ustxtxb_obs_1964_12_11_50_00003-00000_000.pdf

Page 11

by

Serious Thought and Writing By Concerned Young Men New York City I got to know Texas in a most uncharacteristic way, as writer and later editor of a small weekly journal of dissent. One can usually acquire a surer sense of a place by knowing something of its dissenters and critics than of its acquiescing majority, who are generally nourished on their own chauvinism and prefer to tell an outsider what he most expects to hear. The effect of Ronnie Dugger’s Texas Observer had been. pro ot. Th -71.1reiT was a paper whose readership never got much higher than 6,000,* yet by the sheer force of its ardor and its talent, it began to be read by everyone in the state whose opinions had authority. It was not merely that Dugger and the other Observer editors, Bill Brammer, the late Bob Bray, Lyman Jones, Larry Good,Nr ..1_r_ n, –ar -id rn array of contributors who’ would do honor to any journal, began writing stories about what actually happened: the operations of the business lobbyists in the state legislature, the courage and disarray of a pathetically small opposition, the effect on the state’s culture of highlyorganized know-nothing groups working on school boards, civics classes, and service clubs. What had been more important was that provincial politics became the subject for serious thought and writing by young men concerned not just with reform at the state level, but with the broader reflection the Texas legislature and Texas politics and their terrible failures cast on social values in a democracy. The Observer was part muckraker; its antecedents were in the state laboratories of the Progressive era \(and hence it was curiously out of character in the decade of Eisenhower, of weekly journalism, it was also something of a literary enterprise. Dugger’s early writing on precisely how a state legislature worked from the backrooms, Brammer’s satire on the small-town grotesques in the state senate and the balcony roosters who financed the show deserve a prominent place in an anthology of our best writing about American politics. When the state legislature was not in session the Observer concentrated on Texas as a place: the silent tragedies of its small towns, the barren stretches in its Panhandle, the changing character of its cities. It ran essays on the rural sharecroppers, the prostitutes in. Galveston, the Negroes in East Texas, the mexicanos living in caves and shanties just across the border. It brought a new element into Texas, because in a state which, unlike Mississippi, had not developed much of a creative literature, it tried to tell about Texas in journalism as it really was; it caught the stresses and tensions of a frontier society becoming urban and American. The big * Paid circulation in November, 196:1, 5.932. Willie Morris dailies published editorials linking the Observer and its most loyal readers to unique conspiracies. They were not interested in the activities of Tennessee Gas in the private clubs of the capitol city, or in the last words of a 17-year-old rapist in Death Row at Huntsville, or in the terror of a seven-year-old Negro child in an adult ward for the mentally ill in a state hospital, or in what Norman Mailer said or didn’t say to the college students in Austin; the news value of Negro cub scouts sitting on the curb in front of a movie house in Dallas after having not been allowed to see “King of Kings” must have eluded their city editors. When I was a junior at the state university back in 1955; I have a recollection of Dugger, then 24 years old, sitting in a small dark office in the old frame building on West 24th, surrounded by newspapers and magazines. Brammer, his associate, was out getting drunk with the lieutenant governor and Dugger was writing the whole paper by himself in less than twenty-four hours. Once an issue was put to bed he would take out for somewhere in his woebegone 1948 Chevrolet, crowded with camping equipment, six packs, notebooks, galley proofs, and old sardine cans. Driving at 70 down a lonely stretch of highway between Austin and anywhere, he would write next week’s editorial in a notebook propped on the steering wheel. His devotion to Texas as a place, as a state distinctive from othersknowing its courthouse squares, its backroads, its people in cities as different as El Paso and Tyler, its history, its dialectswas something that was vanishing from America. “I love it here and belong here,” Dugger wrote not long ago, “an animal that feels best when he knows where he is. In a big place like Texas, you come and go with your friends, meet and stop meeting and still go on being friends across distances that often these days become physically insuperable for any casual purpose. If the stereotypers have done us no other favor, they have helped those of us who are friends hold on in an awareness of our common place, even across continents.” Brammer, who later wrote a political novel about a weekly newspaper and a legislature with only a few of the names and addresses changed, and those not very radically, true locales’ moved one street over, a consonant or two rearranged in proper names, once recalled those early days in a reminiscence: “The impulse toward dissent in Texas scarcely existed. Then Dugger and his newspaper erupted on the scene to shake us up a little in our hookworm belt complacencies. Soon there were wounded hoots and wild cries and a pleas, and even one or two indictments. All this devotion and energy help explain why the Observer has outstayed and outshone other regional ventures in independent political journalism, right and left, recent and long-gone.” We always remained devoted on the paper, as one of our contributors and most loyal friends, Roger Shattuck, once wrote of us, “to politics, its responsibility and thrall.” It was seldom a very easy task to travel all over Texas and still get an issue out every week. For two men each to write some 20,000 words of presumably literate journalism a week under deadline, read all the copy and galley proofs, hobnob with politicians, and keep up a correspondence means staying up all night two or three nights in succession, and eventually setting up a desk by the linotype operator and handing, him the final editorial page by page. A finished issue was never just an issue; it came out of the marrow of our bones. It was so much our own it reflected not just our errors but our sins, from comma blunders to the most critical shortcom-, ings in judgment, but it was good to know that any week’s issue would be read, and probably closely, by the two U.S. senators, the governor, the vice president of the United States, the Speaker of the U.S. House, and most members of the legislature not to mention the state’s finest minds and kindest souls. For this reason we got anonymous phone calls tipping us off about legislators, usually from other legislators. We were intermediaries in fights \(some of them not specifically philosophiperspective on Texas, because our shabby quarters in Austin were the haven for a good percentage of the displaced population: old Jewish socialists with beards, Negro sit-ins on fasts, ex-Stalinoids with nowhere to go, not even Russia. From Monday to Friday there was a steady flow : anarchists, beatniks, bums, New York Timesmen, editors of Eastern journals, FBImen, Michael Harrington, bookies, Goldwater Republicans seeking some coalition, Unitarians, retired professors, and David Shapiro. Our phone was tapped, , and the office had roaches, which probably would have put off John Bainbridge, and anyone else The New Yorker might have sent down there except Thurber, E. B. White, and old Dwight Macdonald. Sarah Payne, our secretary, the gentlest person I have ever known, fought the roaches and tried to protect us from the more casual intruders, but rarely was it possible to give thought there to the unusual or disordered or despairing things we had seen; when reflection was possible, it was usually When one was a long way from politics, and very much alone. December 11. 1964 3 Ed. crazy circus of exposures, denials, copped