ENTERING MARSHALL by just about any route except Interstate 20 or U.S. 59, you drive through long stretches of residential territory with deep, shady front lawns and solid houses. The lush East Texas landscape suggests prosperity, stability, and age; trees shelter the streets, and azaleas and shrubs bank the carefully planted flower beds. Few neighborhoods could appear more seductive. A sense of both time and timelessness permeates the place. Here children have grown up forever in an unending chain of serenity. People have tended their dogwoods and daylilies with the same loving conscientiousness for ten, twelve, fifteen decades. Drive a little farther toward the heart of town and you’ll start to see smaller yards and shabbier houses, but all are still pervaded by the same atmosphere of continuity.
I recently went back to Marshall because I wanted to see how it had changed in the fifteen years since Bill Moyers made a documentary film about it. The film was the initial installment of a PBS series Moyers created called A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. By looking at his own hometown’s past and present—by interviewing its old-timers, remembering his childhood there, and evoking the natural surroundings of East Texas and the historical facts of Marshall’s demography—he let the town reveal itself to itself.
Moyers’ original intent was to scrutinize a specimen of small-town America. During the first half of this century, we were a nation of small towns, he said, and growing up in one provided strong roots and a sense of personal and civic identity. Usually, everyone knew everyone else, a condition that could prove both a comfort and a nuisance. Such places offered a good microcosmic view of what was going on in the nation.
I also had a personal reason for returning to Marshall. In 1985 I had spent a sizable chunk of time there researching a book. I’d been directed to the door of a second cousin, Inez Hatley Hughes,