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Texas Myth/Texas Values—A Conversation I

 

I’m going to begin and talk for about fifteen minutes, followed by my colleague, John Silber. Then the floor will be open for your questions and comments.

            I’m delighted to be here to talk about Texas myth and to share the stage with someone who is, if not a Texas myth, at least a Texas legend. If you look up myth in the dictionary, you’ll see several definitions. One characterizes myth as a story that isn’t true, which is the usual way we use the term. Another defines myth as a story told about the gods. But the third and most interesting definition of myth is a story that we accept uncritically—a definition that doesn’t say anything about whether or not the story is true.

It’s that third definition that I will use today—that is, a myth is a story that embodies our view of reality, and that, in some way, whether it’s literally true or not, expresses our identity. Because myth of this type embodies our values and expresses our identity, it usually tends to err on the side of being positive, which is what I’m going to do a bit this morning, knowing that there will be others who will critique the myth throughout the day. So I’m not going to go into the shadow side of the Texas myth as much as I might.

            The Texas myth is a particularly strong myth, and arguably, you could say it’s done a lot to hold together this large, disparate space. But our state is in transition now, and it’s time to think about the story we tell about who we are and what our values are. How does the Texas myth contribute to our development? How does it possibly hold us back? We’re more diverse than ever, and that old cotton, oil, and cattle nexus that forms the background for so many Texas stories is shifting to other places—high-tech, for example.

            I was reminded of this shift a few years ago. My four-year-old child, along with some of his friends, were playing cowboys and Indians in the playscape at McDonald’s. Some things never change. And the girls had to be the Indians. As I said, some things never change. The girls were captured for most of the game, which I also remember. If you were a girl, and therefore an Indian, you spent a lot of time in captivity while the boys got to run around shooting guns.

            Well, so here were the boys in the playscape. Suddenly, they began yelling, “The Indians are coming, the Indians are coming!” Of course, the Indians were already captured, but there’s always a new group of Indians coming. “The Indians are coming, the Indians are coming!” Now I knew what the next lines would be: “Call out the cavalry.” But they said, “The Indians are coming! Quick, dial 9-1-1!”

            A characteristic of myths is that they evolve.

            The facts of our lives are always changing. But our destiny as a state depends not just on these changing facts but on the story we tell about what’s happening and who we are and what we want to do about these changes. In the same way, an individual’s life is shaped not just by the facts—for example, I happened to be born in Waco, and there’s nothing much I can do about that, one way or the other. But the story you tell about these facts makes a difference.

            You can tell the story of the facts of your life as a hero tale. You can tell the story as a victim tale. You can choose any of a number of plots on which to talk about the story of your life. So while we may or may not have much control over the facts, we do have a lot of control over the plot, and that shapes what we see and do in the future. It’s this particular part of the power of myth—how it shapes the way we see the facts—that underlies the importance of myth in our future as Texans.

            Given the power of our Texas myth, we should look very closely at the story we have traditionally told about who we are and what we aspire to be. This morning, I’ll focus on four main features of this myth.

            First, the Texas myth is a version of the hero myth. I’ll make a broad claim, which you might want to dispute, that four central myths have shaped us in the West: the hero myth; the religious myth—again, remember that a myth is not necessarily untrue; the enlightenment myth, in which, fortunately, our country was founded; and the economic myth, in which we now reside.

            As I said, the Texas myth is a version of the hero myth. Of the four myths, that’s the one that has shaped the Texas myth most particularly. Myths do not just come full blown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They don’t just arrive on our doorstep. They’re made up of bits and pieces of other myths, and the Texas myth is made up of bits and pieces of the hero myth.

            Certain aspects of the hero myth are important to consider. For example, the hero myth emphasizes the individual and not the community. We praise the self-made man. The hero myth puts a premium on the will, not the heart: “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

            Every schoolchild in Texas to some extent still grows up with this myth. I’m sure Abilene, the town I grew up in, is not the only place whose primary schools are each named after Texas heroes. I went to Bonham.

            The names of the half-dozen main heroes of the Alamo were familiar to all of us. In fact, I remember how shocked I was as a third-grade Girl Scout on a field trip to the Alamo to realize that there were more than six people who died there. I thought it was six people against the whole Mexican army. That was how focused we were on the individual hero myth.

            We admire the rugged individualist, the wildcatter, the risk-taker, whether he’s up or down. There’s no end to stories about Texas heroes. They’re so familiar to us that I won’t dwell on this aspect of the Texas myth, but move on to the next.

            Second, the Texas myth is related to the land itself. It’s a distinctive version of the Promised Land myth. As you know, many of us have German ancestors. These German immigrants came here in part because of the sales job that was done on what a great land it was. You know, you could just throw a seed on the ground, and it would grow immediately.

            Texas was described as a kind of Eden so often that the first book published in English in Texas mentioned this hype1. The book was written by Mary Austin Holley and was based on letters she sent back from a visit to Austin’s colony. In this book, Holley criticized the extravagance with which admirers of the Texas myth talked about the land—“as if enchantment had indeed thrown its spell over their minds.” This was 1831—and we were already bragging about our land.

            Another example can be found in Scene Two of one of the earliest poems published in Texas—a book-length poem by Hugh Kerr published in 1838. It’s truly deadly; I don’t recommend that you read it. You can tell what kind of poem it is by its title: “A Poetical Description of Texas, and Narrative of Many Interesting Events in that Country, Embracing a Period of Several Years, Interspersed with Moral and Political Impressions: Also, an Appeal to Those Who Oppose the Union of Texas with the United States, and the Anticipation of that Event. To Which is Added the Texas Heroes, No. 1 & 2.”2

            I shall quote four lines from that poem:

Gonzales and Victoria

Are towns upon the Guadalupe;

The first is distant from the bay,

The latter, some thirty miles up.3

Lines such as these prompted a contemporary critic to say, “Oh, Kerr, Kerr, Kerr / what did you write those poems fur?”4

            Now, Kerr also praises the beauty of Texas extravagantly. A quote: “Few spots on earth can this excel.”5 But even he admits:

In these remarks we do not mean

The whole of Texas to include:

Some parts of Texas, we have seen,

Which from this praise, we must exclude.6

 

A little honesty there.

            In any case, there’s another strain to this land-of-milk-and-honey myth, or land of oil and money, as it later became, and that’s a valuing of the land not so much for its beauty or its history or flora and fauna particularly—just the land itself. This is not the European or East Coast custom of a second or country home. You get to a certain point in life in Texas, you get your deer lease, or if you’re lucky, your ranch. This is not sightseeing. This is not relaxation. This is possession.

            The Texas Centennial poet, Grace Noll Crowell, wrote a poem in that centennial year of 1936 called “Texas the Woman” in which these lines appear:

As if she were a woman, men have loved

Their Texas through the years:

. . . .

And men are men, and love is what it is; [I leave you, as philosophers to contemplate that line.]

Impelling each to grapple with his hands

For his beloved, possessing what is his:

Texas, the woman, soft-eyed, gracious, fair,

Her head held high, a star caught in her hair.7

            Of course, any state can be personified as a lady, but what makes this analogy so pervasive in Texas poetry is that Texas, unlike most earlier states, was pictured as independent from its beginning—liberty with a star in its hair. The 1836 struggle was seen not as a civil war with one section of Mexico rebelling against another but as a war of liberty against tyranny, with Texas as liberty.

            And that leads to the third feature of the Texas myth, which is that the Texas myth is a subset of the myth of the United States as the home of liberty. In fact, Texas founders consciously grafted what they were doing onto the U.S. myth of the Revolution—even though the story didn’t exactly fit, because our relation to Mexico was not the same as the colonists’ relationship to Great Britain. But we did graft our myth onto that myth, and then it simply froze into place.

            The U.S. myth went on to incorporate things like the melting pot, the immigrant, and the great cities, such as Chicago and New York. Many different details were added to the U.S. myth as it developed. But Texas stayed in a kind of perpetual state of primal, rural independence of mind, and that is important for our myth.

            I was told that even our electric grid is so independent that it connects to the rest of the world in only two places, which is amazing. And perhaps we stayed in that formative state of the U.S. myth for so long because our economy stayed tied to cattle, oil, and other products of the land. We’re a little like Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of farmers and small landowners—only transposed a bit to ranchers and large landowners.

            So these three features of the Texas myth—the hero, the land, and a version of liberty—are very powerful. Let me give you an example of how this works even today.

            Texas recently had an amazing campaign against litter. In fact, Roy Spence of GSD&M, who’s going to talk this afternoon, was one of the creators of that campaign, which was “Don’t Mess With Texas.” All of you are familiar with that, I am sure.

            What they did, whether consciously or not, was to take three aspects of our myth and perform a kind of Aikido movement on it. That is, they took the energy that comes from our macho “don’t mess with me” ethos and the fierce possessiveness we have in relation to our land and just used it to a different end. After that campaign, those of us who felt we had a constitutional right to throw beer cans on the highway out of our pickups, almost overnight, quit throwing beer cans. During the next five years, there was a 72 percent drop in litter. That’s a phenomenal change, one largely attributed to this campaign. What made it so effective? It used the energy of the Texas myth and turned it to other ends.

            Now, this story points to a key feature about myths—that while they can be very powerful, their power can be moved to other ends. That energy can be turned.

            If anyone can transform a myth, I think Texans can. Why? Because of the fourth feature of the Texas myth—that we hold our myths as myths. We tell them consciously as myths. In fact, many Texans buy their first pair of boots only when they’re heading off to Harvard. We may never wear boots in Texas, but we’ll put them on before heading up north.

            We support our myth overtly. It’s not just Kay Bailey Hutchison and George Bush who were cheerleaders. We all are when it comes to Texas and we’re outside of Texas. We’ve been known to exaggerate, to tell tall tales. We’re master storytellers. And that means that we have it in our power to transform the story of who we are and what we aspire to be.

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Notes

1. Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive. In a Series of Letters, Written during a Visit to Austin’s Colony, with a view to a permanent Settlement in that country, in the Autumn of 1831 (1833).

2. Published by the author, New York, 1838.

3. p. 83.

4. William Ransom Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History, p. 172.

5. p. 11.

6. p. 11.