Forget the Alamo

A new breed of scholars is rewriting Texas history to debunk the myths, explore the overlooked, and find heroism in the everyday lives of women and minorities—all while fending off charges of “flabby multiculturalism.”

With everything that T. R. Fehrenbach and David Montejano have in common, you might think they would be drinking buddies, or at least meet sometime for coffee. Both are Texas historians from San Antonio. Both have written highly praised books about the state’s past. The Texas Historical Commission’s annual prize for the best work of Texas history is named for Fehrenbach and has been won by Montejano. Yet the two authors have never even had a conversation. Mention to one of them the kind of history that the other likes to write and you will likely elicit nothing more than sardonic laughter.

Once the exclusive province of a few well-known academics (most of them at the University of Texas, such as Eugene Barker and Walter Prescott Webb) and amateur historians (ranging from Fehrenbach to folklorist J. Frank Dobie), Texas history today is flourishing—and factionalizing—as never before. History, it has been said, is what one age finds of interest in another, and the historians of our age are finding much to be interested in that their predecessors overlooked. The traditional historians tended to write sweeping, mythic sagas—none more sweeping or mythic than Fehren bach’s best-selling Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, first published in 1968.

The new Texas historians can be found in universities throughout Texas and beyond, writing academic treatises that are changing the way contemporary Texans look at their state. The mythic historians wrote in generalities, preferred anecdote to factual detail, and focused on heroes, heroic events, and the uniqueness of Texas. The new social historians, or revisionists, as they call themselves, pore over census data and courthouse records and recreate the realities of everyday life. They concentrate on issues of race, class, and gender that are often glossed over by the big-picture historians. They share an antipathy for the mythic idea that history has a plot line, such as Manifest Destiny or Progress; instead, they see history as directionless, a continuing story of conflict and contact between groups. 

Remember the Alamo? Today’s historians would just as soon forget it—or redefine it. Fehrenbach, an honorary member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, has participated in the group’s rituals at the Alamo, but David Montejano (he pronounces his first name Mexican-style, with the stress on the second syllable), despite his San Antonio upbringing, never set foot in the Alamo as a tourist (although he has as a scholar). The new historians don’t romanticize the frontier, they don’t pay homage to cattle drives and frontier violence, they don’t condemn Yankee carpetbaggers, and they don’t care how Davy Crockett died. Influenced by the cultural turmoil of the sixties, they study not just heroes but common people, and not just white men but women, blacks, Mexican Americans, and nonconformists—from abolitionists to labor organizers. As far as they’re concerned, the fascination with the Alamo symbolizes all that is wrong with Texas history.

Lone Star is in no danger of being consigned to the historical scrap heap. The new historians’ books are published by university presses and purchased from catalogs; most would be deemed wildly successful if they sold three thousand copies. Lone Star, meanwhile, has done about a hundred times as well and continues to be sold by major bookstores. A new edition is due out this year, the book’s thirtieth anniversary. But the cutting edge of Texas history clearly belongs to the new historians, partly because much has indeed been left out

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