Don’t challenge Anne Dingus to a contest of Texas trivia—you’ll lose. This Texas Monthly senior editor discusses her Panhandle upbringing, Encyclopedia Texanica, and why Texas is so (damn) special.
texasmonthly.com: What exactly is “Texana”?
Anne Dingus: To me, “Texana” means “any subjects as well as objects relating to Texas.” That’s an awful lot of stuff because Texas is an awful lot of state. Texana includes history, folklore, and popular culture. Academically speaking, I think the word means written or oral information, such as documents or anecdotes, but I would expand the term to include physical artifacts as well—antiques and ephemera such as books or postcards.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think your upbringing affected your passion for the state of Texas?
AD: I think my upbringing not only affected my passion for Texas and Texana but actually inspired it. My relatives on both sides were farmers, refinery workers, teachers, middle-class folks. Nobody had much money, but I inherited a rich sense of Texas pride. I heard stories about the Alamo and San Jacinto from the time I was a wee little thing, and my relatives always talked to me about wildlife and weather, cattle and crops. I grew up in the fifties and sixties when the cowboy was still king of the silver and the small screens. I was just a young girl in a small town, but I considered myself lucky because I lived in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: How did you become an expert on Texana culture and myths?
AD: It’s funny—I still don’t consider myself an expert, even though I’ve been actively pursuing the study of Texana for, oh, about forty years now. As a kid I always read—starting with the classics, from Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains to J. Marvin Hunter’s The Trail Drivers of Texas to Walter Lord’s A Time to Stand. In the seventies and eighties, when new research questioned the accuracy of many such books—and some are, indeed, seriously skewed—I read the revised versions. Some of those are just as flawed in a different direction. Also, I have relatives all over the whole dang state. So I was always driving from Austin, my longtime home, up to the Panhandle or out to El Paso or over to Houston. I liked to take different back roads, so along the way I’d pick up bits of trivia about this statue or that museum or some governor’s birthplace or a criminal’s hideout. Honestly, I never thought it would do me any good.
texasmonthly.com: How did you start working for Texas Monthly?
AD: When I was a sophomore at Rice University in 1973, Texas Monthly had just been launched, and everybody on campus was passing around the first issue. I read one and immediately thought, “I want to work for this magazine.” I’d always had a talent for writing (God-given—can’t take credit for it), and I knew a lot about Texas. A few years after I graduated, I moved to Austin and started bombarding the editorial department with letters. To my utter amazement, I was hired by David Moorman, Texas Monthly‘s first fact-checker, as his assistant. Eventually I worked my way up to senior editor and full-time writer, just like I wanted to be at age twenty. (I wish I had been this savvy about every other aspect of my life!)
texasmonthly.com: Tell us about your new monthly column, Encyclopedia Texanica.
AD: I think readers will get a kick out of this new feature—especially since they can actually participate. This page belongs to our Reporter section, and there are two parts. In the first, I’ll address—and correct—a long-standing myth about Texas; in the second, I’ll answer questions from readers about Texas celebrities, trivia, history, pop culture, and more. For the introductory myth, I chose to talk about my number one pet-peeve misunderstanding about Texas: that saguaro cactus grow in the Lone Star State. They don’t. But Hollywood directors and dust-jacket artists have never figured this out, so saguaro (the tall cactus with arms)—instead of prickly pear, cholla, or other native types of cactus—appear erroneously in Texas-set movies or books all the time. Even though we’ve just now started to solicit questions from Web and magazine subscribers, I have a long list of queries that Texans have sent me in the past, so I drew on those for the starter set. This is a fun assignment, but a bit humbling as well—after 26 years with Texas Monthly, I can occasionally start getting a little complacent, so keeping up with readers’ challenges—and making sure my answers themselves are myth-free—will keep me on my toes.
texasmonthly.com: Last month you wrote a piece criticizing “Texas, Our Texas” as the state song. What was the public response?
AD: Letters to the editor ran about two to one against my position—not surprising, as disgruntled readers are much more likely to write in and complain than those who agree with you. Some of them were definitely ticked off, whereas others seemed flabbergasted that someone would even think of criticizing the state song. One man suggested that if I didn’t like “Texas, Our Texas,” I could just leave the state. (Curiously, he was an expatriate in New Jersey!) Another waxed eloquent about how the song was a reminder of simpler times, when life was all about plowing and spinning and church suppers. Right—and cholera and bedbugs and no air-conditioning. By the way, I might as well be hanged for a cow as a calf, so let me go on record as saying that I think the mockingbird is an uninspired choice for state bird. Four other states chose it too. Why don’t we switch to, say, the chachalaca, or maybe the Attwater’s prairie chicken? Ooh—I know: the buzzard! That would certainly set us even further apart from the lesser forty-nine.
texasmonthly.com: Which of your past columns have sparked the most conversation among readers?
AD: In 1994 I published a compilation of Texas expressions, from “old as dirt” to “nervous as a whore in church” to “so dry the trees are bribing the dogs.” This collection was a huge hit. I got literally hundreds of letters, far more than any other story I have ever written, and most of them included dozens of sayings I had overlooked. That article really struck a chord with readers, who all remembered some adage or axiom that their mother or grandfather or Great-aunt Myra used to say. Eventually, I amassed a total of 1,440 sayings and published a book called More Texas Sayings Than You Can Shake a Stick At. Even today I still get letters about that article and book. My favorite so far came from a reader who explained the difference between “naked” and “nekkid”: “Naked” means “no clothes on,” while “nekkid” means “no clothes on and up to something.”
To my surprise, the opposite reaction happened with an article I wrote in 2001. That column was called “I Swear,” and it was about my unfortunate (but unbreakable) habit of using profanity. Frankly, I expected to get one hell of a lot of complaints about the story—but only three readers objected, while dozens wrote in to comment on aspects of potty-mouthing I’d failed to mention, such as using the proper cadence and cursing fluently without repeating yourself. Go figure. Dammit.
texasmonthly.com: Did the word “y’all” originate in Texas, or is it just a Southern word in general?
AD: Oh, it’s definitely a Southern word in general. After all, the states of the Deep South are older than Texas is. But we Texans are always co-opting the credit for something or other, so why make an exception in this case? Right, y’all?
texasmonthly.com: Why are Texans so proud of their identities, as opposed to, say, West Virginians?
AD: There are lots of reasons. One is the Alamo, which—after its siege and fall—was an international cause célèbre. Naturally, it took a while for news to travel back in 1836, so the story lingered for years. It made headlines worldwide. The story of the valiant little band of heroes defending their fort against overwhelming odds was the kind of romantic drama that nineteenth-century folks found irresistible. Secondly, after Santa Anna’s army was defeated at San Jacinto, Texas became a republic for nine years. Thus its government could deal independently with the U.S., England, and every other country. Also, Texas was just so darn big that when it joined the Union in 1845, the rest of America marveled at the state’s size—bigger than world powers such as France and Spain. Its reputation grew from there, with the rise of the great cattle drives, the rule of King Cotton, and the discovery of huge oil fields. No other state’s heritage and history can match Texas’s. It’s why you’ll never run across a movie called “The West Virginia Chainsaw Massacre.”
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever lived anywhere besides Texas? Would you?
AD: When I was ten years old, my family moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, for a year. That’s the only time I’ve ever lived outside of Texas. Ohio is an unbelievably beautiful state. My main memory of my time there is of experiencing something called autumn—huge masses of trees turning red and yellow and brown. I’d only seen such a thing in storybooks. Of course, I come from the Panhandle—not an area of Texas known for its arboreal lushness. Also, living in Ohio gave me my first sense of how non-Texans see our state—my fellow fifth-graders asked me if I had my own horse and if my house had running water. I think it would probably do me a lot of good to get out of Texas for a while, so I could see it with fresh eyes, but I doubt that that will happen. My roots are here, and I suspect I’d wilt if transplanted.
texasmonthly.com: According to an Austin Chronicle article, your father described you as a “career Texan.” What does that mean to you?
AD: I make my living writing about Texas. That’s all I write about; it’s my specialty. But it’s a big field. I’ve written about Dale Evans, Davy Crockett, drive-ins, and bad Texas poetry. I’ve written about the Cadillac Ranch, Texas’s trio of Miss Americas, cornbread, westerns, and my own two kids. Although occasionally I feel that I’d rather eat barbed wire than write another word about the Lone Star State, that feeling never lasts because Texas is so storied and diverse and conflicted and ever-changing and funny. I basically write about humanity; I’m just restricted to 267,000 superior square miles.