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.

May 2001By Comments

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 Stein visits Texas and, during a drive from Dallas to Houston, notes in her famously minimalist manner the pleasure of seeing cattle on the “level surface” of Texas and how “some cowboys and one cowgirl go toward them.”

17. 1934 Back in his hometown of Wharton after studying acting in Pasadena, California, eighteen-year-old Horton Foote leaves home again to take a job in summer theater in Martha’s Vineyard. His daddy gives him $50 and says, “This is all I’m ever going to give you. When this is spent, don’t ever come back to me for another dime, because I won’t give it to you.”

18. 1934 Nelson Algren, who will go on to write A Walk on the Wild Side, steals a typewriter from Sul Ross College in Alpine. On a train out of town, he is apprehended in Sanderson and taken back to serve three weeks’ time in the Brewster County hoosegow. In his statement to the court, he declares, “A typewriter is the only means I had to complete a book which means either a few dollars or utter destitution.”

19. 1936 Sixteen people meet in the Hall of State on the Texas Centennial Exposition fairgrounds in Dallas (now Fair Park) to organize the Texas Institute of Letters. Three years later the TIL will award its first prize for best Texas book to J. Frank Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver instead of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a far superior choice.

20. 1938 Graham Greene passes through Texas on his way to Mexico, pausing long enough to decry the exploitation of pecan shellers in San Antonio and to wax poetic, in that patented Greene way, on the near-mystical excitement of crossing the border into another country: “. . . there is something about it like a good confession.”

21. 1938 At Sunset High in Dallas, Terry Southern, already a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and “hooked on weirdo lit,” grooves on Tijuana Bibles, those dirty underground comics featuring Blondie and Flash Gordon that clean-living Texas children are passing around in school yards.

22. 1939 On her first swing through Texas, from Dallas to Brownsville, Edna Ferber is shocked by the food, the heat, and the swaggering arrogance of men in ten-gallon hats; at the same time, she finds the state “as virile and fascinating as it was vast.” When her novel Giant appears in 1952, it ticks off just about everybody in Texas.

23. 1941 William A. Owens, a future folklorist and novelist, takes a job at the University of Texas and, under the kindly mentorship of Roy Bedichek, sets out to record the folk songs and tunes of all the ethnic groups in the state.

24. 1942 Nearing graduation from high school in Crane, Elmer Kelton tells his father he doesn’t want to be a cowboy but a writer. Replies his cowboy father sagely, “That’s the way with you kids nowadays; you all want to make a living without having to work for it.”

25. 1945 Rolando Hinojosa-Smith wins an honorable mention for one of the five pieces he submits to “Creative Bits,” an anthology of high school fiction in his hometown of Mercedes, and spurred by this recognition, goes on to become a leading novelist of the Valley.

26. 1946 Roy Bedichek, age 67, takes a sabbatical from his post at the University Interscholastic League in Austin, holes up at friend Walter Prescott Webb’s Friday Mountain Ranch outside of town, and writes his first book, Adventures With a Texas Naturalist.

27. c. 1948 George Sessions Perry purchases the farm on the San Gabriel River, northwest of Rockdale, that was the setting for his prize-winning novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand. His subsequent book about actual farm ownership, compared to imaginative possession, bears the less poetic title Tale of a Foolish Farmer.

28. 1949 On the road in West Texas, Jack Kerouac watches his beatnik buddy Neal Cassady strip to the buff near Ozona and run “yipping and leaping naked in the sage.” Later, in the Pecos Canyon country, Kerouac notices how “certain tourists caught sight of [Neal] naked in the plain but they could not believe their eyes and wobbled on.”

29. 1951 Tom Lea wins the coveted assignment to write an official history of the King Ranch, partly because the Kleberg family admires the way he paints animals and partly because former congressman Dick Kleberg disapproves of Lea’s friend and rival, J. Frank Dobie, whom he calls an “academic clown acting like a cowboy.”

30. 1955 On their farm near Mason, Fred Gipson and his wife, Tommie, develop an outline for a children’s book titled “Big Yeller Dog” and sell it to Harper and Row. Fred writes it in ninety days and Tommie types the manuscript, tears in her eyes; then the two of them cry all the way to the bank when Old Yeller becomes a hit.

31. 1955 Billy Lee Brammer and his wife, Nadine, visit the set of Giant, being filmed in Marfa, and the powerful brew of place and people—actors Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean—stimulates the author to write “Country Pleasures,” which will become part three of his celebrated novel, The Gay Place.

32. 1955 Stephen Harrigan, age seven, visits the Alamo in San Antonio and becomes a lifelong fan. Forty-plus years later he will write The Gates of the Alamo, the all-time best novel about the battle.

33. 1956 Donald Barthelme, the embodiment of fifties cool, founds the literary quarterly Forum at the University of Houston as a way to put himself in touch with the intellectual elite. In no time he’s communicating with the likes of Walker Percy, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

34. 1957 John Graves puts his canoe into the pellucid waters of the Brazos River near Possum Kingdom Dam and floats a 150-mile stretch of this “purely Texas country.” The trip will be the subject of the elegiac Goodbye to a River, a book beloved by everybody from J. Frank Dobie to Laura Bush.

35. 1958 Larry McMurtry, a precocious senior at North Texas State College in Denton, destroys 52 short stories written during the previous two years and writes two new ones about the death of an old rancher and the destruction of his herd. After graduating, McMurtry stitches the stories together into a short novel, Horseman, Pass By, which launches the career of Texas’ foremost writer of fiction at the tender age of 25.

36. 1959 John Howard Griffin darkens his skin color, shaves his head, and travels through the Deep South posing as a Negro. The resulting book, Black Like Me, will be translated into thirteen languages.

37. 1963 Edwin “Bud” Shrake has a fling with Jada, a stripper at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club in Dallas, and becomes a fringe player in the events of that November. In 1972 he will set it all down in his underbelly-of-Dallas opus, Strange Peaches.

38. 1967 The first recipient of a Dobie Paisano Fellowship takes up residence at J. Frank Dobie’s former ranch, located a few miles southwest of Austin. The program, sponsored by the Texas Institute of Letters and the University of Texas, will continue to support two writers every year.

39. 1972 Scrappy Mary Karr, age seventeen, reads Shakespeare and hangs with Doonie and the surfers at Meekham’s Pier, near Port Arthur. Later she will immortalize them in her memoirs about everything that has ever happened to her in her life.

40. 1974 Larry L. King writes an article for Playboy about crusading Houston TV journalist Marvin Zindler’s successful effort to close Texas’ best-known brothel, the Chicken Ranch, outside LaGrange. The resulting Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, makes King semi-rich.

41. 1978 On assignment from Esquire, Aaron Latham goes to Gilley’s in Houston, rides the mechanical bull, and feels like “Margaret Mead stepping ashore in Samoa.” The title of his article and the film based on it—Urban Cowboy—becomes part of the popular lexicon of Texas.

42. 1981 A. C. Greene stirs up a controversy when, rather innocently, he writes an article for Texas Monthly that lists “The Fifty Best Texas Books.” Almost nobody agrees with his choices.

43. 1982 James Michener, invited by Governor William Clements to write a novel celebrating the Texas sesquicentennial, moves to Austin. He travels the state and produces, in due course, a weighty tome that is overshadowed by native son Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize–winning Lonesome Dove.

44. 1983 The University of Texas at Austin holds a big, star-studded conference on the Texas Literary Tradition, and though panelist Beverly Lowry announces that she expects Larry McMurtry and A. C. Greene to “duke it out,” both are as mild as milk, and the event turns into a love fest.

45. 1985 Cormac McCarthy, who had moved to El Paso from Tennessee nine years earlier, publishes his first western novel, Blood Meridian, an ultraviolent, visionary, and absolutely stunning meditation on American destiny set in 1849, in the aftermath of the Mexican War.

46. 1985 Elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters, its future president Don Graham sends in his $25 check for the annual dues, which promptly bounces.

47. 1986 Lured back to Texas from New York for a $3,000 fee, William Humphrey, expatriate from Clarksville, takes part reluctantly in a literary conference held at North Texas State University in Denton. Later he rails in his journal about the “illiterates,” “cretins,” and “Chamber of Commerce ranters” who spoke at this “literary barbecue” and writes, “How tired I am of hearing about ‘Texas literature.’” But he takes the $3,000.

48. 1994 Spearheaded by Lawrence Wright, a handful of authors, bookstore owners, and publicists create the first Texas Writers Month, an annual event aimed at celebrating literary productivity in the state. The poster image is a pickup (later no one will remember why). After that, the organizers will favor faces; this year’s is Elmer Kelton’s.

49. 1994 Philosopher’s Rock, a bronze statue of J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb engaged in voluble discourse, is installed at Austin’s Barton Springs to commemorate their friendship and their role in the invention of Texas literature.

50. 1998 Journalist and novelist Jan Reid recovers in Austin from a gunshot wound suffered during a robbery in Mexico City, where he had attended a Jesus Chavez boxing match. He is not paralyzed, as doctors had feared after the bullet lodged near his spine, and will later write about his brush with death.

 

Native Texans

Michael Adams, Killeen, 1946

John Houghton Allen, Austin, 1909

Dillon Anderson, McKinney, 1906

Edward Anderson, Weatherford, 1905

Philip Atlee (James Atlee Phillips), Fort Worth, 1923

Neal Barrett, Jr., San Antonio, 1929

Rick Bass, Fort Worth, 1958

Gertrude Beasley, near Cross Plains, 1892

Mike Blakely, Huntsville, 1958

Elroy Bode, Kerrville, 1931

Cindy Bonner, Corpus Christi, 1953

Billy Lee Brammer, Dallas, 1929

Jay Brandon, Dallas, 1953

Bill Brett, Daisetta, 1922

J. Mason Brewer, Goliad, 1896

Joe Bob Briggs (John Bloom), Dallas, 1953

William Broyles, Jr., Baytown, 1944

James Lee Burke, Houston, 1936

Sig Byrd, Brownwood, 1908

Ewing Campbell, Alice, 1940

Benjamin Capps, Dundee, 1922

Gary Cartwright, Dallas, 1934

Joe Coomer, Fort Worth, 1958

Madison Cooper, Waco, 1894

Jim Corder, Jayton, 1929

Max Crawford, Lubbock, 1938

Bill Crider, Mexia, 1941

Elizabeth Crook, Houston, 1959

Ruth Cross, Sylvan, 1887

James Crumley, Three Rivers, 1939

Tracy Daugherty, Midland, 1955

Carol Dawson, Corsicana, 1951

Al Dewlen, Memphis, 1921

J. Frank Dobie, Live Oak County, 1888

Robert Draper, Houston, 1957

John Erickson, Midland, 1943

Winston M. Estes, Quanah, 1917

T. R. Fehrenbach, San Benito, 1925

Robert Flynn, Chillicothe, 1932

Horton Foote, Wharton, 1916

Kinky Friedman, near Kerrville, 1944

Lionel Garcia, San Diego, 1935

Reginald Gibbons, Houston, 1947

Jewel Gibson, Bald Prairie, 1904

Fred Gipson, near Mason, 1908

Jovita González, Roma, 1899

Frank Goodwyn, Kingsville, 1911

William Goyen, Trinity, 1915

John Graves, Fort Worth, 1920

Ben K. Green, Cumby, 1912

A. C. Greene, Abilene, 1923

John Howard Griffin, Dallas, 1920

Patricia Browning Griffith, Fort Worth, 1935

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, Dallas, 1938

Leon Hale, Stephenville, 1921

J. Evetts Haley, Belton, 1901

Elithe Kirkland Hamilton, White Chapel, 1907

James Hannah, Lufkin, 1951

William Hauptman, Wichita Falls, 1942

Dave Hickey, Fort Worth, 1939

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Mercedes, 1929

James Hoggard, Wichita Falls, 1941

Robert E. Howard, Peaster, 1906

Mary Gray Hughes, Brownsville, 1930

William Humphrey, Clarksville, 1924

Dan Jenkins, Fort Worth, 1929

Andrew Jolly, El Paso, 1933

Mary Karr, Port Arthur area, c. 1955

Elmer Kelton, near Andrews, 1926

Larry L. King, Putnam, 1929

Laura Krey, Galveston, 1890

Edwin Lanham, Weatherford, 1904

Joe Lansdale, Gladewater, 1951

Mary Lasswell, Brownsville, 1905

Aaron Latham, Spur, 1943

Tom Lea, El Paso, 1907

Michael Lind, Austin, 1962

David Lindsey, Kingsville, 1944

Pat LittleDog, College Station, 1941

Paul Scott Malone, Houston, 1952

Max Martínez, Gonzales, 1943

Walt McDonald, Lubbock, 1934

Bruce McGinnis, Gorman, 1941

Georgia McKinley, Dallas, c. 1920

Larry McMurtry, Wichita Falls, 1936

Vassar Miller, Houston, 1924

Pat Mora, El Paso, 1942

Berta Hart Nance, near Albany, 1883

Hermes Nye, Dallas, 1908

Mary King O’Donnell, “a small Texas city,” 1909

Dave Oliphant, Fort Worth, 1939

William A. Owens, Pin Hook, 1905

Américo Paredes, Brownsville, 1915

Tom Pendleton (Edmund Van Zandt),

Fort Worth, 1916

George Sessions Perry, Rockdale, 1910

Katherine Anne Porter, Indian Creek, 1890

John Rechy, El Paso, 1934

Jan Reid, Abilene, 1945

Clay Reynolds, Quanah, 1949

Rick Riordan, San Antonio, 1964

Tomás Rivera, Crystal City, 1935

Jane Gilmore Rushing, Pyron, 1925

Jim Sanderson, San Antonio, 1953

Lisa Sandlin, Beaumont, 1951

Annette Sanford, Cuero, 1929

John Phillip Santos, San Antonio, 1956

Dorothy Scarborough, Mt. Carmel, 1878

Sandra Scofield, Wichita Falls, 1943

Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Fort Worth, 1931

C. W. Smith, Corpus Christi, 1940

Terry Southern, Alvarado, 1924

Bruce Sterling, Brownsville, 1954

Hart Stilwell, Yoakum, 1902

Janis Stout, Fort Worth, 1939

Jesse Sublett, Johnson City, 1954

Edward Swift, Woodville, 1943

Douglas Terry, Houston, 1950

John W. Thomason, Huntsville, 1893

Thomas Thompson, Fort Worth, 1933

Frank X. Tolbert, Amarillo, 1912

Tino Villanueva, San Marcos, 1941

Stanley Walker, Lampasas, 1898

Don Webb, Amarillo, 1960

Walter Prescott Webb, Panola County, 1888

David Westheimer, Houston, 1917

Elizabeth Lee Wheaton, Sherman, c. 1910

Charley C. White, near Shelbyville, c. 1880’s

Allen Wier, San Antonio, 1946

George Williams, Rogers, 1902

Janice Woods Windle, San Antonio, 1938

William Wittliff, Taft, 1940

Jane Roberts Wood, Memphis, 1929

Bryan Woolley, Gorman, 1937

Thomas Zigal, Galveston, 1948

Got here as soon as they could.

Andy Adams, Indiana

Donald Barthelme, Pennsylvania

Roy Bedichek, Illinois

Sarah Bird, Michigan

James Carlos Blake, Tampico, Mexico

Pat Carr, Wyoming

Sandra Cisneros, Illinois

Laura Furman, New York

Peter Gent, Michigan

Dagoberto Gilb, California

William H. Goetzmann, Washington, D.C.

Stephen Harrigan, Oklahoma

Shelby Hearon, Kentucky

John Irsfeld, Minnesota

Molly Ivins, California

Preston Jones, New Mexico

Peter La Salle, Rhode Island

Jim Lehrer, Kansas

Beverly Lowry, Tennessee

James Magnuson, Wisconsin

Cormac McCarthy, Rhode Island

Naomi Shihab Nye, Missouri

Carolyn Osborn, Tennessee

Benjamin Alíre Sáenz, New Mexico

Doug Swanson, New Mexico

Marshall Terry, Ohio

Jim Thompson, Oklahoma

R. G. Vliet, Illinois

Mary Willis Walker, Wisconsin

Donley Watt, Oklahoma

David Marion Wilkinson, Arkansas

Lawrence Wright, Oklahoma

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