Retro Texas, meet metro Texas. For generations the history-redolent mythology supposedly hardwired into every Texan’s brain has hallowed our rural wide-open spaces, even as the eastern third of the state has experienced an unprecedented explosion of urban culture. But retro Texas’s claim on our collective psyche is finally being challenged by its metropolitan alter ego. A sleeping demographic giant that has long considered itself an old cowhand is waking up to discover that it is really a city slicker.
This identity crisis is long overdue. After all, Texas has boasted three of the nation’s ten largest cities for nearly two decades. But it is more eye-opening to look at the real measure of metropolitan might, the Census Bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas. With the nation’s fifth- and eighth-largest MSAs (Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington and Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land, respectively), Texas is the only state with more than one of the nation’s ten most populous metropolitan areas. Add San Antonio and Austin—Round Rock, and you have 13 million Texans residing in our four largest MSAs alone, a city-centered population that would amount to the nation’s fifth-most-populous state. We’re no longer just an urban state; almost two thirds of us inhabit the culture of an ultramodern megalopolis.
Our megalopolitan culture is beginning to produce such political anomalies as Houston’s Hubert Vo, the Vietnamese-refugee developer who recently ended Republican budget-slasher Talmadge Heflin’s 22-year tenure in the Texas House of Representatives. Or consider the iconic position of Dallas County sheriff: She’s now a gay Latina Democrat (see “ The Gay Non-Issue,”). Whether this is a trend or a speed bump on the road to eternal Republican hegemony is irrelevant, however, because megalopolitan culture is reinventing Texas where it really counts: on the bottom line. Pressed to compete in a global marketplace for everything from the Olympics and major corporate relocations to everyday conventions and tourists, Texas cities that for generations have been content to metaphorically attire themselves in big hats and chaps are now desperately seeking an entirely different sales pitch. Ten years ago the Dallas Convention Center installed a vast herd of bronze steers on its Pioneer Plaza; today the city’s convention and visitors bureau has eschewed any vestige of traditional Texas imagery and is rebranding Big D as an “arts destination.” Houston, frantic to remake its oil-stained urban cowboy image, officially bills itself Space City. But the “It’s Worth It” slogan created by an innovative local marketing firm suggests that the best way to present the city in a positive light is to go negative on its inescapable urban maladies. Prospective visitors are advised that if they can just get past Houston’s hydrocarbon-fouled air and mucilaginous climate, they’ll find an edgy cultural boomtown.
The new political mavericks and no hat, no cattle big-city boosterism notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom holds that Texas will never accept its urban nature. That would require a sweeping revision of a myth often thought to be archetypal—the self-congratulatory, folkloric celebration of our wide-open spaces and their fiercely individualistic (though almost uniformly Anglo Protestant) conquerors. The myth still thrives in twenty-first-century Texas, driving metropolitan Texans to buy luxury pickups and head for the new frontiers of ever-farther-flung exurbs (the suburbs of suburbs) or the Census Bureau’s new Micropolitan Statistical Areas—small, isolated cities that are mushrooming into mini-metropolises (Granbury, seventy miles southwest of Dallas, has become a model micropolis). For many Texans, revising that myth to reflect our megalopolitan population trends would be as heretical as replacing the Ten Commandments with David Letterman’s Top Ten list.
But history tells us that our defining myth isn’t written in stone. Instead, the myth has proved surprisingly fickle, a Texas state of mind that has changed as the world around it has changed. In an insightful new book, Inventing Texas: Early Historians of the Lone Star State, historiographer Laura Lyons McLemore traces the invention of Texas back to the Spanish, who were the first to artfully weave carefully gathered facts and self-serving hyperbole into a colorful mythology. The pioneering history was written in the late eighteenth century by Fray Juan Agustín Morfi, a Franciscan missionary who insisted that Tejas was a cornucopia of pastoral riches and unredeemed souls, which his fellow Franciscan monks had heroically attempted to secure for crown and church. Mary Austin Holley, the learned cousin of Stephen F. Austin, wrote her Texas (published in 1836) in the picturesque style of the Romantic era. As self-interested as Morfi, she recycled his extravagantly fruitful setting, the New World Eden of the coastal plain. But Holley’s heroes had a different language and ethnicity: They were her cousin’s real estate customers, Texas’s ferociously independent Anglo American settlers.
The nineteenth-century historian who most successfully reinvented Texas was Henderson Yoakum, a lawyer and Indian fighter who wrote his History of Texas in the decade before the Civil War. The politically outspoken Yoakum believed that industrial-age America would succeed on the industry of small yeoman farmers—later known as rednecks—who were destined to conquer the continent in the name of civilization and democracy. On the eve of the first industrial war, which would free the third of all Texans who were slaves and reduce the state’s plantation-centric economy to rubble, Yoakum nostalgically portrayed the Texas Revolution as a victory for his values, the providentially aided triumph of freedom-loving agrarians over evil, old-world despotism. While many of Yoakum’s contemporaries found his conclusions overblown and politically biased, later generations were more forgiving. By the end of the nineteenth century, an impoverished, defeated state still eating its heart out over the South’s Lost Cause had uncritically embraced Yoakum’s romanticized, antebellum take on Texas. Yoakum had been dead for almost half a century when Spindletop blew in 1901, auguring the underground wealth that would build urban, industrial Texas on the paradisiacal turf where Morfi, Holley, and Yoakum had set their heroic sagas. But Yoakum’s pastoral vision had become the model for textbooks and successive generations of academics, and it would remain Texans’ myth of choice well into the twentieth century.
The culminating chapter in the invention of Texas takes place