Page 1


THE CABIN BOOK, OR SKETCHES OF LIFE IN TEXAS By Charles Seal.slield J. WINCHESTER READ The Cabin Book at lodo.cornicabiabook FREEDOM: A NOVEL By Jonathan Franzen FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX 576 PAGES, $28 WATCH a video with Jonathan Franzen at txio.comifranzen concept of good Texans, the national news being so dominated by bad ones,” the reader knows Franzen’s arrow is aimed right for the large white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. The stereotype of the brash, wealthy Texan emerged long before President George W. Bush entered office, but can the residents of all 50 states be so neatly parsed in the national imagination between good and bad as Texans can? Are there “good” North Dakotans and “bad” ones? Let’s take Maine. Are there “good” Mainers and “bad” ones? There are good and bad Americans everywhere, but Americans don’t love scolding bad Mainers the way they do bad Texans. To the wellintentioned liberal couple at the heart of Freedom, it seems as if the country has been hijacked by Texans who took things too far, as Texans tend to do. At least the “bad” ones. When Franzen introduces Vin Haven, there is every reason to expect that he will play up the bad Texan. Franzen’s novels may be dark and evoke a grim Midwestern mood, but he takes glee in satire. Who’s more fun to satirize than a wealthy, self-righteous, gun-toting, wacky Texan? Like other characters in Freedom, however, Vin Haven is hard to shake off as a caricature. Franzen deposits telling details into his characters’ lives. Haven may ride roughshod over those who don’t agree with him, but he also “was the Texan sort of nature lover,” Franzen writes, “who happily blasted cinnamon teal out of the sky but also spent hours raptly monitoring, via closed-circuit spy cam, the development of baby barn owls in a nest box on his property, and could expertly rhapsodize about the scaling patterns on a winter-plumage Baird’s sandpiper.” \(Franzen doesn’t waste timean avid birder, he uses his avocational knowledge here has done his homework about Texashe mentions names like Rusty Rose and Father Tom Pincelli \(“the `birding priest’ of the lower Rio Haven knows. Despite his wealth, Haven interacts much more smoothly than Walter with the poor West Virginians, and it is Haven who persuades them to move out of the cerulean warbler’s habitat the job Walter was hired to do. Haven’s wealth and fluid connections to America’s most powerful make him seem grandiose and untouchable, but he is more levelheaded and less self-centered than many others in this book. His environmental notions are draconianmountaintop removal isn’t exactly the best way to save a bird species but Haven comes across as strangely likable. Franzen pegs what’s so annoying about big, bad Texanstheir retrograde politics. But if you’re interested in human behavior, it’s impossible to ignore them. El Clay Smith is literary director of the Texas Book Festival. LOST BOOKS OF TEXAS Cabin Fever by Steven G. Kellman N 1844, WHEN THE BOSTON DAILY ADVERTISER proclaimed Charles Sealsfield “the great est American author,” the competition was sparse. Even so, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were not chopped liver. But Sealsfield surpassed them in popularity, in part because a mystery surrounded his identity. At his death, in Switzerland in 1864, readers discovered that Sealsfield, who claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania, was the pseudonym of Karl Anton Postl, a fugitive priest born in Moravia. Postl fled the Metternich regime and made his way to New Orleans. A decade before Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States to gather the observations published as Democracy in America, Sealsfield traveled widely and felt comfortable enough in his adopted English to write The United States of North America As They Are in Their Political, Religious and Social Relations Disillusioned by sectional animosities that would erupt in the Civil War, Sealsfield returned to Europe and wrote a novel in his native German titled Das Kajtenbuch The Cabin Book, or Sketches of Life in Texas Sealsfield’s most famous work. Fame, like oil, comes in spurts and sometimes leaves a messy residue. Until Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller in 1956, The Cabin Book, published in dozens of editions, had outsold all other fiction about Texas. It inspired German immigration to the Hill Country. Today The Cabin Book survives only on microfilm and faded pages in large libraries. Recently, Nabu Press issued a reformatted version of a 1923 edition. Responsible as much as any other novel for the image of Texas as an arena for frontier egalitarianism, The Cabin Book lives on as a scholarly curiosity. Anyone seeking to satisfy curiosity finds a frame narrative, a Lone Star Arabian Nights set in “the land where you sow nails at night, and find horseshoes in the morning.” Col. Morse, a newcomer from Maryland, regales a group of “grandee planters” with his ecstatic reactions to Texas: “It was to me a new, an enchanted world!” Lost for four days on the prairie, “an everlasting sea of grass,” he survives to recount colorful encounters and pungent conversations about the Texas Revolution, statehood and much else. Published five years after the Battle of San Jacinto and five years before Texas joined the Union, Sealsfield’s novel bears witness to the state’s messy infancy. Like other popular writers at the time, Sealsfield made readers wild with visions of the Wild West. His description of it as “the most beautiful country of the earth” can still evoke awe. Despite Sealsfield’s casual acceptance of slavery and his pas”democratic aristocrats,” his work can still induce Cabin Book fever. 10 Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 22 1 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG