The Fifty Best Texas Books [August 1981]

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

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

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