Writers Bloc

Texas has produced reams of folks with the write stuff, from Katherine Anne Porter to Mary Karr, J. Frank Dobie to John Phillip Santos. In fact, they're all over the map.
Illustration by A.J. Garces

People who make up lists are asking for trouble, but here goes. May being Texas Writers Month, it seemed a good time to put together a literary map celebrating the state’s leading scribblers. With that in mind, I decided that a writer had to meet two criteria to be included: He or she had to have produced either imaginative works about Texas, chiefly fiction (although some poetry, drama, and nonfiction also make the cut), or—when none of the above applied—significant works that somehow defined the state to itself, the nation, and the world. Writers of pure genre fiction—romances, sci-fi, shoot-’em-ups—or children’s books are in the main left out. In other words, Texas literature, capital L, is the guiding principle. (If the list included all the writers who live in the state, regardless of whether they write about Texas, it would fill a phone book.) ¶ The bulk of the list consists of twentieth-century authors who were born here, but the rather surprising number of “Texas writers” who weren’t are given their due as well. The map illustrates a few anecdotes about great—or at least amusing—literary moments that have transpired in these parts and that, I hope, capture the global impact of Texas on writers from both here and far away. ¶ I am fairly certain that I will wake up in a cold sweat over names inadvertently omitted. It’s like Clinton and the eleventh-hour pardons: He had to know there’d be hell to pay.

50 Great Literary Moments in Texas

1. 1528 Cabeza de Vaca makes landfall near what is now Galveston Island, wanders around damn near naked, heals Indians of their headaches, and generally just hangs out in the as-yet-unnamed Texas outback. When he figures out where Mexico is, he heads there straightaway and writes the first Texas classic, La Relación.

2. 1836 William Barret Travis pens the most famous letter in Texas history and “mails” it to the world; since then, Texas politicians have often relied on its stirring rhetoric to further their own purposes.

3. 1854 Frederick Law Olmsted, the future designer of New York City’s Central Park, travels through Texas and is appalled at the lack of interest in anything approaching learning. “In the whole journey through Eastern Texas, we did not see one of the inhabitants look into a newspaper or book,” he will write in A Journey Through Texas; or, A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier.

4. 1857 Mirabeau B. Lamar, a hero of San Jacinto, former president of the Republic of Texas, and lifelong foe of Sam Houston, publishes a volume of forgettable poems, Verse Memorials.

5. 1889 Stephen Crane visits San Antonio and observes of its most famous shrine, “Statistics show that 69,710 writers of the state of Texas have begun at the Alamo.”

6. 1898 O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) is sentenced to five years in federal prison for embezzling funds from the First National Bank of Austin. After spending two months in the Travis County jail, he is transferred to the federal prison in Columbus, Ohio, where, as inmate number 30664, he writes twelve stories. Upon his release he moves to New York to become one of the nation’s favorite storytellers. Many of his best stories draw upon his experiences in Texas.

7. 1898 William C. Brann, a firebrand author and editor of Waco’s Iconoclast, “a journal of personal protest” that is famous for its vitriol, is shot to death on a street for having denounced Baylor University as a “great storm-center of misinformation.”

8. 1902 On a hardscrabble farm in west Central Texas’ Stephens County, sixteen-year-old Walter Prescott Webb sends a letter to Sunny South, a weekly Atlanta newspaper with literary pretensions, stating that he wants to be a writer but possesses little education and no money. To his eternal amazement and gratitude, Webb begins to receive money from a Brooklyn benefactor named William E. Hinds, whose support enables him to go to college.

9. 1903 Young Callie (Katherine Anne) Porter goes hunting with her older brother, Paul, in the countryside near Kyle. After Paul kills a pregnant rabbit, he asks his sister not to tell their father but she does, and Paul receives a severe beating. Thirty-three years later the memory will resurface in her classic short story “The Grave.”

10. 1920 J. Frank Dobie leaves his job at the University of Texas to work on his uncle Jim Dobie’s Los Olmos ranch near Cotulla. Around the campfire, he listens to stories told by old vaqueros and vows to “collect and tell the legendary tales of Texas.”

11. 1926 J. Mason Brewer, a professor at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson) in Austin, meets J. Frank Dobie, who urges him to collect and publish black folklore. Brewer will eventually produce important books of African American tales and, in 1954, become the first black writer elected to the Texas Institute of Letters.

12. 1926 In gym class in Trinity, eleven-year-old William Goyen experiences his first orgasm when, forced to jump into a swimming pool, it happens. Many years later he will recall this intimate moment in an interview with a French academic who is fascinated by all the water imagery in Goyen’s novel The House of Breath, which is acclaimed in France.

13. 1928 Dorothy Scarborough, the author of The Wind, a novel highly critical of West Texas weather, visits Sweetwater at the behest of the chamber of commerce, which plans to show her the area’s temperate climes. While she’s there, a violent norther blows in, as if to vindicate her harsh portrait of the plains.

14. 1932 The Texas Legislature names Judd Mortimer Lewis, a Houston Post columnist known as Uncle Judd, the first poet laureate of Texas, an honorary position that carries with it no obligations or requirements.

15. 1934 At the age of nineteen, pianist and guitar player Américo Paredes publishes a comic poem, “The Mexico Texan,” in the Spanish-language edition of his hometown newspaper, El Heraldo de Brownsville, inaugurating a writing career that will yield distinguished fiction and nonfiction for the next six decades.

16. 1934 On a lecture tour of America, Gertrude


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