T.R. Fehrenbach Is History

His classic book Lone Star has reigned supreme for nearly forty years, but two new challengers are hoping to ascend the throne.

“THE GREAT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TEXAS and every other American state in the twentieth century was that Texas had a history.” So wrote T. R. Fehrenbach in Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, first published in 1968 and now widely regarded as the canonical version of our state’s singular history. At more than seven hundred pages, Fehrenbach’s classic tome has nearly the heft of the Old Testament, along with the equal certainty that it describes the travails and triumphs of a chosen people.

For decades, academic historians have blasted away at the scriptural authority of Lone Star . But these “revisionists” (read “heretics” if you’re a Texas history traditionalist) have scarcely dented Fehrenbach’s appeal to readers outside the ivory tower, and for more than a generation, no writer even attempted a similarly panoramic, popular treatment. Only in the new century have challengers arisen, first with Randolph B. Campbell’s Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, written in 2003 by an esteemed scholar but with sufficient narrative drive to engage casual readers. Aimed even more directly at a general audience is Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas, which was published in April by novelist and award-winning biographer James L. Haley. Now looking like a trend after years of unopposed Fehrenbachian orthodoxy, these two books suggest how we’re thinking about Texas—and how we’re going to have to rethink Texas—in the twenty-first century.

The way we were, or think we were, has a formidable champion in Fehrenbach, who has also produced authoritative histories of the Korean War (in which he fought) and Mexico; at age 81, he still writes a feisty, erudite political column for the San Antonio Express-News . Fehrenbach fashioned Lone Star in the tradition of a long lineage of historians who saw Texas first, last, and always as a frontier culture, from George Pierce Garrison in the early 1900’s to Walter Prescott Webb, whose theories held sway long after his death, in 1963. These historians constructed a secular theology—the national faith of Texas—in which the promised land was the forbidding landscape west of the Balcones Escarpment (now defined by Interstate 35), and the tribe providentially selected to conquer it was the pluckiest, manliest, most devilishly clever bunch of European white males God ever placed on this earth.

As a literary achievement, Fehrenbach’s celebration of the chosen people, whom he dubbed the Anglo-Celts, may never be challenged. In paragraphs as architecturally elegant and idea ornamented as Edward Gibbon’s in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire —along with passages almost Homerically poetic—Fehrenbach’s Anglo-Celts stream out of their homeland in Scotland and Ireland, hopscotch across the American South, and bring to a bloody but merciful end three centuries of desultory Hispanic suzerainty over the promised land. The Anglo-Celts don’t stop at the lush coastal plain—any wimp could make it there—but push on inexorably, summoning a courage and ingenuity unprecedented in Western civilization to vanquish the most savage foe of all, the Comanche, on their own arid West Texas turf, which then becomes the quasi-mythical Cattle Kingdom. Reconstruction does throw the Anglo-Celts for a lengthy racist loop, but that’s mostly the fault of Yankee carpetbaggers. By the end of Lone Star, the twentieth-century Texan “had little difficulty in remaining a nineteenth-century man,” and our state was evidently none the worse for it.

Nobody has ever had more insight into the Texas psyche than Fehrenbach; he tosses out lines like “The Texas system threw up men who instinctively could make the correct political decision, but only rarely a great moral decision.” But Fehrenbach’s ambitious tale of Anglo-Celtic racial destiny eventually can’t keep up with the advance of civilization; once the frontier peters out, so does the story. Even in his updated 2000 edition, Fehrenbach devotes less than a hundred of his pages to the transforming twentieth century, and for the most part he mails it in, noting in the foreword that “Texas, through the last half of the twentieth century, has suffered little ‘history.’ There has been enormous growth and . . . economic development, which are not the same thing.” Instead we are stuck with the “Texan mystique . . . created by the chemistry of the frontier in the crucible of history and forged into an enduring state of heart and mind. This may not be an entirely rational state . . .”

Word for word, paragraph for paragraph, or even idea for idea, Fehrenbach’s stirring, old-school (in his case, Princeton) eloquence isn’t eclipsed in Passionate Nation . But Haley’s new book did pick up a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the frequently irreverent contemporary narrative makes up in snappy storytelling what it lacks in showy self-importance. The title is the giveaway; derived from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, it’s a wry reminder that today’s Texas historians must often dig for inconvenient truths beneath a heavy sediment of cherished myths. “Like most passionate nations,” Steinbeck wrote, “Texas has its own private history based on, but not limited by, facts.”

The thumbnail biographical portraits at which Haley excels are hardly mini-hagiographies—Stephen F. Austin’s letters “revealed relentless self-pity”—and he isn’t afraid to characterize some leaders of the Texas Revolution as “self-interested military amateurs with delusions of grandeur” and their followers as “frontier yahoos.” Haley also immortalizes unlikely players such as Wright Mooar, a nineteen-year-old woodcutter from Vermont, who discovered the market for buffalo hides in 1870. By exterminating their food supply, Mooar probably did more to sweep the Comanche from the Texas plains than all those valiant Anglo-Celt Indian fighters combined.

Haley doesn’t devote significantly more words to the twentieth century than does the updated Lone Star, but the march to modernity represents a considerably greater fraction of his trimmed-down 560 pages—and his heart is clearly in it. Almost without precedent in a Texas history, Haley evocatively weaves culture into the tales of political shenanigans and oil booms, sketching out figures as disparate as expatriate author Katherine Anne Porter, actor “Fatty” Arbuckle,

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