Twilight of the Super-Americans

More than 50 years ago, New Yorker writer John Bainbridge came to Texas and stayed nine months. He traveled across the state. He hung out at lavish cocktail parties. He listened to oilmen. He braved the frigid northers, the scorching heat, the fierce winds. He took lots of notes.

In 1961 Bainbridge published The Super-Americans, a sprawling, colorful depiction of Texas and Texans. It was a national best-seller that outraged almost as many literate Texans as Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant, had in 1952—and for roughly the same reasons. Like Ferber, Bainbridge found a state of shameless excess: overnight fortunes, bad taste, loud boastfulness. We might have been a microcosm of America, all right—optimistic, friendly, future-oriented—but our attempts at high culture were mostly snicker-inducing, we were narcissistic but not introspective, and our restaurants sucked.

At least The Super-Americans didn’t morph into an Oscar-winning epic like Giant. But Bainbridge’s book did its own look-at-the-buffoons damage, unless you’re of the persuasion that any press is good news as long as they spell your name right. As writer Bill Broyles pointed out in Texas Monthly, “The Super-Americans glorified Texas and patronized it at the same time.”

It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience to read The Super-Americans almost 50 years after its publication. Some of it is wincingly familiar and still true: Texans’ suspicion of big government; our anti-intellectualism; our miserly support of welfare, unemployment, and education; the ease of buying guns. You have to wonder whether those qualities have been branded onto our state psyche—tragic flaws that guarantee us endless generations of right-wing toadies like Rick Perry and John Cornyn.

But much about Texas and Texans and the rest of the world has changed since Bainbridge took up brief residence among us a half-century ago. These days, I’m guessing that a modern-day Bainbridge won’t show up to write a best-selling opus about the likes of us Texans. Let me count the reasons:

1. Eight years of George W. Bush made swaggering Texans far less attractive than they used to be. You could argue that swaggering Texans were never all that popular in the first place, but at least we sold well once upon a time.

2. Texas’ legendary oil barons gambled everything and got broke and down-and-dirty in a picturesque, violent, testosterone-fueled way that sold books and movies. But oilmen just aren’t the icons they used to be. Look at T. Boone Pickens, who’s pitching wind instead of crude. What kind of macho image is that? Besides, somebody’s already written a pretty good book on tilting at windmills.

3. Our current generation of rich people is mostly high-tech billionaires. These people might be smart and industrious, and you might want to work for one of them. But let’s be honest: They’re a pretty uninspiring-looking, quiet-living bunch, even if some do bring their dogs to work. If James Dean hadn’t crashed his Porsche, do you think he’d be playing H. Ross Perot or Michael Dell in a movie? Would you have gone to see him if he had?

4. Fifty years ago, Bainbridge could get away with calling Texas “the last frontier.” If you’ve ever set a tire on I-35, north or south, you know those days are long past.

5. Sure, we’ve always been proud of our unique and terrible Texas weather, which even impressed Bainbridge. But—back to this global-warming debacle—the entire country now has crazy weather. We are not as climatologically distinct as we used to be.

6. If you want to see a bunch of rich boors without shame, turn the dial to reality TV. No need to crack open a book about another state.

7. You know all the traditional, picturesque Texas regalia like boots and hats? Amigos, they are everywhere, even in Times Square, sported by Yankee impostors and Eurotrash who don’t know the words to “The Eyes of Texas.” In a word, our wardrobes have been sullied. That screaming drunk in the 10-gallon hat is probably from the former U.S.S.R. He probably thinks Odessa is in Russia.

8. If Texans are no longer billed as fascinating and larger than life, neither are Americans. If you want to make a splash in publishing, you might want to grab the title The Super-Chinese.

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Published at 5:51 pm CST