Steven L. Davis is curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, which holds the literary papers of many of the region's leading writers. He has developed and curated over thirty exhibitions at the Wittliff Collections. He is also author of J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind and Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond; editor of Land of the Permanent Wave: An Edwin "Bud" Shrake Reader; and co-editor of Lone Star Sleuths: Mystery-Detective Fiction in Texas. He is the author of numerous articles and reviews, appearing in publications such as Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express-News, Southwestern American Literature, Texas Books in Review, and the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. In 2009 Davis was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL). He currently serves on the TIL Council. Davis delivered the following remarks at the most recent meeting of the Philosophical Society of Texas.
I've been asked to provide you with a comprehensive survey of Texas literature, from the beginning to the present, and I've been told to do it in twelve to fifteen minutes.
Now, there are some out there who would argue that twelve to fifteen minutes is too much time to talk about Texas literature. I believe it was Larry McMurtry who made the argument that most Texas writing is "soft, thin, and sentimental—not to mention dull, portentous, stylistically impoverished, and intellectually empty." And it was J. Frank Dobie who argued that Texas's rich, bold history was so awe-inspiring that it seemed to have "stifled fictional creation."
But to me, a truer perspective on Texas literature comes from the eighteenth-century German philosopher Novalis, who said, "Novels arise from the shortcomings of history."
I'll have more on that in a moment, but for now, let's go back to the very beginning, to that cold and blustery day in November 1528 when Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca washed ashore on what is now Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca ended up living for eight years among the Indians, and when he returned to Spain he wrote an account of his extraordinary adventures. His Relación, published in 1542, is the first written work on what is now Texas. We Texans have always had an expansive, welcoming spirit, and so, yes, we do claim Cabeza de Vaca as the first Texas writer.
As a writer, Cabeza de Vaca was no different from many other writers—he carefully observed the world around him and he recorded what he saw and what he thought, including how he had been changed by his experiences. Because, as you probably know, Cabeza de Vaca was transformed from a greedy conquistador into a passionate defender of Native American human rights. What's most significant in his case, however, is that he was the first European to encounter this part of the world. He not only described our landforms, flora, and fauna, he also told us about the Indians he lived with. Of one tribe he wrote, "Of all the people in the world, they are those who most love their children and treat them best." In all, Cabeza de Vaca identified some twenty-three different Indian groups, commenting on their villages, languages, and customs.
As we all know, those Indian groups Cabeza de Vaca lived among and came to love quickly disappeared after European contact. The historical record for these people is exceedingly thin, and Cabeza de Vaca's book is our primary account of them. And so, what happened with Cabeza de Vaca's career as a writer is this: the book he wrote became more than a personal memoir. It became our history.
And that is an important way to think about Texas literature. Because many of our great books aren't just novels; they are history.
Well, after Cabeza de Vaca we can safely skip ahead about four hundred years, because, to be honest, not a whole hell of a lot happened in Texas literature. Yes, there were instances of well-written newspaper stories, memoirs, poems, and corridos. But in the main, we need to face the fact that, as a frontier society, reading and writing came rather late to Texas.
While it's true that Texas in the nineteenth century wasn't exactly setting the literary world on fire, we did produce some pretty damn good stories—and storytellers. Texas had a wonderful oral culture, a rich folkloric tradition that existed in the African American, Anglo American, and Mexican American cultures.
And here's what happened when the twentieth century came along. Everything became industrialized, urbanized, standardized, and homogenized. The old traditions, and the old stories, were quickly dying out. And it was about this time that a young English instructor at The University of Texas named J. Frank Dobie decided to make it his mission to go out and collect all those tales. What Dobie did, essentially, was rescue our state's folkloric heritage. Without him, many of those accounts would have been lost forever.
Dobie liked to say "the story belongs to whoever tells it best," and although his recording of these folk tales wasn't always strictly literal, he certainly captured the spirit of Texas storytelling. To the surprise of everyone, his 1930 book, Coronado's Children: Tales of Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of the Southwest, became a national bestseller.
Dobie's great accomplishment was to become successful at the national level while writing about Texas. He showed that you can create literature from your native soil—even if that place is Texas. He inspired generations of writers who came after him, and he personally mentored several.
I'll mention two of those here, briefly: One was Jovita Gonzalez, a young Mexican American graduate student at UT Austin. Dobie brought Jovita into the Texas Folklore Society in the 1920s, singlehandedly integrating the organization. By 1930, Jovita Gonzalez was the President of the Folklore Society. Quite an accomplishment at the time for a woman and a Hispanic in Texas. She was doing great field work in Mexican American folklore, publishing articles and writing novels, and she seemed poised to become the next great literary artist from Texas. Then, disaster struck—she got married. Her husband, E. E. Mireles, put a stop to her literary career. Eventually, however, after she died in the 1980s, Jovita's papers were rescued, and today she is the author of four books, all of which were posthumously published. She is widely recognized as a groundbreaking Latina writer.
Another writer Dobie mentored was J. Mason Brewer, whom Dobie brought into the Folklore Society in 1934 as the organization's first African American member. Yes, that was about thirty years before the rest of Texas integrated.
I think what you can see from the case of Dobie and those he mentored is that writers can often be ahead of their times. I certainly think that's true when it comes to chronicling our history, so let me return to that quote from Novalis that I mentioned earlier: "Novels arise from the shortcomings of history."
And I think that when it comes to twentieth century Texas, that's where you really see the greatest significance of our state's literary output. Because, let's face it, most Texas historians have remained fixated on the iconic nineteenth-century events—the Alamo, the Battle of San Jacinto, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the cattle drives, etc. But when it comes to the twentieth century, where are the great examinations of the oil boom, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the home front during World War II, the drought of the 1950s, Texas's transformation from a rural to an urban society, the 1960s and the counterculture? Sure, we've seen a handful of books on each of those topics, but none of those subjects get a hundredth, or even a thousandth, of the attention that the events of the nineteenth century have received.
Fortunately, many of these twentieth-century events in Texas have been well covered. It just hasn't been by historians. It's been the novelists. Just like Cabeza de Vaca, these writers are observant, intelligent people who are chronicling their own times. And even though Texas literature has often been criticized for its aesthetic shortcomings, I would argue that the state's best writers have done a better job than historians in chronicling the last hundred years. They've produced a body of work that I like to call "Eyewitness Literature."
I'll give you a few quick examples. Let's say for starters that you want to write a history of the great drought of the 1950s. Well, you'd probably go through old newspapers, courthouse records, collect some oral histories from people who remember that time, stuff of that sort, and then try to piece together a portrait. Such a book would probably be—like many of our histories—long on statistics, with figures describing how many acres of farmland in Culberson County lost production, the percentage of decline in bank deposits in Abilene, the number of foreclosures in Tom Green County. But you know, that kind of work, while admirable in a narrow respect, doesn't tell us what it was really like to live at that place and time. And so for many people the best way to learn about that drought is to read Elmer Kelton's novel The Time It Never Rained.
Elmer was a reporter for Livestock Weekly, and he traveled around West Texas, observing firsthand the drought's devastating impact on the land, the animals, and the people. And these were his people. Elmer was a West Texas boy, and so he understood not only what was happening on the outside, but also on the inside. The Time It Never Rained will endure as the classic account of the West Texas drought. Elmer's book was written as "fiction," but it has gone on to become history.
Another example I'd like to share with you involves the great Texas oil boom of the 1920s. While most of the men during this time were occupied with drilling equipment and dollar bills, several women writers paid much closer attention to the extraordinary social upheaval taking place. One of them, Winifred Sanford, happened to be a first-rate writer.
The wife of an oil and gas lawyer, Winifred closely observed the effects of the boom on Texas citizens, and she captured its nuances in a series of crackling short stories that still sparkle today. Sanford's work was championed by one of America's most influential literary figures of the time, H. L. Mencken, who published her work in his magazine, The American Mercury.
Sanford's stories drew national praise, and four of them appeared in editions of Best American Short Stories. Winifred was forgotten for a long time—ignored by generations of male literary critics. Happily, however, her work has been rediscovered and praised by new generations of readers. Her stories are back in print, and Clint Eastwood made a film from one of them. Today Winifred Sanford's reputation as one of Texas's most talented early writers is well established. I'm not going to stand here and argue that her stories function as a comprehensive history of the great oil boom, but I can certainly say that they describe what it was like—what it was really like—to live in Texas during that chaotic time.
Another writer of fiction who ended up chronicling history was Américo Paredes, a Brownsville native who in 1939 finished a novel called George Washington Gómez. This was a heavily autobiographical coming-of-age story about a rebellious Texas Mexican growing up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley while Anglo Americans were consolidating their control over the region. No one seemed interested in publishing that sort of novel at the time. Paredes liked to say that the mail took two days to get from Brownsville to Austin, but whenever he sent out his manuscript it was always returned to him the next day.
He set his novel aside and went on to become a successful folklorist at UT Austin. Memorably, he used his first academic book to satirize the Texas Rangers. A very brave man, Paredes wrote in 1958: "If all the books written about the Rangers were put one on top of the other, the resulting pile would be almost as tall as some of the tales they contain."
Finally, in 1990, as he was winding down his career, Paredes's old manuscript was unearthed and finally published—some fifty years after he'd written it. The novel is remarkable in many respects. It's very well written in Paredes's trademark style—ironic, lean, and graceful. But it's the historical value that makes the novel significant.
During the decades his manuscript sat in a box, Anglo Americans dominated historical writing about South Texas. Much of what got published was one-sided propaganda. Paredes, meanwhile, has given us a personal, intimate portrait of the Lower Rio Grande Valley—a book that describes everything from its grassroots political machinations to informing us how intelligent, ambitious young Mexican Americans made their way through the segregated school systems. The book is a jewel, and it adds immeasurably to our understanding of that time and place—far more profoundly than the big stack of now discredited histories.
In the seconds I have left, let me quickly mention Bud Shrake—his 1964 novel, But Not for Love, describes Texas shaking off the conformity of the 1950s, anticipating the coming countercultural upheaval. But it's his novel of Dallas in 1963, Strange Peaches, that really shines. Shrake lived in Dallas in the early 1960s, writing for the Morning News, hanging out with Clint Murchison Jr. while at the same time he was dating Jada, Jack Ruby's star stripper. His resulting novel peels back the layers of Dallas and exposes the city's inner core.
A lot of people came into Dallas after the Kennedy assassination and tried to "explain" the city for us. But Shrake had been there all along, and he understood it in the same way Elmer Kelton understood West Texas, the same way Winifred Sanford recognized how the oil boom was transforming Texas culture, the same way Américo Paredes understood the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
These writers are just four of the dozens and dozens, probably hundreds, of Texas writers who have made similar accomplishments—all while their historical-minded brethren keep refighting the Alamo and the Civil War.
And that, my friends, is one of the real accomplishments of Texas literature. Just as J. Frank Dobie had earlier preserved the old folk tales, Texas writers are preserving the stories of their times. They are writing our modern histories, right in front of our eyes.