Since the time of first European contact, when Texas was a geographic mystery, mission field, and disputed prize, writers have devoted their talents to the area. Their efforts embrace every genre of literature and every facet of Texas history and culture.
Literature through the nineteenth century. In the beginning, Texas literature, though written in Spanish, was formally very much like that of Puritan New England-primarily historical in nature, consisting of narrative, descriptive, and factual prose accounts. The first and most notable work in the early Spanish literature relating to Texas is Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación (1542). This book, translated into English numerous times, is an American classic, a spiritual odyssey detailing the explorer’s experiences among Texas Indians. Other significant early Spanish narratives include Pedro de Castañeda’s Relación de la jornada de Cíbola, the best account of Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition, and Fray Alonso de Benavides’s Memorials (1630–34). Also of interest is The Narrative of the Expedition of Hernando de Soto, by the Gentleman of Elvas, parts of which touch upon areas of Texas as far west as Waco.
Nonfiction accounts also characterized the literature of the revolutionary era. Mary Austin Holley, cousin of Stephen F. Austin and visitor to his colony, produced Texas (1833), the first book in English that dealt entirely with Texas. It initially consisted of twelve letters to people back East, and was much expanded in 1836 into History of Texas. After David Crockett’s death at the Alamo, a book entitled Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836) capitalized on the frontiersman’s fame in the lively, colorful style of southwestern humor. The Mexican side of the Texas Revolution had its chroniclers as well. For events immediately preceding the Revolution, the best Mexican account is Juan N. Almonte’s Noticia Estadistica Sobre Tejas (1835). The best contemporaneous account of the Revolution is José Enrique de la Peña’s La Rebelión De Texas: Manuscrito Unédito de 1836, Por un Oficial de Santa Anna. John H. Jenkins III calls it “one of the most important eye-witness records of the Texas Revolution, and especially of the Siege of the Alamo.” It was Peña who first reported that Davy Crockett surrendered before being put to death.
In the years immediately following annexation (1846), several works merit attention in so far as they reflect the pluralistic vigor of early Texas history. Victor Prosper Considerant’s Au Texas (1854) related the story of the founding and dissolution of the French Utopian community of La Réunion, near Dallas. Viktor F. Bracht’s Texas Im jahre 1848, nach mehrjahrigen Beobachtungen dargestellt (1849) told of German immigrants and agrarian life in early Texas. From the Anglo-American perspective there is Noah Smithwick’s The Evolution of a State; or, Recollections of Old Texas Days (1900), declared by Jenkins to be “the most fun to read” of all Texas memoirs. John Crittenden Duval, whom J. Frank Dobie called the “Father of Texas Literature,” wrote a lively account of his escape from the Goliad Massacre in Early Times in Texas (serial form, 1868–71; book, 1892). His Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace (1872) contains tall tales, legends, true adventure, satire, and straight history. The chapters on the Mier expedition are among the best published accounts of that episode, rivaled only by William Preston Stapp’s The Prisoners of Perote (1845). Another failed expeditionary venture of the Texas republic was recorded by George W. Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition (1844). Although most travelers in early Texas wrote favorably of the inhabitants, one memorable exception was famed urban landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose A Journey Through Texas (1857) painted a grim picture of slavery-ridden East Texas, indicting the people as crude, the food as bad, and the level of civilization as negligible. Not until he reached New Braunfels, recently colonized by Germans, did Olmsted find anything fit to eat or any civilization worthy of the name. Narratives of the Texas Rangers constitute a subgenre of Texas writing. Among those dealing with the immediate post-republic era, the best is James Buckner Barry’s A Texas Ranger and Frontiersman: The Days of Buck Barry in Texas, 1845–1906 (1932). In the post-Civil War period, James Buchanan Gillett’s Six Years with the Texas Rangers, 1875–1881 (1921) is a highly readable and useful personal memoir.
Of the many former Confederate soldiers who moved to Texas after the Civil War, one was young Sidney Lanier, a Southern poet of considerable reputation in his day. He recorded his impressions, including a charming essay on “San Antonio de Bexar,” in Retrospects and Prospects (1899). Also in the wake of the war came federal troops. With Gen. George A. Custer was his young wife, Elizabeth B. Custer, who felt at first that Texas seemed the “stepping off place” but eventually came to enjoy her stay and wrote a lively account in Tenting on the Plains (1887). The cowboy, a subject that dominated Texas literature thereafter, entered the scene in the 1880s. Alex E. Sweet and J. Armoy Knox treated cowboy lore in a humorous, satirical fashion in their On a Mexican Mustang, Through Texas from the Gulf to the Rio Grande (1883). Charlie Siringo, a native Texan who rode the range for nearly twenty years, turned author in 1886 with A Texas Cowboy: or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, later revised as Riata and Spurs (1912). Siringo’s books became required reading for those interested in the cattle industry.
Fiction about Texas, which began very early in the nineteenth century, is of interest today only to the occasional scholar willing to slog through an undistinguished morass of romantic historical novels. The first Texas novel, L’Héroïne du Texas: ou, Voyage de madame * * * aux États-Unis et au Mexique, “by a Texian,” was published in Paris in French in 1819, but was not available in English until Donald Josep’s translation of 1937. Its author is identified only as “F-n. M. G-n.” After the manner of Chateaubriand, the novel deals romantically with the short-lived French colony named Champ d’Asile, located on the Trinity River about sixty miles from Galveston. Its ideological thrust is characteristic of the strong anti-Catholic bias of early Texas fiction: a Protestant hero marries a Spanish Catholic girl, after which both must flee from ecclesiastical authorities. Timothy Flint’s Francis Berrian; or the Mexican Patriot (1826), although set only partially in Texas, introduced two motifs that often reappeared in nineteenth-century Texas fiction: the captivity narrative in which white women are captured by and rescued from Indians, and the religious-cultural conflict between Protestant Anglos and Catholic Mexicans, with the hero usually representing the former. Mexico versus Texas, the first novel to incorporate seminal historical events such as the Goliad Massacre and the battle of San Jacinto, was published anonymously in 1838; it was reissued in 1842 under the title Ambrosio de Letinez and credited to A. T. Myrthe, although its title page lists Anthony Ganilh. The novel’s argument is characteristic of the period: the dedication poses the rhetorical question “whether anything could have taken place more conducive to the regeneration and improvement of Mexico than the success of the Texans.”
The Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet (1843) by Frederick Marryat, a retired British naval officer and prolific author, consists of pure adventure ranging over much of the American West, including Texas of revolution times. Carl Anton Postl, an Austrian ex-monk who wrote prolifically under the pseudonym Charles Sealsfield, used early Texas as the setting for The Cabin Book (1844), in which the hero becomes a general in the Texas army. Frenchman Olivier Gioux, whose pen name was Gustave Aimard, devoted one of his more than twenty novels of the American West to Texas-The Freebooters, a Story of the Texas War (ca. 1860). Charles Wilkins Webber, in Old Hicks the Guide (1845), added the search for a lost Spanish mine to Texas adventure fiction. And Alfred W. Arrington, writing as Charles Summerfield in The Rangers and Regulators of Tanaha…A Tale of the Texas Republic (1856), contributed the bandit motif in his novel, which is set among plantation slaveholders in East Texas in 1845–46. Emerson Bennett’s Viola (1852) also takes place during the republic era. Jeremiah Clemens in Mustang Gray (1858) fictionalized the life of Mabry B. Gray, a soldier-bandit of early Texas.
Not surprisingly, the legend of the Alamo proved a popular subject for early novelists. Augusta Evans Wilson’s Inez: A Tale of the Alamo (1855) pits an Anglo heroine against the unscrupulous wiles of the Catholic priesthood. Amelia E. Barr’s Remember the Alamo (1888) sums up the anti-Catholic feeling of much fiction from the republic and post-republic era: “the priesthood foresaw that the triumph of the American element meant the triumph of freedom of conscience, and the abolition of their own despotism.” Barr’s autobiography, All the Days of My Life: An Autobiography, the Red Leaves of a Human Heart (1913), which includes a lengthy section on life in late-nineteenth-century Austin, retains more interest today than does her florid fiction. Hostility against Mexicans is also a strong ingredient of novels about the republic. The Trapper’s Bride: or, Love and War: A Tale of the Texas Revolution (1869), by W. J. Hamilton (pseudonym for Charles Dunning Clark), is peppered with virulent racist epithets, as is Jeremiah Clemens’s Bernard Lile: An Historical Romance, Embracing the Periods of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War (1856). Scores of dime novels exploited the subjects of bandits, rangers, and cowboys, but these belong to the vast underthicket of popular culture. The first novel to make use of the trail drive was Live Boys: or Charley and Nacho in Texas, written by Thomas Pilgrim in 1878 under the pen name Arthur Morecamp. J. Frank Dobie praised its authenticity.
Anglo Texas had its roots in Southern, not Western, culture. The first settlers were slaveholding planters or would-be slaveowners. The early Texas novel most firmly rooted in Old Southern culture was Mollie E. Moore Davis’s Under the Man-Fig (1895), which details events in Brazoria County from 1857 to 1880. Even more interesting is her The Wire-Cutters (1899), which moves from a Southern plantation context (in Kentucky) to a West Texas ranch and the conflict between open-range cattlemen and small farmers, a theme that was reprised in hundreds of Western novels to come.
Early Texas poetry was abundant but undistinguished. That from the republic era usually reflected two themes representative of the attitudes of Southerners in general: a martial spirit coupled with religious sentiment. Poems dealing with contemporaneous history were commonplace. “To Santa Anna,” a typical piece, addresses its subject as “thou blood-hound of death.” Poems honoring such Texas heroes as Ben (Benjamin R.) Milam, James W. Fannin, and Sam Houston were plentiful. Later in the era, poets turned to more pacific subjects, writing of labor in poems celebrating the “plough” and cattle drives, or of Texas landscapes and natural phenomena, or of cities, or even, as early as 1849, the blue norther. An excellent brief anthology of such poetry is Early Texas Verse (1835–1850), edited by Philip Graham in 1936. Much of the verse in Graham’s collection is anonymous. Among the poets whose authors are named, a few deserve mention. Mirabeau B. Lamar, soldier and statesman, is remembered chiefly for two lyrics, “Carmelita” and “The Daughter of Mendoza.” His only volume is Verse Memorials (1857). The poetic reputations of two of his associates in affairs of state rest on one poem of each: “Hymn to the Alamo” by Reuben M. Potter and “All Quiet Along the Potomac” by Lamar Fontaine, son of Mirabeau Lamar’s secretary, Edward Fontaine; others have claimed the latter poem. Much better known in the nineteenth century was Mollie E. M. Davis, who, in addition to her fiction, gained renown with Civil War poems published in newspapers. “Lee at the Wilderness” and “Minding the Gap” were widely circulated throughout the South. Davis, known as the “Texas Mocking Bird,” published several volumes of verse, including Minding the Gap, and Other Poems (1867) and Poems (1872).
After the Civil War, with the development of the cattle industry, ballads of the range became popular. Usually sung or recited, these ballads were orally transmitted, and the names of their author-composers were often lost. The same process occurred in Spanish verse along the Mexican border in South Texas, where corridos were composed, sung, and passed down from one generation to the next. Collecting cowboy ballads and corridos became a major occupation of scholars and folklorists in the twentieth century. Even the skillful and popular recitative piece “Lasca” (1882), at one time the best known of all Texas poems, was passed around and handed down orally. By the time it got into print, lines had been lost and the author identified only as Frank Desprez. Not until the 1950s was anything known about this Englishman, who was for three years “occupied on a Texas ranch” before he returned to England and became a professional writer. Another famous cowboy recitation was “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” by William Lawrence Chittenden, an Eastern newspaper reporter who became known as the “Poet-Ranchman of Texas.” His poem immortalized the Anson ball of 1885, which is still reenacted each Christmas under the title Cowboys’ Christmas Ball; dancers in costume come from hundreds of miles away for this celebration. Chittenden’s volume Ranch Verses (1893) has seen many editions. John P. Sjolander, a young Swede, immigrated to the Texas Gulf Coast in 1871, settled on Bayou Cedar, built boats, farmed, and wrote poems for periodicals. In 1928 his poems were gathered into a volume titled Salt of the Earth and Sea. Before his death in 1939 he was called the “Dean of Texas Poets.” Except for the cowboy ballads, however, none of the nineteenth-century Texas verse outlasted its day.
The story of theater in Texas is not generally well known. The first edition of the Handbook of Texas mentions folk plays in Spanish that were performed orally along the border, but contains no mention of early Texas Anglo drama. There were in fact, however, plays that deserve mention. Again, not surprisingly, the siege and battle of the Alamo was a popular subject. Francis Nona’s The Fall of the Alamo: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (1879) told its story in verse. Hiram H. McLane’s The Capture of the Alamo: An Historical Tragedy in Four Acts, with Prologue appeared in 1886. The only play dealing with Texas themes that achieved popular success was A. P. Hoyt’s A Texas Steer (1890), which traced in a farcical manner the colorful doings of a Texas rancher-congressman named Maverick Brander from Red Dog, Texas, “where men are men and the plumbing is improving.” Hoyt’s play enjoyed great popularity, was filmed three times including a 1927 version starring Will Rogers, and was still in print as late as 1939.
1900 to the present. At the turn of the twentieth century historical subjects were much in demand in American fiction, and once again Texas fiction mirrored the national trend. The republic era proved to be by far the most popular historical subject during the early years of the new century. Indeed the Alamo proved so popular that Stephen Crane, after a visit to San Antonio in 1895, wrote, “Statistics show that 69,710 writers have begun at the Alamo.” A partial listing of works includes the following, each of which features the Alamo: William O. Stoddard, The Lost Gold of the Montezumas: A Story of the Alamo (1900); Opie Read, In the Alamo (1900); Clinton Giddings Brown, Ramrod Jones, Hunter and Patriot (1905); Frank Templeton, Margaret Ballentine; or, The Fall of the Alamo: A Romance of the Texas Revolution (1907); Eugene P. Lyle, Jr., The Lone Star (1907); Edward Plummer Alsbury, Guy Raymond: A Story of the Texas Revolution (1908); Everett McNeil, In Texas with Davy Crockett: A Story of the Texas War of Independence (1908); and Joseph A. Altsheler, The Texan Star: The Story of a Great Fight for Liberty (1912). But the most notable work dealt with the more recent past, the era of the cattle drive, captured vividly in Andy Adams’s The Log of a Cowboy (1903). Written expressly to counter the romanticism of Owen Wister’s immensely popular The Virginian, published the previous year, Adams’s book, constructed as a novel but without a romantic plot, depicted the cowboy as a worker instead of a dandy. It was instantly regarded as a classic of cattle culture. In a more popular vein, some of the local-color stories of William Sydney Porter [O. Henry] were set in Texas. His 1907 collection, Heart of the West, is typical.
Literary interest in the past took other forms than the somewhat bloated, over-written historical novels listed above but long forgotten. One of the strongest expressions of this interest occurred in the emerging field of folklore. The Texas Folklore Society, launched in 1909, proved instrumental in locating, collecting, and publishing material of intrinsic interest as well as providing source material for future writers. Francis Edward Abernethy’s The Texas Folklore Society, 1909–1943 and The Texas Folklore Society, 1943–1971 provide a valuable historical record of the accomplishments of the society. J. Frank Dobie, the foremost figure in the society, mined the past for stories of gold-seekers, legendary hunters, cattlemen, cowboys, and every species of wild critter from mustangs to rattlesnakes. His first book, A Vaquero of the Brush Country, appeared in 1929, and his second, Coronado’s Children, an account of lost mines and legends of fortune-seekers, followed in 1930 and became a Literary Guild selection. Other members of the society made substantial contributions also. John A. Lomax collected songs and ballads from the cattle range; his Cowboy Songs, and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) is a major early collection. Emily Dorothy Scarborough, a folklorist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University whose curriculum vitae is inscribed on her tombstone in Waco, published a valuable collection of folklore, On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs, in 1925. That same year she incorporated folkloric elements into her best known novel, The Wind, published anonymously, and famous for its depiction of harsh frontier conditions in late-nineteenth-century West Texas. The Trail Drivers of Texas (1923–24), collected and edited by George W. Saunders and J. Marvin Hunter, brought together numerous oral accounts of old-time cattlemen and cowboys that has proved a treasure trove for future novelists such as Larry McMurtry. Among later folklorists, Mody C. Boatright, secretary and editor of the Texas Folklore Society from 1943 to 1964, published several works featuring another major Texas industry, oil, in such books as Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields (1945), Folklore of the Oil Industry (1963), and (with William A. Owens), Tales from the Derrick Floor, A People’s History of the Oil Industry (1970). Ben K. Green earned a reputation as an folk expert on horses and cows. His Horse Tradin’ appeared in 1967, Wild Cow Tales in 1969, and The Last Trail Drive Through Dallas in 1971.
In 1943 J. Frank Dobie’s influential bibliography, A Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, mentioned only a handful of fiction titles dealing with Texas. Dobie ignored a good deal of extant fiction, and since then the number of novels written about Texas has increased exponentially to the point where a substantial book-length bibliography would be required to list them all. The following is an attempt to chart the broad outlines of Texas fiction in the twentieth century.
From the 1920s through the late 1960s, much of the best of Texas writing came from the Southern side of the ledger. This is contrary to received myth, but the facts speak for themselves. There were at least as many writers following in the Southern tradition as in the Western, a point most saliently developed by scholar James W. Lee. The Southern-based novels explored the fabric of life on the farms and plantations of East Texas, sometimes looking nostalgically backwards at the past, but more often looking critically at the present. Sue (Susanna S. H.) Pinckney’s In the Southland (1906) was an early attempt to treat East Texas culture as an extension of the Old South. Consisting of two novelettes titled “Disinherited” and “White Violets,” In the Southland offers a highly romantic portrait of cavaliers, ladies, and plantation customs familiar to any reader of Southern historical fiction. Laura L. S. Krey’s And Tell of Time (1938), a later effort in the same manner, is a novel marinated in the Confederate worldview and one that, like Gone With the Wind, found much of value in the antebellum social order. Among the novelists who explored cotton-plantation culture in East Texas were a number who, instead of idealizing the past, criticized the present, especially the system of farm tenancy. Dorothy Scarborough alone wrote three novels on the subject. The best of them, In the Land of Cotton, appeared in 1923; the other two are Can’t Get a Redbird (1929) and The Stretchberry-Smile (1932). Ruth Cross explored similar themes and materials. The Golden Cocoon (1924) paints a grim picture of life in the cottonfields and an even grimmer one of the faculty at the University of Texas, “a backwash of incompetents whom life had rejected.” In The Big Road (1931) Cross produced a melodramatic study of the clash between provincial ignorance (picking cotton) and cosmopolitan values (pursuing a classical music career in Europe).
Several agrarian novels of the Thirties and Forties deserve mention. Edward Everett Davis’s The White Scourge (1940) called cottonfields “the great open air slum of the South,” an indictment that characterizes much of the fiction written about tenant farming. In Land Without Moses (1937) Charles Curtis Munz realistically portrayed the life of an East Texas sharecropping family. John W. Wilson’s High John the Conqueror (1949) is especially notable for its narrative skill in convincingly portraying the lives of black sharecroppers living on an East Texas farm. Though set in Oklahoma, The Stricklands (1939), by Edwin M. Lanham, Jr., of Weatherford, is also a fine contribution to the literature of the tenant farmer. Two other sharecropper novels of the period are Sigman Byrd’s The Redlander (1939) and John Watson’s The Red Dress (1949). The most significant of the tenant-farming novels, however, is easily George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941), which won both the Texas Institute of Letters award and the National Book Award, the first Texas novel to be so honored. Set on a small blackland farm near Rockdale in the late Thirties, Hold Autumn in Your Hand is a kind of Texas Georgics, developing themes put forward by the Roman poet Vergil: “The farmer cleaves the earth with his curved plough,/ This is his yearlong work, thus he sustains/ His homeland, thus his little grandchildren” (Georgics, Book II). John W. Thomason’s Lone Star Preacher (1941) belongs in the Southern tradition as well. It traces the life and times of a fiery Methodist preacher in East Texas during the Civil War era.
On the basis of international reputation, the status conferred by inclusion in major anthologies of American literature, and the respect indicated by academic criticism, Katherine Anne Porter must be judged the most acclaimed Texas literary artist. She, too, belongs indisputably to the Southern tradition. “The Old Order” sequence of stories, contained in The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), includes her most widely anthologized masterpiece, “The Grave.” These stories, along with the three short novels of Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), the single greatest artistic work authored by a Texas writer, define a world of fading nineteenth-century moral assurance symbolized by an older generation played off against a younger one, dramatized chiefly in the developing consciousness of Porter’s alter ego, Miranda.
In the post-World War II years the Southern tradition in Texas writing informed the careers of three major Texas authors: Charles William Goyen, William Humphrey, and William A. Owens. Goyen’s The House of Breath (1950) is one of the more daring works of experimental modernist narration by a Texas writer. Told in highly convoluted oral and rhetorical style, it conveys a powerful sense of a provincial East Texas community giving way before the tide of modernity. Today Goyen’s work is more highly valued in France than it is in the United States. William Humphrey has produced a number of novels and short stories grounded in the culture and mores of the corner of Northeast Texas where he grew up, in Clarksville, near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. Home from the Hill (1958) is a tale of a legendary hunter and a Gothic marriage, laced with the sometimes too obvious influence of William Faulkner. The Ordways (1964) is a comic picaresque tale that rambles across Texas. Perhaps best of all is Humphrey’s 1975 memoir, Farther Off From Heaven, a book that charts the changes in East Texas from the 1930s to the 1960s. Also of interest is No Resting Place (1989), a historical novel that explores the lamentable removal of the Indians from East Texas during Mirabeau B. Lamar’s presidency of the republic. William A. Owens, folklorist, novelist, and memoirist, produced his best work in an autobiographical trilogy that comprises This Stubborn Soil (1966), A Season of Weathering (1973), and Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983). This Stubborn Soil gives an especially vivid account of the arduous struggle of a youth attempting to obtain an education in dirt-poor rural Texas in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Other recent East Texas writers of note include Bill Brett, whose first-person vernacular narration is reminiscent of Mark Twain. His collection of back-country tales, Well, He Wanted To Know and I Knew So I Told Him (1972), reissued as East Texas Tales (1972), and his novel, The Stolen Steers: A Tale of the Big Thicket (1977 ), bring the old tradition of Southwestern humor into modern times in rural East Texas. Leon Hale’s Bonney’s Place (1972) captures well the flavor of life surrounding a honkeytonk in East Texas. In his Half a Look of Cain: A Fantastical Narrative (1994) Reginald Gibbons consciously drew upon the example of William Goyen for its East Texas setting and themes. Mary Karr’s memoir of a dysfunctional East Texas family, The Liar’s Club (1995), received glowing reviews in the national press.
Although the history and culture of African Americans have been treated by most of the white writers in the Southern tradition, often very stereotypically, there is one major exception. John Howard Griffin, a Catholic who studied art in France, underwent skin treatments to darken his skin in order to travel in the South as a Negro and recorded his experiences in an influential book during the civil-rights movement, Black Like Me (1961). There have as yet been few works by black Texas writers, though there is also some indication recently that things are beginning to change in this regard. The earliest black writer of fiction in Texas was Sutton E. Griggs, whose Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, a Novel (1899) was one of several novels that he wrote about race in America. Two important black writers are folklorist J. Mason Brewer and C. C. White, a black preacher. In his collections of folk tales, The Word on the Brazos (1953) and Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro Folk Tales (1958), Brewer depicted the humorous side of black life, though at the same time revealing the harshness and unpleasantness of life in a segregated society. C. C. White’s No Quittin’ Sense (1969), told to Adam M. Holland, is the best account in Texas literature of growing up black in East Texas. Albert Race Sample’s Racehorse: Big Emma’s Boy (1984) is a work of raw power that details the life of a black convict in Texas prisons. A promising recent black author who deals with Texas in varying degrees in his short fiction is Reginald McKnight, whose The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas appeared in 1992. More recently, Anita Richmond Bunkley in Black Gold (1994) combined historical research with a flair for steamy melodrama in a novel about blacks living in a Texas oil boomtown in the 1920s.
In addition to agriculture, East Texas was also the site of several important oilfield discoveries, and several novels have explored the impact of the oil industry on the lives of small communities in that region. Karle Wilson Baker’s Family Style (1937) describes the changes wrought by the oil boom upon the life of a farm woman. Mary King O’Donnell’s Quincie Bolliver (1941) also looks at oil-boom days from the perspective of the working class, in this instance a muleskinner’s daughter. Jewel H. Gibson’s Black Gold (1950) humorously examines the rowdy life of roughnecks in the oil patch. William A. Owens’s Fever in the Earth (1958), set during the boom days following the opening of the Spindletop oilfield, studies the effects of instant wealth upon rural Southerners in the Beaumont area at the turn of the century.
Two other writers round out the picture of the Southern tradition. Madison A. Cooper’s Sironia, Texas (1952) is a whopping two-volume, 1,100,000-word portrait of postbellum aristocratic families in Waco. Frederick B. Gipson of central Texas enjoyed considerable success with novels dealing on agrarian and hunting themes that embodied the flavor of Southern mores. Hound-dog Man (1949), The Home Place (1950), and Old Yeller (1956), a very popular juvenile novel set on the frontier, were all made into films.
Despite the accomplishment of Southern writers in the state, however, those who have written in the Western tradition have dominated the nation’s popular conception of Texas. Two seminal writers in this configuration are J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb. Dobie’s prolific reading and collecting of ranch lore led to such books as The Longhorns (1941), The Mustangs (1952), and Cow People (1964), instant classics in the literature of the cattle culture. Webb, probably the most influential Western historian since Frederick Jackson Turner, is best known for The Texas Rangers (1935), a romanticized, celebratory account of the exploits of the state’s most famous frontier law-enforcement agency, and The Great Plains (1931), a work of lasting impact in the study of the economy and ecology of the arid Western plains states. By ignoring East Texas and cotton culture, the work of Dobie and Webb strongly contributed to promulgating a picture of Texas as a Western state dominated by dust and cattle. Unintentionally, their version of Texas accorded perfectly with the Wild West, shoot-’em-up images being circulated in the works of popular novelists such as Zane Grey and in hundreds of Western movies.
Though other writers in the Western tradition active in the 1930s have been all but eclipsed by the popularity of Dobie and Webb, three deserve to be better known: Edward E. Anderson, Winifred Sanford, and Edwin M. Lanham, Jr. Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (1937) is a hard-boiled tale of Bonnie-and-Clyde-type outlaws that has been filmed twice. Lanham, who produced several serious novels in the 1930s before turning to detective fiction, is easily the most neglected of Texas novelists. His The Wind Blew West (1935) is a complex study of the shifting fortunes of a small town bypassed by the railroad. The novel includes a fascinating retelling of the Warren Wagontrain Raid and the subsequent trial of the Indian defendants. Thunder in the Earth (1941) is a noteworthy addition to a largely undistinguished body of Texas fiction that deals with the oil and gas industry. Winifred Sanford, a protégé of H. L. Mencken, published a number of excellent stories about women in Texas in the 1930s that were collected in Windfall and Other Stories (1988). Another writer of the Great Depression era who has recently resurfaced is Chicago-based Nelson Algren. The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, edited by Betinna Drew, appeared in 1994.
Nonfiction writers following in the wake of Dobie and Webb have produced a number of notable works dealing with Western life in Texas. Edward C. Abbott’s rollicking We Pointed Them North (with Helena Huntington Smith, 1939) is a wonderfully entertaining account of cattle drives and flesh-and-blood cowboys. Tom (Thomas Calloway) Lea’s two-volume The King Ranch (1957) is a sumptuous history of the state’s most famous cattle ranch. Paul Horgan’s Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (1954) retells crucial events in Texas history better than anyone ever has. J. Evetts Haley’s Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman (1936), the definitive biography of the state’s most famous cattleman, is a rich source of information about the cattle kingdom. Sally Reynolds Matthew’s Interwoven: A Pioneering Chronicle (1936) offers an engaging account of ranching life in West Texas from a patrician woman’s point of view.
Dobie’s interest in nature, a strong corollary of his devotion to ranch life, influenced the work of subsequent writers. One was his close friend, Roy Bedichek, whose Adventures of a Texas Naturalist (1948) ranged far and wide in its depiction of natural lore, including memorable chapters on the northern mockingbird and chickens. Bedichek’s letters to Dobie, Webb, and many other correspondents, collected in Letters of Roy Bedichek (1985), edited by William A. Owens and Lyman Grant, are one of the real treasures of Texas writing. In the next generation John Graves became the heir of the Dobie-Bedichek vein of natural history and legend. His Goodbye to a River (1960), an account of a canoe trip down the Brazos River in the late 1950s, is one of the most honored books in Texas letters. Hard Scrabble (1974) and From a Limestone Ledge (1980) are substantive additions to the bookshelf of Texas nature lore. More recently, Stephen Harrigan has followed the Dobie-Bedichek line of close observation of man’s interaction with his ecological environment in two collections of essays, A Natural State (1988) and Comanche Moon (1995). His two novels, Aransas (1980) and Jacob’s Well (1985) also pursue ecological themes. Another follower of the naturalist tradition is Rick Bass, whose The Deer Pasture (1985) and Oil Notes (1989) provide scrupulous examinations of local conditions, of how men and women exploit or revere the earth. Dan L. Flores’s Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys into the Heart of the Southern Plains (1990) won the admiration of ecologists and nature writers.
In fiction, two Western-oriented novelists of the post-World War II era have consistently mined the Dobie-Webb legacy. Benjamin Capps has written about cattle drives (The Trail to Ogallala, 1964), told the story of the settlement of West Texas by a Goodnight-like pioneer (Sam Chance, 1965), retold the story of Cynthia Ann Parker (A Woman of the People, 1969), portrayed the clash of Comanche and white culture at the turn of the century (The White Man’s Road, 1969), and recreated the failed Utopian community of La Réunion (The Brothers of Uterica, 1967). All are narrated in a low-key manner reminiscent of Andy Adams. Elmer Kelton, whose best work has dealt with twentieth-century ranching, began his career by writing for Western pulp magazines and broke into hardcover after a succession of well-researched but formulaic paperbacks. His hardcover publications include novels about the past: The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971), based on the “cowboy strike” of the 1880s; The Wolf and the Buffalo (1980), a novel of the clash between Indian and United States Cavalry troops on the West Texas frontier that features an Indian warrior and a black soldier; and Stand Proud (1984), another frontier saga of a rugged individualist. Kelton’s novels about twentieth-century ranch life are probably his best. The Good Old Boys (1978) is a comic study of a charming, footloose cowboy who resists the blandishments of the automobile and marriage in favor of a rambling life. Best of all is The Time It Never Rained (1973), the portrait of a dogged old rancher named Charlie Flagg, who survives the terrible drought of the 1950s without succumbing to federal assistance. Several of the novels of Capps and Kelton have won awards from Western Writers of America.
Although Capps and Kelton represent an earnestness of spirit and a reliable base of research and experience, their novels are generally characterized by a provincial flatness not unlike the sparse landscapes from which they spring. They are also curiously genteel in language and incident, as mild as Dobie. But flint-hard Protestantism has its limitations when it comes to representing “the way we live now,” the goal of all novelists working in the terrain of their own time. The same genteel hands-off tone handicaps the productions of West Texas women novelists of the post-World War II period. Loula Grace Erdman’s The Edge of Time (1950) and Jane Gilmore Rushing’s Against the Moon (1968) equally suffer from a tameness of language and vision.
If literary history were as tidy as the historian would like, then Capps and Kelton would have written all of their works in the 1950s, leaving the field open to the iconoclastic Larry McMurtry, the most important figure in Texas writing since Dobie. But it did not happen that way. In 1961, before Capps, before Kelton, McMurtry published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By. It inverted the classic form of the genre (Shane) and introduced a level of irony and sexual frankness into the old pastoral world of the courtly cowpoke that made old-timers cringe and made McMurtry for a time the enfant terrible of Texas letters. All through the 1960s McMurtry continued to explore the passing of an era and its replacement by a less kind, less gentle way of life, in novels such as Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show (1966), and a book of valuable reflections, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968). At the end of the decade and into the next, he turned his attention to urban life in Texas in the so-called Houston trilogy: Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972), and Terms of Endearment (1975). No fewer than four of these first six novels were turned into films, three of which won major Academy Awards. Having said all he had to say about Texas, it seemed, McMurtry then wrote several novels set either completely or mostly outside the state. Cadillac Jack (1982) is the best of these. Then, in 1985, in a famous reversal of his published animadversions against Texas writers enfeebled by a nostalgic love of the past, he brought out Lonesome Dove, a blockbuster novel of epic sweep that drew upon all the old traditions of cattle-drive lore and Texas Rangers, salted with a healthy and by now familiar dose of sex and ultraviolence. The result was a best-seller that outstripped James Michener’s sodden doorstop of a novel, Texas (1986), and garnered its author, now transformed into the éminence grise of Texas letters, a Pulitzer Prize. Since that high point, McMurtry has continued to produce novels at a rapid rate, though none has achieved the popularity of Lonesome Dove. In two novels he turned to other legendary Western materials, the Billy the Kid legend in Anything for Billy (1988) and Calamity Jane in Buffalo Girls (1990). He also recycled many of his earlier novels in a series of sequels. Texasville (1987) comically updated the characters of The Last Picture Show; Some Can Whistle (1990) reprised the Beat writer Danny Deck from All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers; and The Evening Star (1992) was a lackluster sequel to Terms of Endearment. Lonesome Dove itself spawned two spin-off novels. Streets of Laredo (1993), one of McMurtry’s darkest works, told the story of Woodrow Call and other survivors from the precursor novel; and Dead Man’s Walk (1995), a “prequel,” placed a young Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae amid the bloody events of the Mier expedition of 1842.
McMurtry’s claim to being the most important Texas writer in the Western tradition has received a very strong challenge from Cormac McCarthy, a Tennessee-based author who, before moving to Texas, had established himself as a writer of impeccable credentials with several novels deeply imbued with the influence of William Faulkner. In the early 1980s McCarthy moved to El Paso and since then has produced three novels of extraordinary merit. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) is an elegant and incredibly violent frontier saga of torture, murder, and redemption. All the Pretty Horses (1992) won for its author just about every prestigious literary award in the country and, on top of that, was a national best-seller. A coming-of-age story written in beautiful cadences, it was the first in a projected “Border Trilogy”; the second installment, The Crossing, appeared in 1994. McCarthy’s brooding artistic commitment sets a standard for all Texas writers to emulate.
The brand of realism inaugurated by McMurtry and others in the early 1960s led to a considerable amount of revisionist, post-Dobie-era fiction dealing with the Western side of Texas culture. Though writers in this category are too numerous to mention, some stand out. Russell G. Vliet brought a poet’s sensibility to his highly subjective, lyricist fiction in such novels as Rock Spring (1974), Solitudes (1977), and Scorpio Rising (1985). Robert Flynn has displayed a wide fictional breadth, first in his parodic cattle-drive novel, North to Yesterday (1967), which anticipated many of the themes of Lonesome Dove, and then in the witty, satirical small-town novel Wanderer Springs (1987). John Irsfeld’s gritty Little Kingdoms (1976) adapted multiple-point-of-view techniques to tell a modern outlaw story set in West Texas. Max Crawford produced a wild, exaggerated, stylistically exuberant tale of modern West Texas in Waltz Across Texas (1975), then turned to the frontier clash between cavalry and Indians in Lords of the Plain (1985), narrated in a quiet period voice of the 1870s. Andrew Jolly, in the underrated novel A Time of Soldiers (1976), told a history of a family of soldiers spanning the years from the Mexican Revolution through the Vietnam War. James Lee Burke’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971), a political novel set in the explosive 1960s, looked back to Texas history and the Korean War. C. W. Smith’s Thin Men of Haddam (1973) offered a sensitive, carefully wrought story of conflicts between Anglos and Mexicans in South Texas. Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill (1968) possessed an originality rarely seen in historically based Westerns. Clay Reynolds exhibited a great deal of versatility in three novels set in West Texas: The Vigil (1986), a town-centered allegory; Agatite (1986), released in paperback as Rage, a brooding, violent novel; and Franklin’s Crossing (1992), a big-canvas historical novel about a black frontiersman.
West Texas has also produced a number of essayists. Larry L. King’s collections such as …And Other Dirty Stories (1968) and The Old Man and Lesser Mortals (1974) represent the best of his work. A. C. Greene’s A Personal Country (1979) describes manners and mores in and around Abilene, his home region. Allan R. Bosworth’s New Country (1962) is a lively memoir of growing up in West Texas. Two works set in the brush country and south of there, in the lower Rio Grande valley, are J. Houghton Allen’s Southwest (1952) and Hart Stilwell’s Uncovered Wagon (1947). Also of note are three collections of essays. James Ward Lee’s Texas, My Texas (1993) offers a slumgullion of perceptive comments on Texas popular culture; Gary Cartwright’s Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (Including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime and Other Hobbies) (1982) is a consistently lively and entertaining account of subjects ranging from Jack Ruby to newspaper reporting in Fort Worth; Joe Bob Briggs’s A Guide to Western Civilization, or My Story (1982) is an extremely funny and clever look at Texas from a vernacular redneck perspective. Briggs is the pen name of John Bloom, who achieved national prominence in the 1980s for his comic reviews of drive-in movies.
In 1981 McMurtry, in a controversial essay, “Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Writing,” faulted Texas authors for having ignored the life of the cities. Although no Texas writer could lay claim to having produced a significant body of work about urban life, many had set novels in cities. The best urban novel is unquestionably Billy (William) Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place (1961), an elegantly written work set in Austin that depicts the life and times of a larger-than-life governor based closely upon Lyndon B. Johnson. Other notable urban novels include Philip Atlee, The Inheritors (1940), Fort Worth; George Williams, The Blind Bull (1952), Houston; Al Dewlin, The Bone-Pickers (1958), Amarillo; Edwin Shrake, But Not For Love (1964), Fort Worth, and Strange Peaches (1972), Dallas; Bryan Woolley, November 22 (1981), Dallas; Laura Furman, The Shadow Line (1982), Houston; Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty (1973), Dallas; and Peter LaSalle, Strange Sunlight (1984), Austin. Shelby Hearon deserves special mention in this context. In a series of novels set variously in Austin (Hannah’s House, 1975), New Braunfels (A Prince of a Fellow, 1978), San Antonio (Owning Jolene, 1989), Waco Hug Dancing, 1991), and rural Texas (Now and Another Time, 1976, and Life Estates, 1994), Hearon has proved herself a shrewd and prolific observer of upper-class manners and mores in modern Texas. Beverly Lowry also contributed two novels about Texas: Daddy’s Girl (1979) was set in Houston, and The Perfect Sonya (1987) caused a minor stir in Texas literary circles for its transparent portrait of an affair between the heroine and the state’s most distinguished writer of rural beatitudes. Dan Jenkins has mined his native Fort Worth for humorous Texas stereotypes in a number of popular comic novels, including Semi-Tough (1972), Baja Oklahoma (1981), and Fast Copy (1988). Sarah Bird also treats urban life in comic terms in such novels as Alamo House: Women Without Men, Men Without Brains (1986), a very funny look at Austin academic culture, and The Mommy Club (1991), set in San Antonio.
Any reckoning of urban literature in Texas should also take into account what is almost a separate type-the true-crime story. Foremost in this genre are Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money (1976), which deals with the John Hill murder case in Houston, and Gary Cartwright’s Blood Will Tell (1979), a study of the Cullen Davis murder case in Fort Worth. Both were national best-sellers. Formulaic detective and crime fiction has also produced a readership for an increasing number of crime-genre novelists, including David L. Lindsey, A. W. Gray, Jay Brandon, Bill Crider, Kinky Friedman, Doug Swanson, and Mary Willis Walker.
In addition to the Southern, Western, and Urban traditions in Texas fiction, a fourth, the Chicano tradition, has had a definite impact in the past thirty years. Americo Paredes’s folkloric study of Texas-Mexican culture, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958) reconstructed the story of Gregorio Cortez Lira, a Mexican American who killed an Anglo sheriff in a misunderstanding over the ownership of a horse. Cortez’s flight from a huge posse of Texas Rangers inspired corridos celebrating his courage and tenacity, while attacking the rangers for their chauvinistic racism. Paredes’s effort to overturn the romanticizing of the rangers by such Anglo authors as Webb and Dobie made his book a seminal text among Mexican-American intellectuals. Many years later Paredes published a novel written during the late 1930s titled George Washington Gómez (1990), which, among other things, satirized the figure of Dobie as a garrulous racist named K. Hank Harvey, the “Historical Oracle of the State.” One Anglo writer, Chester Seltzer, writing under the pen name Amado Muro, wrote so well of Mexican life on the El Paso border that for many years he was assumed to be Mexican American. His Collected Stories appeared in 1971. Tomás Rivera became the first Chicano author of fiction in Texas to win acclaim. In 1970 his “…y no se lo trago la tierra” […And the Earth Did Not Part], a series of twelve sketches developed in an experimental manner, won the Quinto Sol Award. Stories from this collection have appeared in textbook anthologies of American literature as part of the multicultural movement of the late 1980s and 1990s. The most prolific Chicano novelist is Rolando Hinojosa, who since 1973 has published a series of interrelated works under the broad title, “The Klail City Death Trip.” Set mostly in the valley, his novels employ experimental narrative techniques of multiple voices and documents, placing more emphasis on dialogue and nuance than plot and character. Estampas del valle y otras obras/Sketches of the Valley and Other Works appeared in a bilingual edition in 1973. This work was later recast by Hinojosa in English as The Valley (1983) and is probably his best-known novel. Klail City y sus alrededores [Klail City and its Surroundings], published in 1975, won the Casa de las Americas Prize. Generaciones y semblanzas appeared in 1977. Rites and Witnesses, in 1982, was Hinojosa’s first novel written only in English. His other works include Dear Rafe (1950), Partners in Crime (1985), and Becky and her Friends (1990).
The forgotten Texas Chicano novelist is John Rechy, a native of El Paso who has set parts of much of his fiction in that region. He is known nationally for his long-time association with Los Angeles and his frank advocacy of gay themes and sensational material. His Texas-related work includes City of Night (1964), This Day’s Death (1969), The Fourth Angel (1972), and Marilyn’s Daughter (1988). Other Chicano novels and short stories include Max Martinez, The Adventures of the Chicano Kid and Other Stories (1982), Joseph V. Torres-Metzgar, Below the Summit, and Estela Portillo Trambley, Rain of Scorpions (1975). Three younger Chicano writers who have received recognition are Lionel Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, and Dagoberto Gilb. Garcia’s Hardscrub (1990), a novel about a poor Mexican family growing up on a meager West Texas farm, shared the fiction award of the Texas Institute of Letters in 1990. Sandra Cisneros’s politically correct vision of Hispanic feminism found a national audience in her collection of stories, Woman Hollering Creek (1991). Dagoberto Gilb’s The Magic of Blood (1993), a strong collection of stories about working-class Hispanics set mostly in El Paso, won the Texas Institute of Letters fiction award.
Short fiction also enjoyed a burst of growth in the postwar era. Traditional stories from O. Henry to Sylvan Karchmer were brought together in 21 Texas Short Stories (1954), edited by William W. Peery. In 1974 James P. White anthologized both well-known and beginning authors in The Bicentennial Collection of Texas Short Stories. A similar mix of established and novice authors appeared in Texas Stories & Poems (1978), edited by Walter McDonald and James P. White. The decade of the 1980s, however, saw the publication of the most numerous collections of short stories, which brought before the public the work of a host of talented writers, including Tom Zigal, Par Carr, James Crumley, Jan Seale, and others. The principal collections include Her Work: Stories by Texas Women (1982), edited by Lou Rodenberger; South by Southwest: 24 Stories from Modern Texas (1986), edited by Don Graham; Prize Stories: Texas Institute of Letters (1986), edited by Marshall Terry; New Growth: Contemporary Short Stories by Texas Writers (1989), edited by Lyman Grant; Common Bonds: Stories by and about Modern Texas Women (1990), edited by Suzanne Comer; New Growth II: Contemporary Short Stories by Texas Writers (1993), edited by Mark Busby; and Texas Bound: 19 Texas Stories (1994), edited by Kay Cattarulla.
Besides anthologies, numerous individual volumes of short stories by Texas writers were published during the 1970s and 1980s. Carolyn Osborn was one of the most productive and artistic; her collections include A Horse of Another Color (1977), The Fields of Memory (1984), and Warriors and Maidens (1991). Mary Gray Hughes’s The Calling (1980) exhibited a high degree of craft, as did Dave Hickey’s resurrection of his stories from the 1960s, Prior Convictions (1989). Afoot in a Field of Men (1983) by Pat Ellis Taylor (who subsequently changed her name to Pat LittleDog) depicted the down-and-out lives of hippie families living in an unglamorous Dallas. Marshall Terry’s Dallas Stories (1987) explored the lives of the well-to-do in Dallas, while A. C. Greene’s The Highland Park Woman (1983) ranged from the rich suburbs of Dallas to West Texas ranches. Robert Flynn’s Seasonal Rain and Other Stories (1986) brought together stories about West Texas, and a second collection, Living with the Hyenas (1995), comprised stories set in West Texas and Vietnam. Annette Sanford’s Lasting Attachments (1989) exhibited a quiet sureness about the lives of Texas women; Jim Sanderson’s Bit by the Metal (1993) won the 1992 Kenneth Patchen Prize; Pat Carr’s Night of the Luminaries (1986) spoke in spare rhythms of modern themes; Janet Peery’s Alligator Dance (1993) employed an energetic vernacular style; Donley Watt’s Can You Get There From Here? (1994) used laconism to capture a Texas voice; James Hannah’s Desperate Measures (1988) offered dark glimpses into the lives of working-class East Texans; Jan Epton Seale’s Airlift and Other Stories (1992) concentrated on revealing the lives of women in Texas; and James Crumley’s Whores (1988) brought together the great title story with other quite effective work.
In addition to the proliferation of fiction since World War II, there has been increased activity in organized study and commentary on Texas writing. If the first decades of the century were spent in collecting stories of farm and range, the last decades have been spent in critical classification and commentary. Indeed the 1980s might justly be labeled the Age of Criticism. Two major academic conferences helped point the way. The first, held in 1983 at the University of Texas at Austin, resulted in the publication of The Texas Literary Tradition: Fiction Folklore History, edited by Don Graham, James W. Lee, and William T. Pilkington. This book contained essays and an extensive bibliography. A second conference was held at North Texas State University in 1986. Centers for the study of Texas and southwestern literature were established at the University of North Texas and Southwest Texas State University. Monographs and collections of essays devoted to such authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Larry McMurtry were plentiful. Throughout the period much lively debate surrounded the whole question of Texas literature. A useful collection showing all sides is Range Wars: Heated Debates, Sober Reflections, and Other Assessments of Texas Writing (1989), edited by Craig Clifford and Tom Pilkington.
There were also several volumes addressing various aspects of Texas writing. William T. Pilkington’s My Blood’s Country: Studies in Southwestern Literature (1973) was a pioneering examination of Southwestern literature from Cabeza de Vaca to Larry McMurtry. Pilkington’s Inventing Texas: The Literature of the Lone Star State (1981) offered a brief survey of developments in Texas writing. A. C. Greene’s The Fifty Best Books on Texas stirred up a lot of interest. Later, James W. Lee’s Classics of Texas Fiction (1887) contained useful commentary on additional Texas books. C. L. Sonnichsen’s From Hopalong to Hud: Thoughts on Western Fiction (1978) included several chapters highly pertinent to Texas writing. Don Graham’s Texas: A Literary Portrait (1986) divided the state into literary regions and reported on interesting work about the state by famous visitors such as Graham Greene and Gertrude Stein.
Drama remains a relatively minor genre in Texas writing, although, according to anthologist William B. Martin, “a solid body of respectable Texas plays does exist.” This is not a large assertion, however, and the evidence suggests that it is about all that can be claimed. Texas drama in the twentieth century has generally explored the same themes as fiction. Preston St. Vrain Jones’s “Texas Trilogy,” the best known plays about Texas, depicted in rather pedestrianly realistic terms the lives of small-town West Texas racists, cheerleaders-cum-waitresses, and crotchety old settlers confronting the challenges of time and modernity. Although they achieved widespread popularity in the state, they did not succeed in New York. The three plays composing the trilogy, The Knights of the White Magnolia (1973), Lu Ann Hampton Laferty Oberlander (1974), and The Oldest Living Graduate (1974), rarely rise above stereotypes, and the language mainly sticks to rural idioms heavily sprinkled with clichés. Comparisons with Eugene O’Neill proved premature. The work of Horton Foote poses a similar problem. Best known for the numerous films made from his work, Foote is a solid if unexciting dramatist of low-keyed language, quiet action, and genteel manners. The Trip to Bountiful (1954) and 1918 (1974–77) are typical. With roots in early television, Foote may also be remembered for Harrison, Texas: Eight Television Plays by Horton Foote (1956). Other notable Texas plays include a number of works of strictly regional interest. L. Ramsey Yelvington’s A Cloud of Witnesses (1955) tells, for the millionth time, the story of the Alamo, only this time, and not the first, in verse. Exploring small-town Texas life seems to be both a preoccupation and severe limitation for Texas playwrights. Oliver Hailey’s Who’s Happy Now? (1967) and Kith and Kin (1986) probe in a comic vein the lives of close-knit small-town Texas families. Jack Heifner’s short plays, such as Vanities (1977), Porch (1977), and Patio (1978), combine Texas comic idioms with less sunny appraisals of lives spent in provincial settings. Mary Rohde’s Ladybuy, Ladybug, Fly Away Home (1977) explores feminist themes in a small-town beauty-parlor setting. James McLure exploits good-ol’-boy stereotypes in Lone Star (1979), a study of the effect of the Vietnam War on a returning veteran, and in Laundry and Bourbon (1980) he examines the women in the lives of the characters of the earlier play. In plays such as The Night Hank Williams Died (1989) Larry L. King has tried to tap the same success that he enjoyed with his comic portrayal of life in a small town in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978), co-written with Peter Masterson. This musical play, based upon King’s journalistic piece about the closing of the Chicken Ranch, a famous brothel outside La Grange, Texas, had a long run on Broadway. Also worth mentioning is John Logan’s Jack Ruby, All-American Boy (1970). One black playwright who has utilized Texas materials is Ted Shine, whose Shoes (1970) examines racial themes against the background of an exclusive Dallas country club. On balance, Texas drama has a long way to go before it produces any work equal to that of such national dramatists as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, or Tennessee Williams.
Before World War II Texas poetry flourished, but without distinction. There were many local poets of modest ability, and nearly every town counted a local versifier or two among its denizens. State government selected a poet laureate, but in general the poetasters honored with the title were no more distinguished than the politicians who appointed them. Typical is John Lang Sinclair, a representative poet of the day who is remembered only for the song “The Eyes of Texas.” Poets in the early part of the century were often influenced by minor poets of the past rather than the more invigorating new poets who were producing the most significant American verse of the century, such as the modernists Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. Instead, Texas poets chose minor nineteenth-century Southern poets as their models, such men as Henry Timrod and Sidney Lanier, or, in the twentieth-century, such backward-looking poets as Rupert Brooke, a British poet killed in World War I, or rhymesters like Joyce Kilmer, author of “Trees.” A generous sampling of Texas poetry during the early part of the century appears in Hilton Ross Greer’s anthology Voices of the Southwest: A Book of Texan Verse (1923). Altogether too many of these poems are cloyed with phony archaic diction-“o’er” and “hath” and “begirt”-and altogether too many invoke Love and such personified abstractions. Few were the poems that actually drew upon the Texas landscape or culture or people in any convincing way. Two more anthologies, Texas Poets (1936) and The Greater Texas Anthology of Verse (1939), contain hundreds of poems by, as R. S. Gwynn puts it, “stereotypical trinomial poetesses with resonant names” such as Ura Link Eckhardt and Corrie Birdsong Teagarden. Gywnn concludes justly that “a mere recitation of the table of contents of Texas Poets surpasses the lyricism of the poems collected in it.” Easily the most prolific and best known Texas poet of the late Twenties onward was Grace Noll Crowell, who published twenty-two volumes between 1928 and 1959. During her stint as poet laureate she published a small book of Texas poems in honor of the Texas Centennial. Bright Destiny (1936) contains her best, most concrete work, but most of her poetry was in the inspirational vein and is collected in Poems of Inspiration and Courage (1965).
Still, from the 1930s there are a few poets who at least occasionally broke away from the pallid verse of sentimental idealism and Christian bromides and sought to wring poems out of the Texas earth. Karle Wilson Baker, for example, in Dreamers on Horseback (1929), tried to capture the differing moods of Texas in her sequence “Some Towns of Texas,” and in her poem “Song of the Forerunners” she assessed the differing contributions made to Texas history by men and women. Berta Hart Nance’s “Cattle,” from Flute in the Distance (1935), contains the often-quoted couplet: “Other states were carved or born,/ Texas grew from hide and horn.” Another poet of the 1930s, long since ignored, was Lexie Dean Robertson. Red Heels (1928) contained some interesting realistic poems about life in oilfield boomtowns, including “Aftermath,” which recounts the ravages upon land and spirit following the end of a boom. In Acorn on the Roof (1939) Robertson included twelve Texas poems, some in dialect and all in plain, straightforward diction. “Carbon Black,” for example, tells in dialect the story of a woman and a community ruined by industrial pollution, an unusual subject for Texas poetry of that era. I Keep a Rainbow (1932) also contained some poems dealing realistically with homely Texas subjects. Boyce House, a Fort Worth newspaperman known primarily for his collections of Texas jokes and stories, wrote poems of considerable vitality. Texas Rhythms (1936) contained a number of original poems, including “Texas Poets,” a prescient analysis of the poetic scene in the Centennial year. House began, “You write about bluebonnets” and urged poets instead to write about the events, past and present, that make Texas unique. He mentions such available subjects as “Clyde and Bonnie” and “Farmer Jim and Ma Ferguson,” concluding, “And yet, Texas poets, you swoon when you behold a dew-/ drop enfolded by a rose!” Interestingly, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow’s gun moll, wrote ballads that have more verve than the piles of poetry about bluebonnets, mockingbirds, and the Alamo produced by most of the poet laureates of the era.
During the 1940s and 1950s, and increasingly in the following decades, Texas poetry had its greatest period of development. More technically accomplished poets began to publish, with a keener sense of English and American poetic traditions. Several wrote in traditional meters and genres. Arthur M. Sampley, a university-trained poet, brought out This Is Our Time in 1943 and Selected Poems, 1937–1971 in 1971. In such volumes as Man Now (1954) and A Beginning (1966) William Burford exhibited a technical facility with a willingness to treat, in some poems, specifically Texas materials. Robert Lee Brothers, Jr., displayed a strong affinity with the poetry of Emily Dickinson in tightly disciplined verse in the poems collected in Democracy of Dust (1947) and The Hidden Harp (1952). William Barney, deeply influenced by Robert Frost, revealed a keen eye for Texas customs and rhythms in Kneel from the Stone (1952) and The Killdeer Crying (1977), edited by Dave Oliphant.
Martin Staples Shockley published a number of clever poems about Texas landscapes and Texas critters that have been collected in Last Roundup: Selected Published and Unpublished Works 1994). Joseph Colin Murphey’s A Return to the Landscape (1979) presented spare, unsentimental, and at times deeply moving portraits of Texas folk. Gene Shuford wrote of gunfighters and other frontier topics in taut verse; his Selected Poems appeared in 1972. Vassar Miller’s poems began appearing in book form in 1956 and were collected in 1991 in If I Had Wheels of Love. Intense, concentrated, and characterized by religious and philosophical themes, Miller’s work, which has an audience beyond the state, has little Texas resonance. Novelist R. G. Vliet also wrote poetry of note, including Events & Celebrations (1966), The Man with the Black Mouth (1970), and a long ballad, Clem Maverick: The Life and Death of a Country Music Singer (1983). One of the most prolific of the poets of the Seventies is Dave Oliphant, who has adapted the techniques and free-verse rhythms of William Carlos Williams to Texas subjects. Oliphant’s volumes include Lines & Mounds (1976), Footprints (1978), Maria’s Poems (1987), and Austin (1985), a book-length poetic history of the city that is the longest of his series of poems titled “Texas Towns and Cities.”
A number of other poets have written verse attempting to come to grips with the specific local facts of Texas culture and history. Charles Behlen’s Perdition’s Keepsake (1978) belongs in this category, as do Sandra Lynn’s I Must Hold These Strangers (1980) and Where Rainbows Wait for Rain: The Big Bend Country (1989); Betsy Colquitt’s Honor Card & Other Poems (1980); Naomi Shihab Nye’s Different Ways to Pray (1980) and Hugging the Juke Box (1982); Betty Adcock’s Beholdings (1988); Jerry Bradley’s Simple Versions of Disaster (1981); and Leon Stokesbury’s Often in Different Landscapes (1976). Among Chicano poets, Rosemary Catacalos in Again for the First Time (1984) writes of Mexican and Anglo lives intertwined in Texas culture, chiefly in and around San Antonio. Ray Gonzalez in Twilights and Chants (1987) demonstrates a feeling for landscapes and solitudes. Carmen Tafolla’s Sonnets to Human Beings (1987) probes states of feeling and culture among Mexican Americans. Tino Villanueva’s Scene from the Movie GIANT (1993) is a substantial narrative poem that relates the impact of the celebrated Hollywood film upon a young Chicano boy living in San Marcos, Texas. Black poets who have contributed their views of contemporary Texas include Lorenzo Thomas and Harryette Mullen. Susan Wood deserves mention for her precisely rendered poems in Campo Santo.
Albert Goldbarth, a nationally recognized poet who lived in Texas for a number of years, produced one of the most interesting long poems in the state’s history, in his Different Fleshes: a novel/poem (1979), a richly allusive modernist poem intermingling Paris of the 1920s with Round Rock, Texas, from the Sam Bass era forward.
Other poets who have been active in chapbook publication include Thomas Whitbread, David Yates, James Hoggard, Paul Woodruff, Rick Sale, J. M. Linebarger, Stan Rice, Paul Foreman, Terry Wiggs, and Karl Kopp.
Among the most prolific and award-winning poets of Texas in the 1970s and 1980s is Walter McDonald, whose poems have appeared in many national quarterlies and collected in such volumes as Caliban in Blue and Other Poems (1976), One Thing Leads to Another (1978), Working Against Time (1981), and Rafting the Brazos (1988). In the mid-1990s McDonald was probably the most Texas-rooted poet with the highest standing in and outside the state.
During the 1980s poetry in Texas underwent the same kind of dialectical debate that surrounded fiction. One group championed the “nativist” position that Texas poets, following in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, should develop a poetry based on local conditions that looked inward and not to Europe or the classical past for inspiration. The other view proposed that poets should draw upon modernist and postmodernist currents to produce a poetry of “otherness” resistant to long-standing traditions of frontier Protestant conservatism and chauvinism.
Surveying Texas poetry in 1987, William Lockwood observed that there is “no nationally recognized poetic voice resident in Texas.” Although his assessment is correct, there is no dearth of Texas poets trying to find their voice and a larger audience. Poetry in Texas continues to be among the liveliest genres of writing. Small presses, local quarterlies, anthologies, symposia, and local poetry readings constantly spring up to stimulate poetic activity.
Texas in Poetry: A 150-Year Anthology (1994), edited by Billy Bob Hill, offered Texans a fine opportunity to assess the poetic traditions of the state, ranging from established figures such as William Barney and Walter McDonald to promising newcomers such as Violette Newton and Betsy Berry. A succession of annuals published by the University of North Texas, New Texas ’91 through New Texas ’95, continues to bring together the most recent work in short fiction and poetry. These and other publications by regional and small presses ensure a lively, ongoing field of poetic production.