Fehrenbach’s Texas


A version of this story ran in the October 2012 issue.

When I met T.R. Fehrenbach, the fam-ous Texas historian, I found an old man given to gloomy pronouncements about mortality wearing a camel hair sport coat that seemed almost to swallow him. His eyes were clear, and as I set up my camera, he assessed me with the bemused calm of a man who is talking to you because he has nothing better to do.

At 87, Fehrenbach is probably the greatest living Texas historian, a former head of the state Historical Commission and one of a select group of cultural figures with a reserved plot in the Texas State Cemetery. (The cemetery is typically designated for legislators.) His 1968 book Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans was the first general history of Texas since J. Frank Dobie’s time in the 1920s. It’s stupendously popular among a certain generation of Texans; my grandmother had a copy.

I first read the book at age 15. For me, a transplant to Texas, it laid out the state’s past in all its brilliance and brutality. I finished the book and felt a sudden understanding: ‘Ah. This is where I am now.’

“I find that in our culture,” Fehrenbach said in our interview, explaining his approach to history, “people are unwilling to look at the unpalatable facts of what happened. They want to whitewash things. They don’t understand that just because you say a thing is, doesn’t mean you’re saying it should have been.”

Before Fehrenbach
, most histories of Texas took for granted the manifest destiny framework: History started with Stephen F. Austin and the Old Three Hundred. Anglo immigrants were presented as morally superior to the Mexicans and Indians they fought.

Fehrenbach didn’t do that. Lone Star is, unabashedly, a history of Texas’ Anglos, but Fehrenbach begins his book 32,000 years ago, long before there are Anglos—with the first Ice Age hunters crossing into North America. “In the beginning, before any people, was the land … ” he writes. “No human beings were native to the New World; every race of men entered as invaders.”

Invasion sets the tone for everything that follows, and underlines much of Fehrenbach’s view of history.

In Lone Star, Fehrenbach retells the old myths, but, as he puts it, with “all the unpalatable parts left in.” Reading it is a jarring experience. Fehrenbach titled a chapter on the war between the Anglos and the Comanches “Red Niggers, Red Vermin.” The phrase is drawn from a contemporary newspaper account. Fehrenbach likes to unearth unappealing parts of the past and rub them in the reader’s face.

Texas and the Texans, Fehrenbach argues, were forged into a unique nation by the bitter, violent experience of more than 100 years of war on the frontier:

“The Mexican-Indian warfare taken together spawned an almost incredible amount of violence across west and southwest Texas. Almost every ranch, every water hole, and every family had its record of gunshots in the night and blood under the sun … Because of this history, the dominant Texan viewpoint was not that Texans settled Texas, but they conquered it. Many other Americans have never been able to rationalize this in terms of a mythical North American mission in the world. Texas was never a refuge for the lowly, or oppressed, or a beacon proclaiming human rights. It was a primordial land with a Pleistocene climate, inhabited by species inherently hostile to the Anglo-Celtic breed.”

Fehrenbach is much less interested in what people said—their stated ideals—than in what they actually did. He is skeptical about the importance of countries, treaties, government. In Lone Star, Texas history is told as a series of encounters between different tribes—Spanish, Mexican, Comanche, Anglo—each so alien to the other that they might as well have come from different planets.

He writes:

“The moral, upstanding Comanche who lived by the laws and gods of his tribe enjoyed heaping live coals on a staked-out white man’s genitals; a moral Mexican, for a fancied insult, would slip his knife into an Anglo back. The moral Texan, who lived in peace and amity with his fellows, would bash an Indian infant’s head against a tree, or gut-shoot a ‘greaser’ if he blinked.”

The only thing that unites these peoples is their most primal instincts. Of the conquest of the West by a vast, unguided migration of Scots-Irish farm families into Native American land, Fehrenbach writes in Lone Star: “The Anglo-American historical experience was to be this: the people moved outward, on their own, and they sucked their government along behind, whether it wanted to go or not.”

This should not, he explains later in the book, be viewed with surprise:

“More and more anthropologists believe that the desire to expand, to seize territory and hold it, is a human instinct easily aroused, and one that requires no rationalization. It is only when the rationalization is attempted that hypocrisy enters in … In fact, if many of the ideas and arguments expressed in Anglo-America concerning peace and human rights had been dominant, it is not inconceivable to contemplate a United States still cramped behind the Alleghenies, complaining to world opinion about Amerind raids.”

Fehrenbach told me he sometimes looks at history as tragedy. “In the Greek sense. You understand? In which the nature of the characters, their flaws, forces a terrible ending.”

Lone Star was incredibly popular in Texas; its gritty blood-and-soil take on history resonated in a state that was much more rural and Anglo than the one we live in today.

“The book came out to great accolades. Everybody read it,” said Light Cummins, a history professor at Austin College in Sherman, adding that the book had a profound influence on him. “I understood for the first time how complex our history was, the richness of our history. He folded in black Texans, Native American experience, Hispanic experience. Texas is a place that has very different, and sometimes competing, histories. He was able to blend that into one cohesive story.

“I would argue that the book has had a greater impact on popularizing Texas history than anything else that has been written about this state.”

Lone Star is now an element of history itself, its worldview challenged and debated among historians.

“It’s a point of view that makes white, Southern-born males the whole story of Texas history,” said Randolph Campbell, chief historian at the Texas Historical Commission. “In the years since then a great deal has been written about African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and women. Younger historians have modernized the story considerably.”

But Cummins says Fehrenbach’s book marked a radical departure in how Anglos were presented in Texas history.

“The book is written from an Anglo viewpoint, but it isn’t Anglo-centric,” Cummins said. “Past historians would have argued—did argue—that Anglos were historically superior to natives, black Texans, Hispanics. Fehrenbach absolutely did not do that.”

To Cummins’ view, the book should be read as a historical artifact. “A 1968 Ford Fairlane is very different than a 2010 Ford Fusion,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they weren’t both great automobiles.”

Lone Star is a history of conquest told by a man who’s descended from the conquerors. In fact, Fehrenbach uses Anglo and Texan interchangeably.

Toward the end of the book, he writes:

“This Anglo history was shot through the national myths all such histories have; it had its share of hypocrisy and arrogance. Parts of its mythology made both ethnic Mexicans and Negroes writhe. But in essence, it rang true. We chose this land; we took it; we made it bear fruit, the Texan child is taught.”

Fehrenbach tells Lone Star from an Anglo perspective, yes—but if he’s writing to Anglos, he’s giving them an unflattering and brutal picture of their ancestors. For example, to Fehrenbach, there is no greater point to the extermination of the Comanches; it’s just another example of the way human cultures have treated each other for millennia. Before their own destruction, the Comanches nearly destroyed the Apaches, pushing them out of the buffalo grounds and into Mexican and Anglo lands. Before that, the Apaches had nearly depopulated the villages of the Pueblo Indians and other tribes throughout the Southwest.

After Fehrenbach wrote a popular 1963 book about the Korean War, his editors asked him what he wanted to do next. He didn’t have much. “I said I had a couple of unpublished novels, and they’re pretty bad, but maybe…” They pitched him on a novel about his family.

“It’s true,” he said, “you could do a fiction out of a great many families. And I could—my grandfather was a great man, went on to considerable success…

“So I’m going to write the Great Texas Novel … A lot of the people I’m going to talk about are still alive … This is very difficult. And then is it all that important anyway? So what this morphed into was a history of Texas, which no one had asked for, and nobody wanted.”

I tried to get him to explain how he had gone from Great Texas Novel to sweeping state history. The question clearly made him uncomfortable.

“It just came that way,” he said. “I wrote it, and it turned out there was a market for it. But I thought we needed a general history of Texas, because it goes back to my background. I felt that in many ways the history of Texas was just as important as the history of some of these odd places in Europe we study. I thought that Texans were just as important as a people. I had the thought—maybe a little vainglorious—that I could raise Texas history to that level.”

I can see Fehrenbach sitting at his desk all those years ago, looking at his family history and saying, ‘Wait, but to understand this, you have to understand that thing that happened before…’ Suddenly we’re following his family back across the Appalachians, back across the ocean into Ireland and Scotland. To understand the place they came to, we need to go further back, to see the Spanish failure to civilize or conquer the Texas tribes. We need to understand the Comanche dominance of the Plains. We need to understand how they came to be here. We find ourselves, near the beginning of Lone Star, tens of thousands of years ago, watching the first Americans following the herds across a new land bridge into the virgin world.

Throughout our conversation, I would ask Fehrenbach a question about history, and he’d start to explain and then get sidetracked trying to explain the context behind his answer, and the context behind that context.

I’d come to interview him to try and understand what made him tick, where his ideas had come from and why he had written about the things he had. He tolerated these sorts of questions for a while, but finally seemed to tire of them. He was explaining his idea that people occupy themselves with “fiddling things”—not work, basically—to avoid having to gaze into the abyss. He looked at me and said, “I think you may have a problem with that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, caught off guard.

“By your questions,” he said, “you seem like you’re preoccupied with trivial things; that you have trouble gazing into the deep well.”

“All right,” I said. I put down my notebook. “If our situations were reversed, if you were sitting here, interviewing T.R. Fehrenbach, famous historian, what would you ask?”

He smiled. “You know,” he said, “you want to know who T.R. Fehrenbach is, and the truth is I don’t really know. That’s not a question I’ve ever much wanted to ask myself. I don’t know what that says about me, and maybe I’d be better off, or I’d be a stronger person, if I wanted to know that. I have not, in my life, wanted to ask the why.

“But you were asking me why things turned out the way they did, and the truth is, I don’t know. I could offer you a story of where these things came from, but it would be a rationalization. I’d be making something up. If you ask, ‘Why did he write about the Comanches? Why the Texans? Why the Mexicans?’ I think, at some point, you end up asking, ‘Why Fehrenbach? Why the earth? Why everything?’ And I haven’t wanted to do that.”

In his account of his own life, and of Texas history, Fehrenbach isn’t searching for a larger purpose or glory. Lone Star doesn’t end with the usual platitudes about the future, or the greatness of the state, but with a sort of apocalypse: a description of the landscape of Texas at the end of history, empty again, as it was at the beginning of the book. There is no ultimate mission; no holy purpose. All there is, in the end, is a good story that fades away.

Contributing writer Saul Elbein lives in Austin.