Page 27


FEATURE Lit, Crit, ‘N Grits Interview with Don Graham BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS of for one split second, as I naively did before picking up Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande you even remotely entertain the possibility that “Texas literature” is an artificial literary category. Of course I realize that, me being a Texan, such advice sounds chauvinistic. “Wyoming literature,” after all, wouldn’t pass for squat; “Massachusetts literature” merges with a transcendentalist tradition that covers New England like fog; and even “Mississippi literature”the fictional Yoknapatawpha and non-fictional Oxford notwithstandingloses its state identity in the tangled moss of “Southern literature:’ So what makes the Lone Star State’s literary output from 1903-2001 special enough to deserve a 700+ plus page anthology whose most explicit criterion for inclusion is a Texas affiliation? Texas pride, for starters. Texas literati have every reason to feel intellectually defensive, given the galling habit of the Eastern establishment to parody our cultural ways as uniquely bumfuckish. Don Graham, editor of an engaging and meticulously crafted first anthology of Texas literature, can relate. In his brief introduction, he comes out throwing punches against The Economist on account of a nitwit writer who once said of Texas’ literary tastes that, “Even educated Texans have often preferred insubstantial humour books and western pulp fiction to ‘highfalutin’ writing:’ Graham, not a man to suffer this kind of horseshit lightly, responds, “Pass the grits, Ma,” and then adds by way of clarification, “even the founding Texans were able to read and write. Astonishing but true.” He’s evidently had some practice launching such retorts. Writing in these pages back in 1999 \(“Perspectives about “a snob of the sort one reliably runs into in academic circles,” who sniffed at the concept of “Texas culture” while dining at a Texas Book Festival dinner. “I should think that’s an oxymoron,” the snob opined, to which Graham thought, “You’re the fuckin’ moron… but I didn’t say it.” Which is just fine because, in the end, this volume says it for him. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a distinct Texas flavor infuses the short stories, essays, book cuttings, and memoirs that Graham tactfully arranged into “The West,” “The South,” “The Border,” and “Town and City.” Perhaps it’s needless to say, but the defining elements of our state’s literature aren’t always the most buoyant in tone. Despite gut-busting contributions from the likes of Kinky \(“We Texans believe if it ain’t King James, it paraphrasing Sen. Carl Parker, “If you took all the fools out of the Lege, it wouldn’t be a representative assume a decidedly melancholic disposition. Melancholic, though, without being whiny or melodramatic. Melancholic while being deeply affecting and droll. Melancholic in the best sense of the word. Rural isolation, loneliness, the physical landscape, and the allure of the cowboy myth unite these 63 stories under the overarching rubric of “the frontier.” A.C. Greene’s “The Girl at Cabe Ranch” perhaps most poignantly embodies and balances each of these themes. This remarkable story concerns a historian, Dr. Powell, who revisits the small Texas town where he grew up. “I’d taken up history and books,” he explains, but “Pretty soon they couldn’t understand me and my history books, and I didn’t try to understand them and their horses. So I left.” Sid, a precocious 18-year-old girl who Powell encounters while doing research on Cabe Ranch, desires but ultimately lacks this self-assurance about her own impending departure. Sid has tentative plans to leave for college in the fall but her sort-of-boyfriend, Harris, can’t comprehend why anyone in her right mind would leave the range for a bunch of books. He thus mocks Sid’s pretension, insisting, “You’ll flat hate it, being gone from here.” Powell, caught in the middle of this long-simmering face-off, knows full well that modern rural Texas is only a mere “outpost” where “television tells even the cowboys how to dress.” But, strangely enough, he remains quiet. Sid, too, is perceptive enough to recognize the shallowness of the romanticized culture that frames her dull existence, but isn’t quite confident enough to leave it without the door smacking her in the back, reminding her of the emotional risk she’s taking. The sceneset in Sid’s parents’ home, where she sat alone reading a magazine when the men arrived for a glass of waterintensifies until Sid, reduced to a puddle of adolescent emotion, looks to Powell for a thin rope to pull her from the confusion in which she’s mired. But Powell fails, pathetically noting that “[y] ou learn not to disturb family legends when you’re a historian,” and defers to Harris. As the two men leave Sid’s house in Harris’ pick-up truck, headed down a “gravelly hill,” Powell says, “It didn’t look like a road to me. But the boy knew where he was going. I leaned back and let him drive.” One can almost still hear poor Sid sobbing inside the lonely house, stuck both literally and metaphorically smack dab in the middle of nowhere. For me, then, it was Greene. But that’s just me, a historian 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/09/04