West Is West

I WAS SITTING WITH A GROUP OF TEXAS HISTORIANS who had come together to discuss some obscure issues concerning a painting of Davy Crockett when someone mentioned Walter Prescott Webb. Fifty years ago this name resounded across Texas. Webb was the one great intellectual we had. Born in Texas, nurtured here, educated here, and focused on Texas and the West in his work, Webb rose from true obscurity to international acclaim. He produced more than twenty books. In addition to his post at the University of Texas he was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. His work was the subject of an international symposium in 1958 and again in 1972. He was the director of the Texas State Historical Association and the president of the American Historical Association. In 1950 a poll of professional historians chose Webb’s The Great Plains as the most significant book by a living historian. Webb was even nominated for a Nobel prize. Great historians are as rare as great novelists, and the world seemed to agree that Walter Prescott Webb was a great historian.

But that was then. The historians who had invited me along to the meeting about the Crockett painting, all published and active and aware of themselves as the contemporary guardians of Texas’ historical flame, spoke of Webb with an uneasy air that was not exactly dismissive, but almost. Each one’s comments made it clear that Webb was not a model for his career. One, in a reluctant and backhanded defense, even suggested that in the months before Webb was killed in an automobile accident in 1963 he had come close to repudiating his own work, or at least his most popular book, The Texas Rangers.

Myself, I had not read a single word by Webb, except for a few pages of The Texas Rangers, the

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