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Against the Canon

There’s no such thing as an authoritative list of the greatest Texas books ever written. There is, however, my list. (And yours.)

By November 2014Comments

Photograph by Adam Voorhes

As a writer born in San Antonio, I have always felt myself anointed, or perhaps branded, by the conflicted literary legacies of the Lone Star State. I was never sure whether my origins—as a descendant of eighteenth-century Spanish expeditionary settlers and Revolución-era norteño immigrants and a mestizo heir of storytellers as diverse as Américo Paredes, Katherine Anne Porter, and Hondo Crouch—were truly a blessing of birthplace, a karmic serendipity of sorts, or, given Texas’s fraught history of ethnic and racial discord, exclusion, and violence, a Tejano version of the mark of Cain. 

It’s this uncertainty that has compelled much of my work, and it’s this same uncertainty that informs my thoughts whenever I consider the Texas literary canon. That a canon of Texas literature notionally exists cannot be denied; J. Frank Dobie first made the case for one in 1943 with his Guide to Life and Literature in the Southwest, and it was the pantheon of Texas literati that later inspired Larry McMurtry’s curmudgeonly takedown of our letters in his essays “Southwestern Literature?” (1968) and “Ever a Bridegroom” (1981). The canon has been explored in the pages of this magazine by such distinguished Texas writers as A. C. Greene, who in 1981 put forth a list of the fifty best Texas books (including one Hispanic writer), and Don Graham, who ventured a more-modest twenty contemporary exemplars (including two Hispanos). Many of the state’s great universities still offer courses of study in the tradition. 

But in an ever more diverse and burgeoning Texas, exactly which books merit inclusion, and how such a canonical list might be serially ranked, will vary vastly from reader to reader. In part, it depends on what kind of personal history you bring to the reading table. There isn’t a single defensible canon, in other words—and that dismissal isn’t meant as a wet relativist’s dodge or an indication of any wariness about getting caught in the ensuing crossfire. It’s only that, as a reader or a writer, your list will be as much a reflection of who you are, and who you are becoming as a Texan, as any meaningful assertion of an objective pantheon. The age of the authoritative canonical pronouncement has passed, güey. Instead, we’re called to venture our own lists and be ready to argue for them. That’s always been where the sparks can really fly.

In that spirit, I have considered my own peripatetic readings and devised my list—a list that, to my mind, represents a way to plumb the deep human mystery of Texas. Hence, my litany of titles, top ten and beyond, tacks toward a “deep time” perspective, reaching back to commence the saga in remotest antiquity, more aligned to nonfiction than fiction, more to history than reportage, more oneiric than factual, less overtly political than cultural, with an abiding fealty to the paranormal and poetic. I’m less fussy about sniffing out the truffle of ageless literary excellence à la McMurtry than I am keen to find those books that, side by side, limn the improbable, contradictory human epic that is the grand story of Texas.

READ JOHN PHILLIP SANTOS’S LIST OF THE 10 BEST TEXAS BOOKS EVER WRITTEN.

My family’s history wasn’t exactly literary, much less conventionally Texan. My mother’s ancestors were already long in northern New Spain when they joined José de Escandón’s mid-eighteenth-century expeditions as founders of the villages of Revilla and Camargo, in present-day Tamaulipas. By the time my mother was born, in the twenties, the family was in Laredo, another of Escandón’s settlements. My father’s family fled Coahuila in 1914, when the Mexican Revolution made everyday life a peril.

Yet by the time I was born, in 1957, we were Texans. In one of my earliest portraits, I’m decked out in Roy Rogers trappings, with a cowboy hat, a Western shirt, pants tucked into my boots, a toy six-shooter strapped to my hips. I first read Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver in junior high school, alongside Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, embedding the Texas narrative into the global one from the beginning. But the Texas history classes I took never included accounts of settlers like the ones I’d heard of in my family. I knew there was clearly a great Texas story, but for me, there was an absence at its center. By the time I left Texas to study at the University of Notre Dame, I was searching out those books that could fill in this missing tale.

Through the more than thirty years of semi-voluntary exile that followed, whether I was bunking in Indiana, England, Connecticut, or New York City, I harbored this unique literary conundrum that superseded all others—Midwestern, British, New Englander, or New Yorquino. I was never intimidated. Albion’s literary legacy and the great American canon had nothing on my Tejano heritage. I carried an ever-growing sacred bundle of Texas books with me from place to place like an obsessive archivist, a hoarder of esoteric tomes, each of which contained a piece of an unfathomable story that was my truest literary compromiso, a sort of poetico-philosophical obligation—what I’ve come to think of as the Question of Texas.

As an undergraduate, I planned a literary festival that brought my biggest writer heroes to campus, including William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Ken Kesey, and Denise Levertov. I was most eager to meet William Goyen, the luminous Texas-born author of the transcendent novel The House of Breath. I expected to encounter a classic rural Lone Star type, reflecting his Trinity roots. Instead I was astounded to find him by then a longtime expat, an elegant, urbane Manhattanite, having been first at sea with the Navy before living for spells in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Los Angeles and then settling in New York City. But he always continued writing out of his Texas origins. His meandering, exploratory sojourn, his adoption of a prose style akin to Proust’s, Joyce’s, and Faulkner’s, demonstrated for me just how complicated and nuanced a Texas writer really could be. Dobie had seen this long before, observing in 1952 that “the hope of regional literature lies in outgrowing regionalism itself.”

The Question of Texas is an apocalyptic query; it has to do with what the epic of this vast place reveals to the world about human encounters over the long span of time, an intertwining saga of land and conflicting identities. The poet Paul Christensen, who teaches at Texas A&M, eloquently captures this drama in his foreword to Amsterdam Cantos y poemas pistos, by fellow poet Ricardo Sánchez, an El Pasoan. “The European émigrés to the region warred against an indigenous Indian population, then against Spanish colonialists; and finally, not only against Texas Blacks freed by the Civil War, but also those who had drifted West . . . to eke out marginal livelihoods in tenant farming,” he writes. “Against [the white settlers] were not only other races and cultures but the environment itself, a cursed land of droughts, winds, raging storms, scarce water, insects, infidels and outlaws among their own kind. Their victims never allied against them, but their revenge was to refuse White Culture, to cling to whatever identity of otherness remained to them.” Christensen concludes this heroic synopsis with a concise anatomization of our Texas literary tradition. “Hence the great fractured and suspended pieces of Texas life, to which few writers have gained insight or the sense of what could possibly unite them; it was easier to celebrate the natural order of Texas than it was to explain the human.”

From the beginning, I was drawn to those writers who sought to engage this longue durée framing of the story of Texas in their work: the slow-moving, shape-shifting tale of a protean land that would eventually become Texas, a millennial saga in which profound truths about humanity are only gradually being revealed. So far, it has been an unforgettable, infinitely unspooling real-time movie in which strangers are perpetually encountering one another, falling in love, or coming to sometimes-fatal blows; and those who were conquerors come to be conquered, onetime oppressors come to be oppressed, with astounding reversals of fortunes ever awaiting on the next horizon. 

In a recent conversation in San Antonio with poet Naomi Shihab Nye, my longest-running literary conspirator and interlocutor on Texas writing (forty-plus years!), she spoke of her take on the idea of a Texas canon, saying, “I don’t feel any compulsion to pick greatest things—that’s very hard to do.” But on the Question of Texas, it’s the “potency of mixture, of spaciousness, of something that’s rough, ragged, and haunted about this state; its story, the way the stories are told, the way that it’s always described nationally or internationally through its bigness while those of us who live here are so attracted to all its intimate aspects.”

Of course, not every writer born in Texas is compelled to take on these historical and literary inheritances in his or her work, but for those of us who do, the particular landscapes, histories, characters, conflicts, and plotlines of the Texas saga are elements as profound and stirring as those of any of the world’s greatest literary traditions. Some, in lieu of arguing over the question of a canon, have taken a direct-action approach, preemptively setting out to publish their own canonical litanies. In 2006 the eminent eclectic novelist and writer Dagoberto Gilb edited Hecho en Tejas, an impressive anthology of “Texas Mexican literature,” spanning centuries and genres, that included a sprawling host of voices and authors, songwriters and journalists such as Aristeo Brito, Norma Cantú, Alejandro Escovedo, and Rubén Salazar (full disclosure: I’m in there too). “My goal,” wrote Gilb in his introduction to the volume, “has been to tell the larger story not only of Raza in Texas but also the literary evolution that has taken place as it grows from account to letter to corrido to poem to story. . . . We have been here, we are still here.”

Then, in 2013, the University of Texas Press announced it would tackle the creation of a DIY literary canon with its Texas Bookshelf project, which will publish sixteen books authored by University of Texas at Austin faculty members, promising “the most ambitious and comprehensive publishing endeavor about the culture and history of one state ever undertaken.” The first book of the series—which will cover themes and topics that range from politics and film to food and the diverse cultures of the state—will appear in 2017, a comprehensive history of Texas, penned by novelist and texas monthly writer-at-large (and Michener Center professor) Stephen Harrigan, who is also the author of, among much else, The Gates of the Alamo. The remaining fifteen books will be published over the following five years.

I knew from my earliest readings that much of what has long been considered the core of the Texas literary tradition—the triumvirate of J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek; frontier and cowboy writing; the myriad riffs on the history of the war for Texas independence and the siege of the Alamo; the slavers’ all-out option for the Confederacy; the abiding romance of Texas’s rural past; all that ever-beloved rough-hewn and hardscrabble literary business—was an Anglo Texan legacy, largely unconcerned with the literary achievements of my Mexicano, Tejano, and Chicano precursors. But the story I was divining through my most treasured Texas books began long before the arrival of Spanish or Anglo settlers. 

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed just how long these lands have been home to humans. A site near Buttermilk Creek, north of Georgetown, has yielded a horde of projectile points and other artifacts that date back more than 10,000 years, remote American antiquity, adding to the tremendous trove of similar discoveries over the years from across the state. Don’t you want to start your story of Texas at the very beginning of our ancestral enterprises?

My top ten list of Texas books accompanies this essay, but I also want to share a few of the other titles and authors that have been essential for me, prized volumes from my now-well-traveled and always-growing library of Lone Star literature. The earliest written chronicles of future Texas lands came from Spanish writers, such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, whose much-noted La Relación (“The Account”), or as a later edition, Naufragios (“Shipwrecks”), includes a gripping account of his trek from Galveston through uncharted lands to the west and south, offering a first glimpse of the unforgiving landscapes and many peoples he encountered, a trip that affected him so deeply he would later become an advocate for the humane treatment of the indigenous peoples of the New World.  

Juan Bautista Chapa’s lesser-known Historia de Nuevo León, from 1690, is an eloquent account of the exploits of Governor Alonso de León (the elder) in his effort to colonize the tierras bárbaras of northeastern Mexico and the lands of future Texas as well as of his son’s later expedition in search of the French explorer René La Salle’s coastal settlement. This document, which was long lost and only published in 1909, contains the first detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the lands of the Rio Grande Valley, and there’s a sobering chapter listing, at considerable length, the names of “Indian Nations” that have “vanished,” after an already extensive history of battles and disease brought on by Iberian settlers.

Out of such written testimonios, you begin to reckon how Texas’s story first takes shape from the south, with implications that clearly echo into the cultural demography of the present. The borderlands have been a trafficked space for a very long time, a place of contacts, conflict, and mestizaje. The larger lesson is well put by author Robert Kaplan in his recent The Revenge of Geography when he observes that “the destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west, sea-to-shining-sea of continental and patriotic myth.”

My loyal affinity for the work of J. Frank Dobie is in part because of his recognition of this deeply embedded orientation in Texas culture and history. My mother remembers him from the early thirties, often sitting at dusk with my grandfather and his compadres on the porch in front of the Lopez family grocery store, in Cotulla, listening to the elders telling stories, scratching away with a pencil in a small notebook. In his 1935 work, Tongues of the Monte, Dobie writes of being born and reared in a part of Texas “where Mexicans were, and still are, more numerous than people of English-speaking ancestry.” 

His accounts of South Texas vaquero culture were the first ones I read, pretty much heading off any interest I might have taken in reading Anglo cowboy tales. That’s a genre that doesn’t die easily, though. In Larry McMurtry’s earlier-noted lambasting of Texas letters, he took Texas writers to task over their reluctance to move beyond the cowboy story, shunning the state’s increasingly urbanized profile; five years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove

In the past few decades, there has been a significant outpouring of new historiography filling in the story of the state’s Tejano past, ranging from early Spanish colonial settlement to Texas independence. Historians such as Jesús F. de la Teja, Gerald E. Poyo, and Andrés Tijerina, among others, have published books that help us see the deep continuity of Mexicano cultural and political presence in Texas’s formation and evolution. In San Antonio, going back to the Spanish and Mexican colonial eras, there was a long-standing presence of Spanish-language presses that continued well into the twentieth century, many of which specialized in Spanish literary work. Once, in a bookstore in Madrid, I found a volume of poems by the Spanish Romantic poet Gustavo Bécquer that had been printed in San Antonio and somehow found its way back to Iberia. 

And by the time I began reading, there was already a great, if greatly ignored, Mexican American literary heritage in South Texas, with works by such luminaries as Jovita González, whose historical novel Caballero, co-written with Eve Raleigh, was an account of the twilight of the Tejano ranching era before the turn of the century, and Américo Paredes, whose With His Pistol in His Hand was a stunning work of vernacular anthropology, a study of the border ballad tradition through the life of Gregorio Cortez and an indictment of the Texas Rangers. (Along the way, Paredes blithely laid bare the racist, anti-Mexican pseudo-sociology of maestro Walter Prescott Webb.) Later, his “Mexicotexan” novel George Washington Gómez would add to his weighty literary legacy with its account of discrimination against Mexicanos in the Valley and its satirical send-up of none other than Dobie.

I knew in those early days of reading that Texas was changing yet again. A generation of prophetic new Chicano literary voices was emerging, such as poets Ricardo Sánchez, from El Paso; Carmen Tafolla, from San Antonio; Raúl Salinas, from Austin; Reyes Cárdenas, from Seguin; and Tomás Rivera, from Crystal City, whose autobiographical novel . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (“. . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”) brought forth the first lyrical and searing testimonio of the Mexican American migrant worker experience. Today, changes in the state’s makeup are even more considerable: Texas is already “majority minority” (a beautiful, self-consuming oxymoron), and by 2036 it will be straight-up majorityHispano, predominantly of Mexican ancestry. Don’t expect intimations of secession to be taken lightly in days to come. 

These transformations inform my ongoing reading of the long Texas story, always seeking that writing which reveals the new forces at work in our widening historical and cultural gyre. Authors such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Alicia Gaspar de Alba have reflected on the Texas Mexicano heritage from a theoretical and cultural matrix; so has David Montejano with his defining histories of the Chicano movimiento. The multigenerational Texas epic has also lately resurged, embodied in such books as James Carlos Blake’s riveting and harsh Country of the Bad Wolfes and Philipp Meyer’s grandiloquent and eerily nostalgic The Son. I love the picaresque San Antonio realism of Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s High Pink. The Valley is not just a region of political foment in electioneering, it’s also a cauldron of literary creativity, with new work like Ito Romo’s The Border Is Burning, Domingo Martinez’s The Boy Kings of Texas, and Fernando Flores’s Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1.

The late San Antonio playwright Sterling Houston wrote a series of provocative plays exploring black Texan identity and history, but where are other black Texan voices? Asian Texan? Indigenous Texan? I’m eager to see others’ lists that might include important texts, illuminating the lingering lacunae from these communities.

The work of fellow San Antonian Whitley Strieber is always compelling, often drawing out tales that link his origins in San Antonio to confounding cosmic mysteries; I’m similarly enthralled with Dallas-based Jim Marrs’s forensically buttressed, oddly homespun conspiracy theories. The skies of Texas I grew up under were teeming with ineffable wonders, the events of those times, from Kennedy’s assassination to Houston’s reach to the moon, leaving me perpetually gobsmacked. I know I’m a provincial South Texas lad, but I do want to expand my gaze. I’m awed by my comrade roquero David Garza’s unstinting statewide wavelength, as sung out in his “Texas Is My Hometown”:

The shores of Galveston
The moon over Fort Worth
The sky over Abilene
The Poteet strawberries
The grandest Grand Prairies—
Texas is heaven to me.

From west El Paso
To east Nacogdoches
From Amarillo on down
I got a soft spot in my heart for Texas, baby—
Texas is my hometown.

The expansiveness of the Texas story inevitably gives me pause, and I eventually return in modest genuflection to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit. . . . Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” A working writer cringes to reckon that these truths were already commonplace three centuries before the Common Era—that Qoheleth, the supposed author of Ecclesiastes, could express in hoary antiquity such a distinctly modern sentiment about the legacy of letters and the way it can weigh upon a humble scribe. A vexation of the spirit and a weariness of the flesh, indeed, for a very long time, for so very long in Texas. 

But who can stop reading on, to see what happens next?

Lyrics from “Texas Is My Hometown” reprinted with permission from David Garza.

WE ASKED WRITERS AROUND THE STATE TO WEIGH IN ON THEIR FAVORITE TEXAS BOOKS. CLICK HERE TO READ A FEW OF THEIR ANSWERS.

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