious thing that can be said about this gifted group is that they have not produced very many books. Granting that the three or four best books—Goodbye to a River, The Ordways, The House of Breath, The Devil Rides Outside—are among our very best books, it seems nonetheless a slim yield.
Perhaps an admirable desire to put quality over quantity has held their yield down—or then again it may be that in their travels they acquired a rather more Mediterranean outlook on life than is common between the Red River and the Rio Grande. They have managed the nice trick of sustaining their ambitions without being absolutely driven by them, in the process acquiring a balance that may be good for their souls while keeping a brake on their output. John Graves likes to farm, William Humphrey likes to fish, William Goyen enjoys living in L.A., and none seem much interested in slighting their absorbing pursuits in order to write the Great Texas Novel. Each has made it plain that he doesn’t intend to be a blind slave to the Protestant work ethic.
Two of them, Griffin and Humphrey, seem to have been pressed into fiction by the force of one compelling traumatic experience, the like of which never happened again. In the case of the late John Howard Griffin, this resulted in an odd, lop-sided career, of the sort that often happens when a writer has the always serious, usually fatal misfortune to write his best book first.
The Devil Rides Outside has the lonely distinction of being the best French novel ever published in Forth Worth. It is a strange, strong book whose verbal energy—a quality very rare in our fiction—still seems remarkable after almost 30 years. In the mostly all-too-healthy and sunlit world of Texas fiction, the book remains an anomaly, dark, feverish, introverted, claustrophobic, tortured.
It was so complete and so explosive an outpouring of intellectualized emotion that Griffin seemed, from then on, a sort of emptied man. His second novel, Nuni, had neither energy nor force. He then wrote a history of a Midland bank, and finally, perhaps in desperation, turned himself black, in a last effort to find something strong to write about.
There are reports that Griffin left at least one completed novel, perhaps several. When these are published his career may seem less strangely truncated than is the case now.
William Humphrey has had a considerably more satisfying, not to mention more intelligible development. The short stories collected in The Last Husband, his first book, were fairly conventional, but did make clear that he was working toward a style of his own, one which was not to mature fully until The Ordways. Home from the Hill succeeds to the extent that it does not rely on the strength of the story and is actually somewhat hindered by the style, which had not yet worked itself clear of Southern portentousness and Faulknerian hype.
Full clarity came with The Ordways, in 1964, a beautifully crafted novel which turns the traditional family chronicle into a kind of dance of the generations. The Ordways is funny, moving, elegantly written and firmly controlled. It was as if a less prolix Thackeray had turned his attention to East Texas, though rather too briefly, as it now appears.
In the succeeding 17 years Humphrey has produced a couple of fishing books and a graceful memoir, but no more novels. One of the fishing books, The Spawning Run, is very charming, but I would still rather have a successor to The Ordways. And of course, we may get it. There is no indication that William Humphrey is exhausted, or even tired.
Like Humphrey, William Goyen is an East Texan who adroitly managed to escape both the region and the state. Goyen, too is a stylist; in fact he is probably more style-obsessed than any Texas writer. It was language, rather than story, that immediately marked The House of Breath as something new in Texas letters. There had been no sentences quite that well-considered in our books. Goyen went to school with the French, and worked hard to make his prose as elegant and firm as that of the French masters.
For a few years, at least, he succeeded, and the fact that he succeeded constitutes his most fundamental problem as a novelist. Goyen has the instincts of a prose poet and is slightly resentful of the demands of narrative, with which an extreme concern with style must often be in conflict. His fiction tends to break into moments, or memories, each highly textured and embellished. But in arresting the moment in order to describe it in its fullest intricacy, he also asserts the movement of his story; the prose gathers so much attention to itself that virtually none is left for his characters; in the end one comes away with a sense of having passed through something gorgeous but ultimately vague. This tendency to weave spells with his prose has persisted. Goyen is aware of it and now and then makes an attempt to write more simply, but simplicity is not really his métier. Since his language at its best is beautiful, most readers prefer the seductions of the early books to the condescensions of the more recent.
This brings us to John Graves, the nature of whose work seems to me to be a good deal more complicated than it is popularity thought to be. Thanks partly to his geniality, partly to his relative accessibility, and partly to the fact that he writes about the country, Graves has to some degree been made heir to the Dobie-Webb-Bedichek tradition, with the surely unwelcome responsibility of keeping that branch of Texas letters vital.
That he is quite restive in this role is constantly apparent in his writing; one of his most frequent rhetorical devices, used almost to the point of abuse, is to undercut himself: questioning a story he has just retold, doubting an observation he has just made, twisting out from under a position. Often he simply reverses his field and abandons whatever line of thought he has been pursuing.
He is popularly thought to be a kind of country explainer, when in fact he seems more interested in increasing our store of mysteries than our store of knowledge. He loves the obscure, indeterminate nature of rural legend and likes nothing better than to retell stories the full truth of which can never be known. If nature continues to stimulate him it may be because it too is elusive, feminine, never completely knowable.
Certainly he is not looking forward to becoming the Sage of Glen Rose. His best writing is based on doubt and ambivalence—or, at least, two-sidedness; he is not eager to arrive at too many certainties, or any certainty too quickly. The persona he adopts most frequently is that of the man who considers. He may choose to consider a goat, a book, an anecdote, or some vagary of nature, but the process of considering is more important to the texture of his books than any conclusions that may get drawn.
John Graves differs from many Texas writers in that, apart from a few short stories, he did not publish his apprentice work; instead he sprang into view full grown in Goodbye To A River, a book that represents not so much an abandonment of fiction as a form of accommodation with it. Though based on a real trip, it is essentially an imaginary voyage whose affinities stretch back to Gulliver and beyond. What strikes one about it today is not the natural description but the harshness of the experience which the traveler recapitulates. It is rich in massacres and feuds, old angers and bitter defeats.
The gentle style in which these angers and defeats are described is an end product whose beginnings are hidden in the unpublished fiction. It is a lovely style whose one disadvantage is that it tends to suck the rawness out of experiences which need to remain raw if they are to be fully felt. An idiom that is perfect for a boat trip won’t necessarily serve for a massacre. The cogency of Goodbye To A River, and the fact that it encompasses in concentrated form so much that is central to Graves’ experience and feeling, has left him with the problem of extension: how to go beyond himself? This is a problem all writers eventually come to, but the writer who starts late and starts dull is apt to feel it more acutely.
Looking at it hard, these four talents—Humphrey and Goyen, Graves and Griffin—produced between them only six or seven keepable books in some 25 years, which is not exactly spinning them out. Add to that the list of Texas writers who have so far produced only one book and a view emerges of a literary climate productive either of early blight or extreme constipation.
The one-bookers would include Billy Lee Brammer, William Casey, Hughes Rudd, Tom Horn, Dorothy Yates, Walter Clemons, Mack Williams, Sherry Kafka, and probably numbers of others whose one book I can’t find. Of these Brammer and Casey are dead, Rudd and Clemons busy at other tasks; the rest, so far as one can tell, simply stopped. None of their first books was an absolute heartstopper, yet each had some strength and some appeal, good enough to encourage one to look for the next book. My Escape from the C.I.A and The Poison Tree each contain one or two excellent short stories; A Shroud For A Journey, The Shallow Grass, Hannah Jackson are the sort of first novels that seem to promise development. All that one can say is that it hasn’t happened.
The only book by the one-bookers that still enjoys any currency is The Gay Place. Billy Lee Brammer is not the first writer to lose control of his life before gaining full control of his art, but his loss is one Texas readers might justly lament the most. He brought to our letters an easy and natural urbanity then almost unknown in these parts. Also, he was fortunate in his moment: The flea-circus of state politics as it existed in Johnsonian Austin was the perfect feeding ground for his talent. He was alert, curious and witty, happy to use the absurdities which lay so abundantly to hand; and, in the end, just romantic enough to make it all seem more charming and less destructive than it really was. But The Gay Place is material searching for design. Brammer had the talents and disposition of a Silver Poet—our Catullus, not our Balzac—and the big novel demanded by the age was the wrong form for him. He could neither resist nor control his material and so buried an elegant small novel about Capitol debaucheries and the pathos of ambition in a large confused book about every little bit of everything. Still, of all our beginnings that turned out to be endings, it remains the most appealing.
A word, now, about the journalists. A great many Texas writers have come out of journalism, particular sportswriting. Brammer came out of it, for example, and fairly far out. The classic analysis of the dangers of journalism to a writer who aspires to move beyond it was made by Leonard Woolf, in Beginning Again. It is too long to quote: Suffice to say that it is very brilliant and very accurate. The journalist trains to write something which will be read once and thrown away. Moreover, the writing will generally have to compete with eggs and bacon and the chatter of the domestic breakfast table. To do such writing successfully requires no mean skill—but it does need skills different from those required if one is competing with Shakespeare and Tolstoy, or Hemingway and Faulkner, or—to come on home—William Humphrey and John Graves.
In reading through the books of our several journalist-novelists, I have come to think that a crucial problem has to do with an attitude toward readers. The journalists are usually smart and quite often write excellent prose, but all are insecure in relation to readers. Trained to write columns that can be read in a few seconds, or articles that take at most a few minutes, in their novels they seem desperate to affect the reader every few seconds, or at least every minute or two.
But, obviously, novels aren’t columns, their rhythms are often extremely long ones, and the reader’s attention—if it is to be held—must be allowed varying levels of intensity. A rat-a-tat-tat effect, with a joke, an apercu, or a dazzling rhetorical move every few lines, quickly becomes intolerable in a novel.
This tendency is particularly noticeable in the work of Edwin Shrake, in my view the best of our journalist-novelists, Shrake has always been an intriguing talent, far superior to most of his drinking buddies. He has energy, skill, imagination, and persistence. Not many writers start out with a paperback Western (Blood Reckoning) and go on to up-date The Satyricon, as he does in Peter Arbiter. All of his books begin well, and yet all are difficult to finish, in my view because Shrake can’t resist the constant hit. He is a genuinely funny writer with no sense of how to space effects—being funny too often in the same vein is as bad as not being funny at all. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to be a hold-over from sports writing, since much the same thing happens in the (to me) much less interesting fiction of Dan Jenkins and Gary Cartwright. In a novel, trying to keep the reader alert every single second is the one sure way to insure that the reader will go to sleep.
Larry King’s prose suffers a little from this same tendency, but since the basic unit of his work is the magazine article he frequently gets away with it. He has a strong, vivid style that works well when one considers his pieces in isolation, in the magazines where most of them appeared. When these pieces are then gathered into collections it is evident that he tends to splash the same colors and repeat certain characteristic verbal devices a good deal too often.
He has written an acute piece about playing cowboy, without perhaps noting that he constantly does just that in his prose—though he has written ruefully and perceptively of the effects of writing everything to a deadline. As his career advanced, he began to make himself a character in his own reportage, sometimes too self-consciously, in the manner of Mailer. Perhaps naturally, he is more of a presence in these pieces than many of the people he was sent to report on. Read from start to finish, his collected journalism is a kind of reverse Pilgrim’s Progress, with Larry being the rather aggressive pilgrim, at large in contemporary life.
Unfortunately, very little of this work has made any demands on his emotions. Consequently, when his emotions are tapped, as in the brief, beautiful essay on his father called ” The Old Man,” the effect is wonderful and makes us wish it weren’t so uncommon. ”The Old Man” puts everything else he has written in the deep shade. Now that The Best Little Whorehouse has freed him from journalism, one hopes more of that kind of work will result.
Something ought to be said, I suppose, not merely about The Best little Whorehouse but also about the second most popular Texas drama, Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy. What I can say is that I found the latter obnoxious on almost every level, but principally on the level of dialogue and attitude. The dialogue, with its numerous adjectival ”By-gods,” is collegiate-suburban Country-Western, as affected as Tom McGuane’s ghastly dialogue in The Missouri Breaks. The three plays are simply little strings of weakly dramatized anecdotage, appealing mainly to those who like to think sweet thoughts about Texas small towns. Both the musical and the Trilogy succeed to the extent that they do by sentimentalizing small-town life, though the article from which Larry King derived the musical is by no means sentimental.
There are, so far as I know, only four Texas writers who have been able to reverse the tendency toward nostalgia, sentiment and small-town mythicization. These are Terry Southern, Max Crawford, James Crumley and John Irsfeld.
The first, Terry Southern, escaped quickly and devoted only a few stories to Texas, but these few have an edge that at the time was rare. The Magic Christian and Red Dirt Marijuana are good enough to make one regret that Southern seems to have left fiction for screenwriting. Slowing down just when they should be speeding up is too common a pattern with our writers.
Crumley, Crawford and Irsfeld are to our fiction what Willie and Waylon were to our music before they got popular. In a state that overrates almost every writer who publishes a book, they have managed the rare feat of being not only underrated, but almost unknown. One to Count Cadence and The Last Good Kiss (Crumley), The Backslider and Waltz Across Texas (Crawford), and Little Kingdoms and Coming Through (Irsfeld) are our Outlaw books, critical, hardbitten, disrespectful to the point of contempt. Instead of having a love-hate relationship with the old state, these writers mostly just hate it. When they look at the small town, they look at it as critically as Samuel Butler looked at the Victorian family. In contemplating Texas life they are unawed, almost to the point of savagery, and the fact that they enjoy complete neglect is not making them any tamer. The folksy satire of the Texas Trilogy or The Best Little Whorehouse is like sugar candy in comparison to the Swiftian acids of Waltz Across Texas or The Backslider.
All three men are smart, tough, skilled and educated; also, they are geared to fiction as naturally as the writers of an earlier generation were geared to journalism or reminiscence, or both. Unfortunately a literary climate poisonous to fiction and favorable to journalism has already to some extent retarded their development, and may stop it altogether, unless they’re lucky. I hope they survive—our fiction needs the critical element as badly as the trans-Pecos needs rain.
And what of that odd trio of writers who are alike in nothing except that they inhabit the trans-Pecos: Tom Lea, John Rechy and Elroy Bode?
If Tom Lea reaches the next generation of Texans it will likely be as an artist. He has a good eye but a poor ear; the more his characters talk the less convincing his fiction becomes. He is more interesting visually than verbally. Both The Wonderful Country and The Hands of Cantu contain excellent descriptive writing but fail to create characters of much depth or much interest.
Ear, on the other hand, was John Rechy’s major strength. City of Night remains a readable first book precisely because he rendered what he had heard and seen so perfectly, with such fine attention to costume, expression, and idiom. But he wrote it in practically the last moment before the description of sexual lifesyles became clichéd and then passé. Though certainly aware of this development, Rechy has not been inventive enough to side-step it, and has basically repeated himself, with ever-diminishing returns.
Elroy Bode is our minimalist, a confirmed nostalgic who has pinned his hopes on prose style. Fortunately for him, his is attractive, at least in the short sketches in which he exposes it. Like planes that fly under radar, the sketch slides under criticism. You either like them or you don’t. Quite a few of Bode’s are very appealing, though an equal number seem mannered and precious. Come upon individually, in magazines, the sketches often delight; reading them in the aggregate, in books, is not so pleasing. One gets tired of his taking every little Texas thing he bumps into quite so seriously. A really good book will seem to be more than the sum of its parts, but a collection of sketches only adds up to the book. One admires Bode’s individualism, while wishing he weren’t so locked into a form whose resources he has long since exhausted.
It is hard to say much about the reminiscers, of whom there have been a great many. It all depends upon the quality of the mind that’s doing the reminiscing, and down here the quality has been if not pedestrian, at least quite conventional. An intellectual autobiography on the order of The Education of Henry Adams would be nice to have, but we don’t have one. Our reminiscers tend to be nostalgic and simplistic, interested mainly in paying tribute to colorful ancestors and vanished life styles. A few charm, most bore. They are valuable insofar as they provide grist for the historian, pernicious to the extent that they encourage reaction and ruralism.
Texas consists of dozens of subregions, many of which have prompted a novel or two. I am partial, for example, to Jack Sheridan’s Thunderclap (1952), largely because it happens to be set in the much neglected Wichita Falls-Wernon area. Natives of other subregions can doubtless name similar books, most of which do little more than provide field-notes to the subregion. I once had the misfortune to see a list of some 350 books about Texas—novels, mostly—compiled by an earnest but misguided researcher. It consisted of 345 dead books and four or five whose vital signs were growing ever more faint.
For that matter, six of my own eight books seem to have stopped breathing in the last few years. I am not surprised. It took me until around 1972 to write a book that an intelligent reader might want to read twice, and by 1976 I had once again lost the knack. There is nothing very remarkable in this: Writing novels is not a progressive endeavor. One might get better, one might get worse. If I’m lucky and industrious I might recover the knack, or then again I might be very industrious and never recover it. There is always that gamble involved, in writing. Too many writers, in Texas and out, have been coddled into believing that art is a more acceptable, less obdurate thing than it actually is. It is quite difficult to write a book that an intelligent reader will want to read twice, and near and not-so-near misses are the rule, rather than the exception.
Some misses trouble one more than others. The flubbed Texas book that bothers me the most is Robert Flynn’s North to Yesterday. Flynn had a world-class idea — Cervantes’ idea; a Don Quixote of the trail drives — but it was his first book and his powers weren’t adequate to the visionary tragi-comedy that would have done justice to it. He had the right material, but at the wrong time.
There are at least a couple of dozen Texas writers I haven’t considered in this essay. There is the late Ben K. Green, hopefully the last and certainly the most pretentious of the yarners. Then there are Robert Flynn and Al Dewlen, Benjamin Capps and C.W. Smith, Shelby Hearon, Warren Leslie, Marshall Terry, Dillon Anderson, Nolan Porterfield, Allan Weir, Leonard Sanders, Suzanne Morris, Madison Cooper, Peter Gent and a host of others. Fatigue, rather than charity, inclines me to pass them without extensive comment, though I will say that Sironia, Texas is the book that makes the best doorstop. Some of the rest have talent, but none so far has used it to write a book likely to last ten years. Most get by, to the extent that they do, on modest capacities for straight-grain narrative realism. They are storytellers who tell ordinary stories ordinarily. If this seems harsh, pick up any one of their books and try reading it. There will be numerous passages that charm, but no book that compels acute attention. A.C. Greene’s attempt to make a case for I and Claudie is so much mouthwash.
The other day it occurred to me, apropos of nothing, that the millennium is only 18 years away. Horses routinely live 18 years, but books don’t. It is quite possible that no book written in Texas in the last two or three decades will still seem worth reading 18 years hence.
The problem is not so much shallow talent as shallow commitment. Our best writers’ approach to art is tentative and intermittent: half-assed, to put it bluntly. Instead of an infinite capacity for taking pains they develop an infinite capacity for avoiding work, and employ their creativity mainly to convince themselves that they are working well when in fact they are hardly working at all. The majority of our most talented writers have not yet produced even one book with a real chance of lasting. Forget second acts, in Texas literature: So far we have only a bare handful of credible first acts.
Meanwhile, as the cities boom and the state changes, a great period is being wasted. Fiction in particular thrives on transitions, on the destruction of one lifestyle by another. Houston and Dallas have sucked in thousands of Rubempres, but where are the books about them? These cities are dripping experience, but instead of sopping up the dripping and converting them into literature our writers mainly seem to be devoting themselves to an ever more self-conscious countrification.
There is no point in belaboring the obvious. Until Texas writers are willing to work harder, inform themselves more broadly, and stop looking only backward, we won’t have a literature of any interest.
That said, I want to reverse my thrust and pay tribute in closing to one Texas writer for whose work I have an unequivocal admiration: that is, Vassar Miller. Adam’s Footprint was published in 1956, and from that time until rather recently Miller has been the one poet of genuine distinction in the state. I think it no hyperbole to suggest that her dozen best poems will outlast all the books mentioned in this essay, plus the 50 on A.C. Greene’s list as well. That she is to this day little-known, read or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture. She works in the hardest form—the lyric poem, the form where the percentage of failure is inevitably highest. Many of hers do fail, of course, but the ones which succeed come as close as any writing done in Texas to achieving what can fairly be called excellence: the product of a high gift wedded to long-sustained and exceedingly rigorous application.
I am not seeking to sanctify her, but merely to point out that we do have one very gifted writer who has continued for some 30 years to do what a writer is supposed to do: write. Adam’s Footprint and the volumes which succeed it are among the very few Texas books to which one can, with confidence, always return. There is definitely a there there: hard-won, high, intelligent, felt, finished, profound. To Vassar Miller, if to anyone we have, belongs the laurel.