The Fifty Best Texas Books [August 1981]

History, fiction, legend, drama—A. C. Greene picks 'em and tells why.

May 2002By Comments

THESE ARE MY CHOICES FOR the fifty best Texas books. I would like to emphasize that these are the best books about Texas. By that I mean Texas is their main subject or, in the case of fiction and biography, their chief setting. They are not the best books written by Texas authors (in fact, not all of the authors are Texans), and they may not be the most important Texas books—but don’t let’s get off into a thicket of objections and explanations: the quality of the books speaks for itself.

I hope I will not sound too arbitrary with bold assertions: “This is my pick . . . My choice is . . . This is the best.” But I feel there hasn’t been enough of this in Texas letters. I think Texas has needed more positive criticism, more outspokenness from within, with regard to its own culture. The bold international braggart when it comes to material trivia, Texas has an inferiority complex about its art. Behind that mask of bigness, Texas can’t believe it has the ability to bring forth, in and of itself, something worthy of mankind’s recognition. Texas has relied too long and too completely on the opinions of outsiders.

The book from which this article is excerpted (to be published by Pressworks Publishing in Dallas) includes descriptions—like the twelve used here—of each of my selections. The books are not listed in order of preference or ranked in any other way. I have not attempted to pick something from each form of literature, but I haven’t slighted any type of writing, either, unless you might say that I excluded textbooks and technical manuals. But frankly, if I had been attracted to a book of that sort, I would not have hesitated to include it as well.

So I boldly submit my choices for Texas’ fifty best books. And whether you are outraged or in agreement, I give you leave to make your own.

* Coronado’s Children, J. Frank Dobie. This book is the one that made it possible for a Texas writer to stay home and make a living. When Coronado’s Children was published in 1930 (in Texas), it was picked up by the Literary Guild—the first non-Eastern publication ever chosen by the Guild or Book-of-the-Month—and became a national success. The book created Frank Dobie’s Mr. Texas image, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. Although the Guild payment was a pitance by today’s standards (and his Texas publisher went bankrupt before he received his full royalties), the consequences were more valuable than dollars. First off, Dobie got a Guggenheim grant, which enabled him to do Tongues of the Monte, but more important, he could now sell anything about Texas he wanted to write, and this opened the field for others, too.

Coronado’s Children is folklore about lost mines and buried treasure, caves full of gold bars, and jack-loads of Spanish silver. (How many of us had heard of a jack-load before we read Dobie?) I know of no other Texas book from which so many writers have filched so much.

When I met Frank Dobie some 25 years after first reading Coronado’s Children, I told him it was still my favorite of his books. He acted hurt. I think friends had convinced him that his more serious works, like The Longhorns or The Mustangs, better fit his literary stature. Or maybe it was Mrs. Dobie. After his death, when I was living on his ranch on a Dobie-Paisano fellowship, she and I became friends, and I suspect Bertha wished he had been more of a footnote counter. Bless her gracious memory, I’m glad he wasn’t.

* Blessed McGill, Edwin Shrake. Like so many authors, Edwin “Bud” Shrake started out as a newspaper sportswriting. In fact, when I went to work for the Dallas Times Herald in 1960, he, Blackie Sherrod, and Gary “Jap” Cartwright were on the same staff and were joined, or succeeded immediately, by Dan Jenkins and Steve Perkins—you talk about a golden age of sportswriting. But all that time Bud was writing novels, a good many of which seemed to be reaching for some truth about life (Texas life) that needed to be explained. Blessed McGill (1968) combines the best of Shrake’s talents: an appreciation for the absurdities of existence, a recognition of irony’s major role in the world, highly suggestive humor, and a decent amount of historical and anthropological research so that the book never spews off into the campy pseudo-historical “nonfiction” that characterizes a whole school of American prose. Blessed McGill is hilarious. It begins with Peter Hermano McGill’s boyhood in Austin following the Civil War. He is reared by a devout (but a little cuckoo) Catholic mother, but through a series of circumstances he becomes as much a brother to the Indians as to the Anglos, enough that he is guarded by a renegade half-breed, a Karankawa throwback called Badthing. But Shrake does not sacrifice truth or wisdom for sheer entertainment, and when McGill—by a sequence of inevitabilities—moves toward sainthood in Taos, it is not merely an absurd plot twist but a subtle study of what spiritual deliverance really is.

* Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 1861, edited from the original by Ernest W. Winkler, state librarian. This is the most tragic document in Texas history—and the most dramatic. Officially and meticulously (469 pages, not one of them wasted), it details the enveloping tornado that swept even Texans with better sense into the catastrophe that history knows as “the Southern cause.” Although the events in these official minutes are, without the slightest question, pushing pell-mell to disaster, we see the galleries full (literally) of cheering supporters as folly succeeds folly: the counting of votes, the naming of delegates, the resolutions, speeches, motions, letters, reports, braggadocio, brave and foolish acts, grandiose Confederate schemes. Why couldn’t sanity have been allowed, just one day, or in one session, to rise above the malarkey, the empty rhetoric? Because at this point, in Texas, to have opposed secession would have meant total dishonor—as happened to Sam Houston—or even death. The Journal of the Secession Convention (1912) makes all this plain, without commentary. Its compressed chronology pushes it along like a brilliant historical novel. The Secession Convention (illegal in its inception) was called for January 1861, and by March 25, when it adjourned, Texas was committed to the cataclysm that destroyed, perhaps forever, the chance of these United States to be a happy nation.

* Interwoven, Sallie Reynolds Matthews. A number of charming women wrote books, or portions of books, about their experiences in Texas: Mary Austin Holley, Jane Cazneau, Amelia Barr, Libby Custer, Melinda Rankin, to name a few. But Sallie Reynolds Matthews, in Interwoven (1936), gave us a lifetime view, not that of a visiting journalist or traveler. And what she wrote tells more about daily life on the frontier than any comparable narrative. Not only was Sallie bright but she caught and understood the eternal rhythms of society. Born in West Texas in 1861, she tells of girls and boys in love, of foolish but lovable brothers and (a few times) husbands, of weddings and babies—but never in a sentimental vein. This is a delightful book, written around the Reynolds and Matthews families, who inter-married and whose affairs were (and are) so bound together as to be inseparable, justifying the title. It is also the history of a large part of the cattle frontier from the 1860s to modern times. Without setting out to do so, Matthews shows us the differences between that Texas society and ours—which lifts Interwoven out of the family memoir class and makes it a historical tool.

* Uncovered Wagon, Hart Stilwell. You think all the old-time Texans worshiped their fathers and learned lessons of manliness and integrity from them? Not necessarily. Uncovered Wagon (1947) seems to be written around a core of autobiography, and Billy, the boy in the books, grows up hating and fearing his father, who is called only “the Old Man.” Stilwell, who got pretty cranky as he aged, argued loudly and damningly with me when I suggested that the book was autobiographical, but you don’t need an Eskimo to tell you there’s ice in Alaska. (Stilwell was an unpredictable cuss, and once at a party where a friend and I were singing and playing hymns on a guitar and a harmonica, he proceeded to strip off his clothes and sit, stark naked, in the middle of the floor until we stopped. Then he talked.) Uncovered Wagon takes place in those uneasy years just before World War I, and Billy and the Old Man spend a lot of the book working in the fields and living unpleasantly along the back roads of Texas. But the circumstances of the story are secondary to the boy-man, son-father relationship. You don’t find many Texas writers who can face the bitter reality of rural poverty in a changing society as Stilwell does, and this book is one of those rare Texas works that convinces the reader that it speaks for thousands of others—call it cynicism, or whatever. Some who knew Stilwell better than I did—and I didn’t know him well at all—say his streak of frustration and cynicism kept him from being the great writer he should have been. I’m neutral, but Uncovered Wagon is evidence enough that Texas benefited when he did put his angry heart in it.

* Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter. Some people say Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) is not a Texas book, but they forget, perhaps, that the volume of that title contains two other famous short novels, Old Mortality and Noon Wine, both with Texas settings. In any case, I don’t care. I insist that Pale Horse, Pale Rider is the best Texas fiction ever written. The story takes place during World War I, but it is as contemporary as any feminist work since. Miranda, a newspaper reporter (who, as a young girl, also appears in Old Mortality), hasn’t a taint of outdatedness; she is headstrong and independent, yet gentle and, despite herself, romantic. But none of this gentleness allows Miranda to be pushed around—except by a terror bigger than she is.

Katherine Anne Porter, the one time I met her, acidly denied that she had been a newspaper reporter in Dallas—or Texas. I have always thought it strange she was so bitter in her disavowal of things Texan but did so many of her best stories with a Texas background. (I once spent half a day trying to find her birthplace in Brown County.) Katherine Anne Porter told an interviewer, shortly after Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published, that she could not really imagine “creating” a story, that everything she had written or would write must be based firmly on a foundation of actual experience. Who knows?

* I and Claudie, Dillon Anderson. Until Clint Hightower (the “I”) and his sidekick, Claudie, first appeared in Atlantic Monthly, to which I had recently been given a subscription as a graduation present, I had despaired of ever seeing Texas humor in such an august (then) journal. It was enough for me that I and Claudie (1951) was picaresque (haven’t you always wanted to have a genuine occasion to use that word, after hearing it all the way from ninth grade through graduate school?), but in addition, it was Texas that Clint and Claudie roamed, conning their way, a pair of up-to-date Gentle Grafters outsmarting bankers and oilmen but almost as often falling victim to their own softheartedness or their own cleverness. Years later I discovered that Dillon Anderson was not some ink-stained wretch but a highly succesful Houston corporate lawyer. I eventually met him at a Texas Institute of Letters dinner in Houston, but it was one of those “hello, I’ve always liked your work” kinds of meetings, and he died before I had the chance (or the nerve) to sit down with him and explain why I wished he had been a flop as a lawyer so he could have done nothing but write.

* 13 Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo, Lon Tinkle. Lon Tinkle was the most courtly man of letters Texas has ever produced, but he had strange little fears. When Walter Lord’s intensive study of the Battle of the Alamo, A Time to Stand, came out in 1961, I stated in a review that whereas Lord’s work was more inclusive and historically evaluative than Tinkle’s 13 Days to Glory (1958), I preferred Lon’s book because it was more revealing. While factually sound, it explored the mystery of what kept those men at the Alamo to die, as Lord pointed out, somewhat needlessly. I got a phone call that afternoon from Lon Tinkle expressing his gratitude, but also his wonder. Since we were, at that time, book critics on competing Dallas newspapers, he had quivered (his word) all week that I might seize the opportunity to elevate the fine Lord book and denounce that of my rival. (Those who recall his matchless diction can hear his voice on that sentence.) I was the one to quiver a few weeks later when I introduced Walter Lord at a book-and-author luncheon, but he made only an amused reference to the review as we parted: “Oh . . . that.”

Tinkle’s 13 Days to Glory gives the essence of the Alamo story without attempting to exhaust history’s explanation. He is fair to the Mexican attackers, even Santa Anna, and does not hallow the slain Texans; neither does he insist that all the legends are true. But he makes implicit the strange consensus of the defenders to stay and die—and that is what makes 13 Days to Glory such uncommonly good reading.

* Southwest, John Houghton Allen. This collection of autobiographical essays about an older lifestyle on the border of South Texas defies description. John Houghton Allen writes with great sympathy for the people and the land where he lived, but he writes more like a nobleman than a rancher. The short pieces in Southwest (1952) are subtly tinged with that air of privilege, of being birth-appointed to a role in history that may have been tragic but was necessary. That’s not the tone one expects to find in Texas ranch tales. His gentlemen ranchers and their spoiled sons are as devoted to horses as to wives—with the exception, now and then, of other men’s wives. The Mexican ranch hands and their folklore go back to Spanish times, when privilege came naturally—an inheritance passed along by the Spanish ranchers who settled the kingdom of the Rio Grande in the eighteenth century to the dynastic Anglos who superseded them (or stole their titles and their privileges). But Southwest is a fascinating, unusual book about Texas that isn’t duplicated by any other writer. Reading it is like reading about a foreign country; Randado is akin to Brigadoon, and fantasy fits snugly within Allen’s romantic style.

* Hold Autumn in Your Hand, George Sessions Perry. Perry was a good writer, and his best writings owe their power to the Texas society they describe. Walls Rise Up (1939) is an amusing novel about two down-and-out Texans trying to survive in the Brazos bottoms by doing as little work as possible. But I like Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941) because it attempts more. Walls Rise Up is a trifle on the Texas trite side. Hold Autumn in Your Hand goes deep into the character and integrity of Sam Tucker, a Texas tenant farmer in those same bottoms, who, though “too poor to flag a gutwagon,” continues to fight nature, the seasons, the river, and a good many of his fellow men for the satisfaction of bringing something (himself, if you want some philosophy) from the earth, despite never being able to pull back and watch. But it is something more than just another man’s fight against nature; Hold Autumn in Your Hand is full of country humor—pretty racy, of course—and Texas common sense, presuming it’s different from other kinds of common sense. We may have lost that old tie with the earth our immediate forefathers had, but modern readers will find that no barrier to enjoyment. Perry’s later disabilities (crippling arthritis) and his unexplained death (his body was found in a Connecticut river two months after he apparently wandered away from his home) ended what was, at the time, the most successful Texas writing career to be found. (Hold Autumn in Your Hand was made into a film titled The Southerner, with native Texan Zachary Scott playing Sam Tucker.)

* The Inheritors, Philip Atlee. In 1940 there weren’t many books being written about contemporary Texas, other than poor farmer or Depression novels, although by then Texas had turned a corner very few of its residents and almost none of its writers recognized: it had become an urban state. In 1968 I did detailed research at the University of Texas at Austin and found October 1928 to be the exact month when Texas swung to having more people living in cities and towns than on farms, ranches, or other rural locations. In The Inheritors Philip Atlee (James Phillips) wrote about the urban scene in Fort Worth. This isn’t Cowtown. This is the young social set—carousing driving big cars too fast, going from party to country club to any kind of devilment and eventual crackups—physical and mental. It’s an overindulged generation. One scathing chapter has this lost tribe out on the Fort Worth dump at night shooting rats for thrills, they’re so bored with the usual run of fornication, drunkenness, and bragging about Daddy’s money. The story is well done, and it was told thirty or forty years before its time. Few Texas books have been able to repeat the harsh dismay, the inspired brutality, of The Inheritors.

* Horse Tradin’, Ben K. Green, D.V.M. That noblest of all New york editors, Angus Cameron, called me in the summer of 1965 and asked if I were kin to a Dr. Ben Green. I said no, after briefly discounting the significance of the final e on my name when it comes to claiming kin. Angus said I was the loser, because Green had written a story (“Gray Mules”) in Southwest Review that was a classic. He suggested I call Ben, which I did. This began a literary adventure I am not likely to repeat, because there can be only one Ben Green in a lifetime. Although I was closer to him than anyone in the book world, I never uncovered the real Ben Green. I never tried. But I had a unique triumph: he never got mad at me. Ben was a spellbinder—he admitted, with charming haste, he knew more about horses than any person alive (I believed it). He became, on publication of Horse Tradin’ (1967), a major writer—yet most of his fellow writers would not admit it. Why? Because he was also hardheaded, vain, perverse, dissembling, and impossibly cantankerous at times. For example, those D.V.M. initials on Horse Tradin’ never appeared on another Green book, because they were false. He tried to hide the fact the he had served time in Huntsville, that he had been married, and that he was relatively young—at least ten years younger than he looked. He was a glorious storyteller who got furious if you implied his stories were fiction, yet his writing in things like The Shield Mares proves his humanity was greater than he could face. He loved my wife and he once sent a fellow 150 miles to plant a special peach tree he was giving her. When he died, I cried. I couldn’t help it.

My other 38 choices for Texas’ best books are:

A Ranchman’s Recollections, Frank S. Hastings

Hound-Dog Man, Fred Gipson

The Evolution of a State, or, Recollections of Old Texas Days, Noah Smithwick, compiled by Nanna Smithwick Donaldson

A Texas Ranger and Frontiersman: The Days of Buck Barry in Texas, 1845—1906, edited by James K. Greer

Sam Bass, Wayne Gard

Horseman, Pass By, Larry McMurtry

Texas History Movies, text by John Rosenfield, Jr., illustrations by Jack Patton

The Bone Pickers, Al Dewlen

The Butterfield Overland Mail, Waterman L. Ormsby

Triggernometry, Eugene Cunningham

Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, J. Evetts Haley

Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, Roy Bedichek

The Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb

The Stubborn Soil, William A. Owens

The Wonderful Country, Tom Lea

A Journey Through Texas, Frederick Law Olmsted

Six-guns and Saddle Leather: A Bibliography of Book and Pamphlets on Western Outlaws and Gunmen, Ramon Adams

The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution, Carlos E. Castañeda

Love is a Wild Assault, Elithe Hamilton Kirkland

Johnny Texas, Carol Hoff

The House of Breath, William Goyen

Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson

A Texas Trilogy, Preston Jones

Armadillo in the Grass, Shelby Hearon

The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement, Rupert Norval Richardson

. . . And Other Dirty Stories, Larry L. King

The Gay Place, William Brammer

A Time and a Place, William Humphrey

I’ll Die Before I’ll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas, C. L. Sonnichsen

Six Years With the Texas Rangers, James B. Gillet

Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Paul Horgan

Events and Celebrations, R. G. Vliet

Sironia, Texas, Madison Cooper

A Woman of the People, Benjamin Capps

The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston, Marquis James

Leaving Cheyenne, Larry McMurtry

Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John A. Lomax

Goodbye to a River, John Graves

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  • melanie

    It was very helpful