Reign of Thought
Contrary to our self-mythology, ideas—and the people who wrote them down—have always been central to Texas history.
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This column is a response to “Drain of Thought,” by T.R. Fehrenbach.
If you have read T.R. Fehrenbach’s recent Texas Monthly column “Drain of Thought,” you are a witness to a signal moment in Texas’s cultural history, perhaps the last in a particular sequence of landmark literary events that have defined our state as we know it. To understand why every Texan should read Fehrenbach’s column, you have to go back to 1931, when University of Texas history professor Walter Prescott Webb published The Great Plains, a wonky work of scholarship that took the well-established “frontier theory” of American history—the notion that the perils and promise of the frontier established our optimistic, ruggedly individualistic national character—and beefed it up like an Angus bull on steroids, proclaiming the six-shooter armed, horse-mounted southwestern plainsman a sort of Super-American with a unique genius for pragmatic, no-nonsense invention and life-and-death improvisation. Thus was born the cult of Texas exceptionalism, a creed fashioned by men full of ideas to glorify laconic men of action.
Webb and his folklorist colleague, J. Frank Dobie, dominated Texas literature for decades, but Webb’s brand of Texas exceptionalism didn’t receive a full-throated popular rendition until San Benito native Fehrenbach, a Korean war veteran with a Princeton degree, published Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, in 1968. In Fehrenbach, Texas history found its Homer, not only in the lyrical beauty and ambitious, idea-laden sweep of his prose, but also in his frank mythologizing of his dominant theme, the conquest of the frontier and its precursor populations—Indians and Mexicans—by humble yet irrepressibly resourceful Anglo-Celtic immigrants.
Yet at the same time that Lone Star was elevating Texas exceptionalism to rhapsodic, mythic heights, another iconic literary voice seemed intent on debunking it: in his 1968 essay collection In a Narrow Grave, Larry McMurtry lamented the sentimental bent of Texas historians, criticizing Webb as a “symbolic frontiersman” whose view of the past was obscured by a hazy romanticism. Having chronicled the decline and death of rural Texas in his novels Horseman Pass By and The Last Picture Show in the seventies, McMurtry revolutionized Texas culture with a trilogy (Terms of Endearment, et. al) set in modern urban Houston. And by the eighties the Texas myth was under such broad attack among a new generation of Texas historians—not to mention in the ironic, citified settings of Urban Cowboy and Dallas—that in a 1986 essay “Texas Mythology: Now and Forever,” Fehrenbach lodged his own protest: “A sense of common past makes it easier to believe in a common future . . . The last thing I would want us to do with the Texas history-mythology is to de-mythologize it. “
Not to worry, because 1986 also marked another literary milestone, the publication of Lonesome Dove, in which McMurtry abruptly about-faced from our urban future and embraced the epitome of our mythic past, the trail-drive era. Of course Lonesome Dove can be read as an earnest effort to deconstruct the Texas myth rather than to restate its six-gun stereotypes, but the effect was entirely the latter on many Texas writers and tradition-minded historians (not to mention politicians and ordinary citizens), who could safely continue to stake out an imaginary past. Revivified by Lonesome Dove, the Texas myth got up from its narrow grave and galloped into the twenty-first century, driving before it such symbolic frontiersmen as our present governor and his predecessor.
In that context, I read the first ten paragraphs of Fehrenbach’s column as a vintage sampling of his “history-mythology”: A ruminative, beautifully written discourse on a Texas where ideas have never really mattered, because the genius of the place is to be found in the spontaneous adaption of a special breed of Texas action heroes to a uniquely harsh environment. Here I must confess that I am far more persuaded by the consensus of the current generation of Texas scholars, who have long found this view of Texas history too dependent on the presumptive superiority of Anglo culture and initiative—and too dismissive of the sacrifices, suffering and contributions of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. But I’ve also found the selective emphasis (and all history gets down to what to include) on men of action over men of ideas symptomatic of a longstanding Texas inferiority complex; Texas may no longer be an economic “colony” of the eastern seaboard, as Webb often griped, but we still reflexively see ourselves as a cultural colony. And our knee-jerk response to this self-inflicted affront invariably is: “We’re a people of actions, not ideas. That’s why we’re rich and you’re not.”
The problem with this view is that it ignores the ideas of the men and women who actually built Texas and exploited its natural wealth. Stephen F. Austin was a brilliant statesman-entrepreneur who understood the bicultural nature of Texas in a way that our present leadership has yet to comprehend. Texas’s iconic military hero, Sam Houston, was a brooding pacifist who retreated repeatedly before San Jacinto, as well as an ardent unionist who sacrificed the final years of his political life exhorting Texas to stay out of the Civil War. In stressing the value of caution and federalism to our raw, emerging state, he too showed a grasp of reality missing among today’s statehouse fabulists.
While a lot of Texas’s wealth may have come gushing from beneath our soil, the reason oil had such transformational value is because in the industry’s infancy Texans had the idea to use the Texas Railroad Commission to artificially set its market price and regulate its extraction at a time when oil was selling like water – thus establishing a concept of commodity regulation (copied by OPEC) that ruled the world economy for the rest of the century. And many of those oil fortunes enabled Texas to escape its cultural parochialism, as Texas plutocrats sought out the best art and architecture money can buy, yet forced hired guns such as Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano to re-define themselves in Texas terms—innovations that have changed the way the world’s city centers look over the past half century.
And of course there’s American politics, where for at least a couple generations Texans have provided both the left and the right much of their conceptual heft and legislative craftsmanship. Texans such as Jesse Jones were instrumental in the practical construction of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s extension of FDR’s social safety net—not to mention his Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws—remains the Colossus bestriding our current political debate. The conservative brain trust that has subsequently opposed LBJ’s expansion on FDR also has deep Texas roots, beginning with academics like Phil Gramm and Dick Armey and joined by second generation intellectuals Karl Rove and Marvin Olasky.
That’s why I read the last two paragraphs of Fehrenbach’s column—in which he confesses that Texas is “no longer anything like cowboy country, and it’s time for us to… look for meaning”—with both astonishment and a sense of anticlimax. Is it truly time for Texans to let go our hyperactive frontier mythology and get with this newfangled idea of thinking things over? For T.R. Fehrenbach to suggest so marks a watershed moment in Texas culture. You just wish that as Texas history’s defining voice, he’d already noticed that we Texans have been thinking rather well—at times exceptionally so—all along.