Page 1


SOME DIFFERING VIEWS OF TEXAS LETTERS Has Texas produced any ranking, lasting literature beyond the folklore stage? An inventory conducted last week at the literature session of the University of Texas Conference on Texas would indicate we have notthough we might be on. the brink of doing so. The optimism seems warranted. As was emphasized by the whole conference. everything in Texas is developing at an accelerated rate: Just as the Gulf Coast is becoming by time-compressing geometric progressions an industrial complex of the first magnitude, its rail, cotton and cattle simplicity gone; so is Texas literature likely to become more dense, artful and traditionsteeped. Probably on the way are the introspectiveness and the psychological subtlety which some conference participants found Winston Bode lacking in our writing up to now. “We lack drama,” said the Dallas Morning News’s Lon Tinkle. `… the tension of people interacting with each other … our literature has been primarily lyrical … dealing with the relation of a man to the land for instance. … We have had epic themes, but epic themes pursued in a lyrical way …” Allen Maxwell, editor of the Southwest Review and head of SMU’s press. observed, “There has not been in Texas letters, it seems to me, e truly adequate exploration of the subtleties of individual human relationships, the search for love, the aching longing for communication with another being.” But isn’t the day of the individual pursuing his simple, lyric and possibly gross way coming to an end … as suggested in another flange of the University’s 75th Year look-ahead on Friday? M. King Hubbert, chief geological consultant for Shell Development Co., pointed to the end of a mineral culture in Texas and the advent of a nuclear one. He said “the next 75 years will see a transition from underpopulation to overpopulation, a transition from ever increasing rates of production of mineral resources to one of culmination and decline, and a transition from ‘pioneer culture’ to one of social activity that ‘may lead to social frustration and confuion’.” Thus the possibilities for some fine neurotic novels from Texas present themselves! \(The question of our producing existentialists was bandied about in the Possibly the most arresting of the panelists’s brief addresses was that of George Fuermann, the author-columnist from Houston. Right or wrong, it was arresting. “For so large an area,” Fuermann charged, “for a state not less than sixth in population in every census since 1900, Texas has produced little literature of distinction except folklore.” Nothing that the others said before or after seriously challenged this position. “No novelist or poetorthodox measures of the creative spirit” said Fuermann, “has affected the nation as have several writers in the Deep South. Unless you are sufficiently chauvinistic to count Katherine Ann Porter’s early life in this state, no Texan is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and so none is a member of the American Acad ON THE ARTS Papers on the arts in Texas ,and the Southwest, delivered at last week’s University of Texas “Conference on Texas” will be reported on in next week’s Observer. emy’s elite fifty. As to creative imaginative fiction, which next to poetry is writing’s superior art, no Texan has ever been of the first rank, by which I mean that none has ever been an influence on a scene larger than his own. To talk of Texas poetry or drama is to talk into the wind.” But Fuermann sees a change. 4i . creative writing by Texans is now, one suspects for the first time, beginning to bud and superior novel ever written by Texan: William Humphrey’s Home From The Hill, published this year. “Elizabeth Bowen, writing in the Tatler,” Fuermann crowed, calls this story of rural East Texas ‘a tragic masterpiece’ and says ‘only a novelist of genius’ could have written it I do not think a Texan has ever before written anything so graceful or so close to art …” Then Fuermann said Paul Baker of Baylor had invited him to see a new play that was opening that night, Ramsey Yelvington’s “The Golden Stair.” Fuermann said he understood from Baker that it was very good. He said of Yelvington, “You will hear of him.” Fuermann also cited the “remarkable impressionistic talent” of playwright Eugene McKinney, who, through some intelligence, Fuermann understood was lecturing at Cornell Saturday night. “Mark him, too,” said Fuermann. Fuermann credited latter-day Texas literature with Horton Foote, “for two books of substance,”, William Goyen “for two books,” and Tom Lea, “for one of his three bdoks.” So much for the sparsely positive, or generously negative inventory of Mr. Fuermann. `Peaks and Plains’ What of a more expansive cataloguing of our literary resourcesCould one accurately beef up such an essay as Fuermann’s, which pertained only to novels, drama, and poetry? Could he expand the standard triumvirate symbol for Texas literary achievement: Webb, Bedichek, Dobie? A noble try was made by Mr. Maxwell \(whose effort was not actually competitive; he spoke like Fuermann, sees a budding of talent, and also a spread of scope. He observed that when Arthur M. Sampley wrote “Thin Harvest in Texas Literature” in 1945, `… acknowledging the important production as of that time of such writers as J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, George Sessions Perry and John A. Loniax, he pointed out that these men stood rather lonely in their eminence, peaks above plains.” said Maxwell: “What was lacking in Texas literature, Samply felt, was the maturity and breadth that come from critical self-evamination. Our writers had been inclined to borrow from the Old South its tendency to dwell on a romantic past while avoiding a straight look at ugly facts of the present. Often this Old South attitude would be combined with the West’s confidence that the mere process of growth and development will cure all ills that afflict us.” Because of “uncritical intellectual habits” Texas literature was more assimilative than creative, preoccupied with externals rather than insights. The frontier exnerience was rehashed in book after book …” But. said Maxwell, “publishers’ lists in each of the past dozen years have carried titles which have treated more and more of the formerly neglected facets of Texas life. Surely George Fuer mann’s Reluctant Empire fills the bill of critical self-examination, as does Frank Goodwyn’s earlier Lone-Star Land. Sikes Johnson’s The Hope of Refuge strikes a note of social criticism while accurately portraying a Texas small town, and Robert Rylee’s The Ring and the Cross has incisive things to say about labor and politics. The Negro tenant farmer’s unsatisfactory lot is a central theme in John Wilson’s High John the Conqueror, while the beginnings of the Texas oil industry are documented in William A. Owens’ new novel, Fever in the Earth; an earlier novel by Owens, Walking On Borrowed Land, strongly presented a community caught in racial friction and violence. City life in up-tothe-minute business context is portrayed by John Burnett in Company Man. “History and folklore, already strong strains in the Texas literary current, attained new marks of excellence in the postwar years. Henry Nash Smith garnered the Bancroft Prize with Virgin Land. Walter Webb enlarged his view of historical processes to global limits with The Great Frontier, while Carl Coke Rister, Joe Frantz, and John Spratt probed Texas economic backgrounds with Oil! Titan of the ,Southwest, Gain Borden, Dairyman to a Nation, and The Road to Spindletop, respectively. Joseph Leach freshened a clicheridden concept with his book on The Typical Texan. “Biography became an art in the studies of Anson Jones by Herbert Gambrell and Stonewall Jackson by Frank Vandiver, while autobiography in Texas reached a new height with J. Frank Dobie’s reminiscences published in the Southwest Review following his new works in the older vein, Tales of Old-Time Texas, The Voice of the Coyote, ROCKPORT, ON THE GULF The majority of men, Thoreau has written, lead lives of quiet desperation: when I first read Walden I thought I understood. Then I became a bureaucrat, writing for the government. Day after day through week upon week I rode buses from Alexandria to an office in a clean stone building and studied sources, compiled statistics, fingered a calculator, wrote letters; but I also wrote paragraphs by hand, and then, knowing they would not get through the government, and not knowing if they should, I typed them carefully in the tall slender electric letters. Fixations seed and root in the energies of a seeping lifetime. Golf, weekend after weekend, became a separate life. Hiding away within the knots of my mind, I fed the selfhate with lean, contentless errors of club-off-the-toe or eye-on-the-ball. As I slipped further and further down the spoilbank I grasped at the green memory of Walden. At the noon hour in one of the sidewalk quartered parks of Washington, on the joggling buses, under a poor light in the evening, my entrapment greeted Thoreau’s distrust of possessions as possessors, his simplicity, his self-reliance, and I settled on a respite for time and silence for decisions and resolves. The beaches one can reach by road from Washington are signs, concession stands, tire tubes for rent, and public bath houses. Most of Virginia is planted, and starting without a destination could lead to turnings away, exasperation, even more exhaustion. There are, however, the mountains along the border between Virginia and West Virginia, in George Washington National Forest. On a park map I saw, three or four miles from the nearest road, “Trout Pond.” A winding dotted line leading to it was identified, in the symbols, as a footpath. I had not intended a pond, precisely, but, there it was. On a Saturday morning I bought what extra equipment I needed and packed a knapsack. It was a full Sunday’s drive across Virginia, past picket fences, gentle fields, sunny creeks, farm houses white washed, farm houses grey, and the pleasure of the land and of the prospect nourished me, as natural things will when you leave a city. Into West Virginia I stopped at a filling station a few miles from the turnoff to make sure of my directions. The attendant, closing up, as it was early evening, told me to take the first road off the highway to the left, go a few miles, and turn left again, up a tire-track dirt road. The dirt road led in to Trout Pond. Once, you could see, it had been a fresh flowing pool in the forest, perhaps a hundred feet across, surrounded by courtly trees leaning slightly toward the water, a stream feeding in from the far side and coursing down toward the foot of a near hill. Six months before, the West Virginia Game and Fish Commission had bulldozed out the road, erected four privies, dug and covered garbage pits, and stocked the pond with eleven-inch bass. Half a dozen men stood around the banks, waiting for their hatchery Maxwell listed among our literary resources the Texas Institute of Letters and the University of Texas and SMU presses, with their journals . One listened to Mr. Maxwell and had to grant the field of Texas literature has been scratched at considerably, deeply furrowed here and there, but with the feeling it can stand considerable cultivation The conference itself was none too bountiful. Francis Brown, a relaxed bespectacled man, once a Time editor, now editor of the New York Times Book Review, gave a survey of literature in America as a backdrop for the Texas discussion. He read his speech, which could be described as traditional Tinkle introduced the panelists, who included Savoie Lottinville of the University of Oklahoma Press, and tried to get a roundtable discussion going, but it clabbered badly. It might have been too early in the morning. Maybe some of the panellists were mad at Mr. Fuermann. Maybe Mr. Tinkle didn’t ask the right questions. It should be noted the chairman of the meeting, Frank Wardlaw of the University of Texas press, served with great facility as general MC. Dr. Webb left an interesting question in the air. He said it was getting harder and harder for historians to find anything to write about. He said of course there was the story of water, and the march of industry, but to him one of the most fertile fields for the historian of today seemed to be autobiography. He said a great historical service could be rendered by somebody like Roy Bedichek, simply by putting down the events he’d witnessed during his lifetime, during the last 68 years of vast change. bred hatchery-fed fish as at a market. I was embarrassed to be with myself then; vaguely I admitted my absurdity and vaguely I damned the impotence of my will. A young man told me that boys used to walk through the woods for fishing, or they would swim out to a log in the middle and dive around. I walked downstream, toward the foothill, until out of sight, and raised the small new tent beside the creek where it was trickling over some rocks, and cooked one of the steaks; but I ate it with my hands, and nothing else, it