In ‘God Save Texas,’ Lawrence Wright Explains the Lone Star State to Outsiders
In 1845, when the United States was hotly debating the imminent annexation of Texas and the prospect of a war with Mexico, Abraham Lincoln wrote to a constituent: “I perhaps ought to say that individually I never was much interested in the Texas question.”
Current interest in the Texas question, however, is a boon to the publishing industry. Reviewing Richard Parker’s Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America for the Observer in 2014, Brad Tyer could already point to a plethora of recent titles that treat Texas as a divining rod, one that can point us to something even more precious than water in the Chihuahuan Desert: the national soul. Writers are posing the Texas question out of a belief in Texas as synecdoche, the part that will explain the whole. More than Nebraska, New York or even California, the mammoth state with all that oil and sass can tell Americans who we are and where we are headed.
Though most observers see red, Wendy Davis demurs: “Texas is not really a red state. It’s a non-voting blue state.” Nevertheless, the enterprise run by right-wing zealots Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton and Sid Miller seems like the blueprint for a nation governed by Donald Trump and his Republican codependents in Congress. “Indeed,” notes Wright, “it’s an irony that the figure who most embodies the values people associate with the state is a narcissistic Manhattan billionaire now sitting in the Oval Office.”
A staff writer for The New Yorker, Wright was asked by its editor, David Remnick, to “‘explain Texas,’ because I think he couldn’t understand why I live here.” Wright’s explanation consists of 14 rambling, impressionistic chapters packaged under the title God Save Texas. It is not clear from what, but the implication is that no one else can save this God-forsaken state that Wright loves enough to have spent most of his 70 years here. He visits each of the state’s major cities, as well as tiny points on the map such as Wink, Post and Terlingua. He offers observations on Texas’ music and gun cultures, and he examines how “a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics.”
Little is likely to startle Observer readers or other longtime residents of the state. But the book is studded with a few obscure gems from the annals of Texas history. Though well aware of how slavery was “the original sin of the Texas Revolution,” I learned from Wright how, though faced with economic collapse, the Texas Republic turned down a generous loan from Great Britain, because abolition was the string attached. Rather than retain sovereignty without slaves, Texas chose to sacrifice its independence by joining the United States. Wright goes slightly too far, however, in claiming that: “South Texas today really is a separate linguistic province, like Quebec, with San Antonio playing the role of its capital, Montreal.” More than 40 percent of San Antonians may speak Spanish at home, but not all are fluent, and the city is not as culturally distinct from the United States as Quebec is from Canada.
Though born in Oklahoma City, Wright came to Texas when his father was hired by a bank in Abilene. He spent his teenage years in Dallas, attended college at Tulane, and proceeded to stints in Egypt, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. A job offer from Texas Monthly brought him to Austin, where he has lived since 1980. An interview with Molly Ivins had failed to gain him a staff position at the Texas Observer, which he describes as “the beloved muckraking liberal rag in Austin that had been home to Willie Morris, J. Frank Dobie and a number of writers I admired.”
One of the writers Wright admired is John Graves, whom he met when Wright was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters: “His prose was incantatory, and his attachment to the place we lived in was so much keener and more revelatory than ours.” Just as Graves’ elegiac Goodbye to a River reveals as much about the personality of its author as about the Brazos that he canoed, God Save Texas is the story of its author’s simultaneous attachment to and detachment from a place where “friendliness is a sort of mandate,” but that “has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation.”
Scattered amid familiar stories about the Alamo, the Astrodome, Emily Morgan, the Kennedy assassination, Spindletop, the “bathroom bill” and the UT Tower shooting are the ingredients for an affecting memoir. It is the story of an acclaimed writer who, after his high school graduation, “turned into that pitiable figure, a self-hating Texan.” That hatred has been displaced from the self to the state, but God Save Texas is a record of ambivalence. “Part of me,” Wright admits, “had always wanted to leave Texas.” And that part is apparent in his revulsion over the statewide “locker-room lust for weaponry” and “the indifference to beauty and a sort of loathing for compassion, as manifested in our schools, our prisons, our mental health facilities and our lack of concern for the environment.” He doesn’t even get into Texas as the capital of capital punishment and the Vatican of football violence.
A birder, Wright takes pride in the more than 600 avian species fluttering about the state. He also resolved to leave Atlanta and return to Texas while enraptured by swing music in Gruene. Wright portrays Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the sanctimonious foe of marriage equality, abortion rights, undocumented workers and public education, as the embodiment of what he calls AM Texas. FM Texas is House Speaker Joe Straus, whose parliamentary finesse outmaneuvered Patrick. He does not mention Straus’ retirement, which could move the dial to lower frequencies.
He concludes with a visit to the Texas State Cemetery, whose occupancy is by official invitation only. Wright has been selected to join other Texas notables posthumously. By the end of the book, reconciling himself to the fact that his “has been a provincial life in many ways,” Wright has chosen his plot.