The Great Plains their place in this new world. Before he could drive the 110 miles back to Austin, telephone calls and telegrams were being sent in numbers to the board of regents demanding his resignation. “I must not have given them enough hope,” he said half-ruefully, half-impishly. In 1959 Houghton-Mifflin brought out a collection of his essays, “some . . . written in blood, some in lye, some in honey.” The collection included two of his presidential addresses before major historical associations, essays in which he purposely set out to be significant and profound. But the essay which he often said was the best in the book Was neither of these, but the one entitled “How the Republican Party Lost Its Future,” which he dashed off for the Southwest Review in 1949. When General Eisenhower spread his arms V-fashion and grinned his then irresistible smile in 1962, many people twitted Webb for his article, suggesting that few essays purporting to be historical and objective had ever been refuted so quickly. Webb didn’t think these gibes were especially funny, nor did he lose his confidence that he was essentially right. As the congressional races of the later 1950’s showed a rising Democratic tide and much of the leadership of the Republican administration seemed to be in the hands of Democrats, especially Sam Rayburn and Senator Johnson, Webb felt confirmed. Never did he retreat from his position that the Republican party had “successively turned its back on one great segment of society after another, on the farmer, on small business, on labor.” The party, in his words, “quit the people long before the people quit it.” These few paragraphs have dwelt on Webb’s political outlook, perhaps the least important side of his public face. He advised the mighty, and he advised the lowly. He advised losers more often than winners, for he never stooped to be popular. His ‘value was not as a precinct worker, not as the -torch bearer in a political crusade. Instead, his political value lay in the fact that people could examine issues in his presence, aware that he did not operate in spiritless objectivity but also aware that somewhere in the conversations and examinations would come a moment of revelation, of crystallization, of insight, of simplification. The man who sat with him over coffee might go away with views diametrically opposite to Webb’s, but he would know why. To my way of thinking, this is teaching at its best. So Miss Spears, sitting alone at her radio, heard the news flash and sought me out. She was crying as she talked, and she never really recovered. Within a month she, too, was dead. Those of us who remain behind have survived and some of usnot memay even walk with a spring in our step. But there’s a whole host of us in the wider community who died a little too. We lost someone to talk with, and in this world such persons are rare. ” ‘For what do we knowand what do we knowwhat do we really and truly know about what a friend of mine will insist on calling our “insides”? Meaning not our lights, livers, and other organs, but that part of us where the mysteries are.’ Thus wrote W. H. Hudson, the field naturalist, who loved to seek truth, which so often eluded him and so often eludes us all, in the recesses of the unknown.” Webb in The Great Plains Walter Webb’s article in Harper’s late in his life on the great American desert is certainly one of the best esays written by a man from this part of the country. Its themes were not new in his work. In 1931, there appeared under his name a clear, witty, and original book of history, The Great Plains. One cannot read it now without knowing from the occasional loveliness of language and the occasional flights of fancy that Webb never gave up wanting to write hovels; without knowing from his contempt for hidebound laws, his yawps of exhiliration, and his sardonic jests that he was himself a westerner ; without knowing from his splendid powers of generalization that he was one of the most intelligent men this nation has had to think about its ways; or without discerning from certain other passages that, though his experiences went back to ancient scenes of travail on the farm and his attitudes on race were rough hewn, he had no fear of radicalism, whenever it is called for. Not many historians, accustomed to withering scrutiny of the form of their footnotes by septuagenarian Ph.D.’s, would have dared leave in their manuscripts this passage on the cattle kingdom, in The Great Plains: “A thousand farms in the East will each have six or seven cows, with as many more calves and yearlingsten thousand head. But they attract no attention. They are incidents of agriculture. In the West a ranch will cover the same area as the thousand farms, and will have perhaps ten thousand head, round-ups, rodeos, men on horseback, and all that goes with ranching. Hot days in the branding pen with bawling calves and the smell of burned hair and flesh on the wind! Men in boots and big hats, with the accompaniment of jangling spurs and frisky horses. Camp cook and horse wrangler! Profanity and huge appetites The East did a large business on a small scale; the West did a small business magnificently.” To get at the truth of the past, Webb wrote, “we must make use of the imagination”; and in a single sentence he could send a reader into a wonderland of future possibilities: “If the Mississippi, draining the humid eastern country, could be induced to flow into the arid West, it would be almost impossible to imagine the possibilities of irrigation.” While portions of his work in 1931 thudded along the way most scholars’ always do, he tended, even then, toward rhythms”If the rain falls on the windward side of the mountains, the leeward side must suffer all the more” ;a buffalo’s sense of smell was useless to it “when it was approached from down the wind”; and toward romantic musing: “Cowboys at work, eighteen hours a day, for the herd left the bed ground by daybreak and kept it until dark; cowboys at work, riding, singing, nursing the cattle; yet it is difficult for those who now read of their hardships to realize that they worked at all.” Ballads, songs, and novels were part of the historical evidence, as far as he was concerned, for :the literature of the Great Plains had to deal “with the aspects of naturethe somber, far-spread, ocean-like plain; the arid mountains; the quicksanded rivers; the drought, the hail, and the wind.” In the last chapter of the book, “Mysteries of the Great Plains,” he wrote that the evidence indicated that “the plain gives man new and novel sensations of elation, of vastness, of romance, of awe, and often of nauseating loneliness.” He knew that a book of history is only a man .writing about the past and cannot be more than that. He was not a nit-picker; he wanted to have some fun as he went along with his -work. Plains Indians were willing to eat their horses if they had to; therefore, “The Indian rode his commissary into battle.” When the settlers from the East first crossed the 98th meridian onto the plains, there was little thought of general irrigation. “The people were settling there under the illusion that rainfall would follow agriculture.” It did not. Then, “In the shadow of the drought men turn to prayer \(at least gious-minded, and the skeptical acquiesce, with the stoic philosophy that it ,may do no good; but they guess it won’t do any harm. Sometimes the rains come, proving the efficacy of faith.” A S HIS WHIMSEY never got in the way of his intelligence, neither \(as he eral truth. Again and again, discussing geology, rainfall, “the horse culture of the woodland” and “that of the plains,” the great configurations of environment and civilization, he attained peaks of generalization that no man could have without first storing up the facts and then extending the powers of a lithe intelligence. Consider these scattered passages: “The position of the grassland in the United States and in North America may be most accurately pictured when taken in connection with the timber regions or the rainfall map. The eastern forest and the western forest come together in Cana July 26, 1963 11
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