Texas Myth/Texas Values—A Conversation II

           It is a pleasure to get back to Texas, to see so many friends and to hear Professor Flowers’s wonderful lecture. Betty Sue Flowers has covered the area so adequately that it would probably be wise for me just to pack up and go home. Since she was once my student in Plan II, I shall, of course, take full credit for everything she said.

          In addressing this issue of “Texas Myths”—it was easier for me to do something on this subject when I was in Salado in 1984, for they gave me an hour and a half, which let me address the subject in the manner of Fidel Castro. Under present time constraints what I have to say will be impressionistic and some of it, despite my best efforts, will duplicate what has already been said. 

            I should like to begin by distinguishing three kinds of propositions. First, there are universal statements which are true of all members of a class, such as: human beings are mammals. Second, there are generalizations, statements that truly characterize most members of a class. For example, humans have two ears. Every now and then a Van Gogh cuts one off but he is still human. Third, there are stereotypes. Stereotypes characterize only a minority of the group they purport to describe. Stereotypes are based on reality, but they can be and often are misused; when they are anecdotal and true of specific individuals, they can be attributed to most or all members of a group in ways that are abusive. Anecdotal evidence may provide the basis for sound generalizations, but only when the anecdotes are characteristic of most members of a group.

            When we talk about Texas myths, we must keep these distinctions in mind; we must know if we are talking about stereotypes, generalizations, or characteristics of all Texans. I doubt that we have any myths that are universally characteristic of Texans. There are some that are generalizations, true of most Texans, but there are many more myths that are only stereotypes, true of only a minority.

            There is nothing necessarily wrong with stereotypes; they give rise to all kinds of good humor. For example, Churchill loved to say that Germans are either at your throat or at your feet. That was good stuff in wartime. I grew up hearing that the English have no sense of humor. This eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotype was based on Americans’ limited experience with stuffy English aristocrats and gave rise to the joke, “You want to make an old Englishman laugh? Tell him a joke when he’s young.” The stereotype ignores the fact that the English have perhaps the finest sense of humor of any people on Earth. Shakespeare, unlike Schiller, laces even his tragedies with humor.

            Stereotypes are harmless when they are used playfully as jokes that aren’t designed to injure anybody or to be taken seriously. But when we try to pass off a stereotype as if it were a sound generalization, we run the risk of making a serious mistake. When stereotypes purport to characterize a group in a way that is truly offensive and demeaning, they can be extremely harmful. Sometimes a stereotype takes on a mythic proportion and is accepted as generally true, not from the standpoint of description but from the standpoint of aspiration. In such limited cases a stereotype may be constructive. But more often, indeed usually, stereotypes are objectionable even when they are favorable to the group they purport to describe, as in the familiar, blacks are musical and like to dance. Although this stereotype is not meant to demean blacks, it is highly insulting nevertheless.

            The complex relation of stereotypes to myth is central to our subject. Texans have been the target of far more stereotypes than the people of any other state in the United States, possibly equal to any ethnic group. In fact, you may say that Texans are an ethnic group judging by the long lists of Texan stereotypes on the Internet. Consider: “Texans have the best politicians that money can buy;” “Dallas salutes a person who can buy a piece of art, but not a person who can create one.” There are hundreds of jokes about Texans. “You know you are a Texan if you had a toothpick in your mouth when your wedding pictures were taken,” and “you know you are a Texan if you think that a six-pack and a bugzapper are high entertainment.” These are selected from scores on the Internet.

            Some Texas stereotypes come very close to being generalizations. That Texans tend to be hyperbolic and highly colorful in speech is, I believe, generally the case. Examples: You know the famous question: How many Rangers do you need to control a riot? One riot, one Ranger. Clearly hyperbolic, despite the prowess of that group of law enforcement officers. Then we have the song taught all San Antonio schoolchildren in the 1930s, W. Lee O’Daniel’s “Beautiful Texas”:

            There are some folks who still like to travel

            To see what they have over there.

            But when they go look

            It’s not like the book,

            And they find there is none to compare

            To beautiful, beautiful Texas.

That is clearly exaggeration, but it is nevertheless a point of view in which we were indoctrinated in school. When my father-in-law wanted to describe a man whom he held in genuine contempt, he said, “The good Lord never stretched skin over a sorrier piece of flesh.” That is Texas speech—colorful, hyperbolic, incisive, memorable. I can’t imagine a Bostonian saying anything like that. The Chronicle of Higher Education quoted a statement by Shelby Metcalf, the basketball coach at Texas A&M, who recounted what he told a player who had received four Fs and one D. He said, “Son, looks to me like you’re spending too much time on one subject.”

            But at this conference I think we should focus not on the stereotypes that are just for humor but on the stereotypes that come close to being generalizations characteristic of most Texans. My views are from both inside and out; I have spent about half my life in Texas and half in exile. I left Texas 29 years ago with regret because, as many of you know, it wasn’t my idea. But when I felt I had to leave, the choice of where to go was strictly limited by my Texas heritage, by the myths in which I had been reared and the values they entailed. I did not consider a job in the Middle West or on the West Coast. I grew up with ghosts and I wanted to go to a place that had ghosts of its own. When one grows up with myths that give life meaning, one does not want to go to a place denuded of the meaning that comes through myths and through mythic figures. One speaks of them as ghosts—not spirits that haunt you, but those that give meaning to one’s life.

            As a boy in San Antonio I felt emotionally and cognitively that I was walking the same streets on which Sam Houston and other Texas heroes had walked. I also grew up knowing that Texas had been governed under six flags, five of which I found essential: the French, the Spanish, the Mexican, the Texan, and the flag of the United States. The Confederate flag, although it is a part of our Texas heritage, is anomalous, for it was adopted after Texas had joined the union and flown the Stars and Stripes. It was adopted over the vehement objections of many Texans, including Sam Houston, who believed then what we believe today: that Texans are Americans. We are, nevertheless, a particular species—namely, Texans.

            The Confederate flag was a highly ambiguous element in our history, as I learned from reading about Sam Houston. Although he, like all heroes, had feet of clay, he was nevertheless a hero both noble and notable whom we need not compromise or tarnish in any serious way.

            In 1831 Tocqueville noted in his diary, “When the right of suffrage is universal, and when deputies are paid by the state, it is singular how low and how far wrong the people can go.” About a week later he met a man while traveling by steamboat at the mouth of the White River. The gentleman had left his wife, gone to live among the Indians, taken an Indian wife and liked to have a drink. When he heard that this man was also a former government official, Tocqueville apparently thought the people had gone very low and far wrong. He wrote in his diary:

We are traveling at this moment with an individual named Mr. Houston. . . . This man was once Governor of Tennessee. . . . I asked what could have recommended him to the choice of the people. His having come from the people, they told me, and risen “by his own exertions.” . . . They assured me that in the new western states the people generally made very poor selections. Full of pride and ignorance, the electors want to be represented by people of their own kind. . . . [To get elected,] you have to haunt the taverns and dispute with the populace.

            But Tocqueville, being an empiricist and a careful observer, decided to question Sam Houston about his life among the Indians, and before long he was taking page after page of notes on their religion, their government, their concepts of justice, and the role of Indian women.

            “Does it seem to you,” Tocqueville asked, “that the Indians have great natural intelligence?” Houston replied, “Yes, I don’t believe they yield to any human race on this point.” And then he added, and this is an important fact about Houston, “However, I am also of the opinion that it would be the same for the negroes.”

            Then the conversation turned to an analysis of U.S. government policy toward the Indians, and again Tocqueville was busy taking notes. When their voyage had been completed and it came time for Tocqueville to sum up his impressions of Sam Houston, he was no longer sneering. Sympathetic and, finally, deeply impressed by the quality of this man of the people, he wrote, “The disappointments and labors of all kinds that have accompanied his existence have as yet left only a light trace on his features. Everything in his person indicates physical and moral energy.” That physical and moral energy was clearly expressed in 1860 when Houston committed political suicide in Texas by refusing to support the secession movement and by insisting that Texas remain with the Union and support the cause of emancipation.

            In Sam Houston we have not only a genuine Texas hero but an American hero, one who decisively embodies Texas myths and values and gives them a reality that can only come from incarnation. His life reflected a personal code of honor. Houston based his assessment of people not on prejudice but on experience. Being in touch with people of all races and with the land, he respected and was a friend to indigenous people and was foremost among those promoting the spread of civilization in their territory.

            It is unfortunate, I believe, to disparage myths just because, while true in general, they are not universally true. Nor should we disparage heroes because they sometimes fail to live up to their ideals. One may assert, I am convinced, the sound generalization that myths and heroes often express values worthy of emulation and that Texas has done more than its share of exalting both myths and heroes.

            Texas was settled entirely by immigrants, pioneers who suffered terrible risks and hardships getting to Texas and additional hardships in trying to survive once they arrived. That is the literal truth. The earliest were the Paleo-Americans who probably came from Asia about 40,000 years ago and were extinct before the Indians arrived as sequential pioneers.[1] A very large percentage of later immigrants came not only from the thirteen colonies but also directly from Europe, Mexico, and Central and South America.

            The myth of the Texan as cowboy or frontiersman arose naturally from the fact that immigrants to Texas following the American Revolution were pioneers who tamed a raw and largely barren land, sturdy survivors who endured vicious encounters with the indigenous peoples and who eventually prevailed. And it is still believed that Texans have a frontier mentality, reflected in their behavior and their laws. Although it is only a stereotype to say that Texans dress like cowboys, wearing cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats, it is more than a stereotype when we suggest that the frontier mentality continues to have both a mythic and a literal hold on the consciousness of Texans.

            Our mythic drama of the spring, our morality play, begins on March 2 with Texas independence, followed by the fall of the Alamo on March 6 and then redemption on April 21 with Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto. The fall of the Alamo exemplified a high order of heroism. However unjust and unfair the Texans’ perspective on the fall of the Alamo may be, it is still the case that the people who died there were dying for principle, for the cause of freedom and independence. Their motives and intentions come across, it seems to me, as heroic, even as I acknowledge that there is a compelling case for the Mexican perspective on the battle of the Alamo. It is the very essence of tragedy that there is both right and profound loss on both sides. Two lines from Cavafy, addressed to Greek heroes, apply equally well to the heroes of the Alamo:

Honor to those who in the life they lead

define and guard a Thermopylae.

Heroes do not fear losing; they fear lacking the valor to stay the course. The men who died in the Alamo showed courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, and a very high sense of personal honor. There is also in this example evidence of their energy and self-sufficiency. These are, I believe, genuinely noble myths. They fire the aspirations of young people, make us, as young people, aspire to greatness.

            I don’t think these myths associated with the frontier and the Alamo exclude women. When I attended school as a child I was taught that women suffered hardship and sometimes death along with men and that women were the civilizing influence. Women were responsible for our ability to read and write; they, they alone, explained why Texans took seriously such things as poetry, literature, art, and the preservation of our wildflowers. All of these civilizing virtues were attributed to what Goethe described as “das Ewig-Weibliche,” the eternal woman that draws mankind to higher objectives.

            These myths, however limited and incomplete, are enabling, energizing myths that reveal or express the consciousness of Texans. They also explain in significant degree the magnetism of this state. Texas did not become the second most populous state in the United States because of the extraordinary procreation of Texans. They don’t all live the way Kathryn and I lived, rearing a very large family. If they had all had 24 grandchildren—and we are still counting—that might have explained how Texas got to be the second largest. But we are the second largest largely because Texas is a magnet for immigration. People want to come to Texas for the same reason that so many Bostonians wear cowboy boots and hats. Although most of them are native Bostonians, they have a longing for jobs on the frontier where folks wear cowboy boots and hats and appear to be a little freer and livelier than in Boston.

            Developments in Texas over the last century are exciting and compellingly attractive. Consider entrepreneurship in Texas, and in particular in Houston. What happened to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans as major sea ports? Although Houston is 40 miles from the sea and not even on a major river, it has eclipsed them all. How? By enterprise, imagination, and drive, by determination, dynamism, and entrepreneurship—qualities that are genuinely useful, even to people who lack those qualities. The high-tech developments in Austin are equally impressive. The Austin area is Texas’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley.

            It is not that Massachusetts was lacking in ghosts. I went there very largely to associate with the ghosts of Abigail and John Adams, the Pilgrims and the Indians, including Massasoit on the one hand and King Philip on the other. King Philip is not to be confused with the King of Spain. That was the name that they gave an Indian chief who declared war on the colonists and for a long time succeeded in beating them. Unfortunately, the Indians of Massachusetts, unlike the Comanches, didn’t have horses. But all these heroes are present in Boston, where we can walk the streets with the founders of our republic. They, like the Texas heroes, capture the imagination. But they may be less likely to evoke emulation because they lack the currency, the presence and accessibility of Texas myths. As in the case of the Adamses, many of the Boston ghosts seem remarkably beyond our capacity to reach their standards.

            One of the Texas myths that has a great deal of truth behind it is the myth of boom and bust. An oil man, a wildcatter, strikes oil; his well comes in and he becomes a multimillionaire. But the next thing you know he has ten dry holes and is broke. But a few years later he has hit another well and once again he is a millionaire. When he dies, however, he leaves whatever he has—whether rich or poor—to his kids. Sometimes he leaves his estate to all his children, sometimes to only one. But that was not the habit of wealthy Bostonians.

            In Boston daring sea captains built the clipper ships and sailed them to China. And in the China trade, a single voyage made one a millionaire. With two successful voyages one was rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. But what did those millionaire sea captains do with their money? The Forbeses, Cabots, and others established thrift trusts. These trusts were administered by banks and oriented toward security. They generated sufficient income to cut the nerve of enterprise in the descendants of these great pioneer entrepreneurs, but they rarely left them with sufficient wealth to become major philanthropists. These trusts dampened-down the energy, imagination, and enterprising daring of the descendants. The economic revival of Massachusetts, its economic miracle, has largely been the result of the immigration of talent from other states and countries, including a good number from Texas, drawn by the presence of excellent universities staffed by faculties drawn from all parts of the world. Massachusetts certainly had its share of heroes. But few Massachusetts heroes are mythic. Rather, they are generally distant historic figures who have a far weaker hold on the imagination of younger generations than Texas myths and heroes.

            This difference in mentality is illustrated by another anecdote. The San Antonio Spurs basketball team decided to leave the city unless a new arena was built. What happened? Just a few months later the people in San Antonio voted to build a new arena and keep the team. They located the arena in Bexar County rather than within the city limits in order to offer the Spurs a tax advantage. And there they are.

            Consider the contrast in Boston. For the past twenty-five years Boston has been trying to develop a convention center. In order to make it financially sound, one must build it in association with a football stadium and a baseball stadium. Both the Red Sox and the New England Patriots wanted a new stadium. The economics of the situation were obvious and compelling. A football team plays ten to twelve games a year. The parking lot for ten thousand cars is used only ten or twelve times a year. If a baseball team is added to the complex, an additional 80 days of parking is assured. When a convention center is introduced, at least another 100 days of parking are required. With this combination the parking garage becomes a profit center instead of a loss. When the project was still under consideration, I wrote an op-ed piece in one of the newspapers pointing out that it would take about three months in Houston, about six months in San Antonio and about four and a half months in Dallas to work out all the details. But in Boston 20 years was not enough. The only group that responded favorably to my article were the developers. All parties—including the taxpayers—had a common interest in a complex combining all these elements because the center would have been a major engine of economic development. Nevertheless, it could not be done.

            One must also ask, why was the TV series Dallas so popular throughout the country? Why was J.R. such a popular figure? (As you know, he was based on the character of Frank Erwin. Like Frank, J.R. had genuine virtues to match his genuine vices, and he had both in abundance.)

            There is, however, a darker side to the Texas myth. These are my concluding remarks on the frontier myth of the individual that goes into the wilderness and tries on his own to bring law and order. The reason why it is a darker side is because there is no longer a frontier and fortunately the days of Roy Bean are over. In all fairness—and now I will quit preaching and go to meddling—this myth of the frontier hero who brings law and order on his own terms is not a stereotype, but a dark and troubling reality.

            I went out to Lake Travis the day before yesterday. I went up to the door of a house where I wanted to talk to the owner. He has a sign in the window by the door that says, “We don’t dial 911.” That is, he is prepared to shoot and kill any trespassers, as is his guaranteed right in the protection of his property and his life under Texas law.

            In 1954, the year before I came to the University of Texas, a reporter from Time magazine visited with Chief Justice John Edward Hickman of the Texas Criminal Supreme Court. The reporter asked, “Why is it, Judge, that if a man steals a horse, you hang him, but if a man kills his wife’s paramour it is justifiable homicide?” Justice Hickman replied, “Son, I don’t understand the question. There are some men that need killing, but no horses need stealing.” In Sensobaugh v. State in the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, October 18, 1922, the court held:

A “homicide is justifiable when committed by the husband upon the person of anyone taken in the act of adultery with the wife; provided, the killing take place before the parties to the act of adultery have separated.” Penal Code, act 1102.

            But the court continued, “Even under our statute, the paramour does not forfeit his privilege of escape, nor does he wholly forfeit his right to defend his life.” In this case, the appellant had been charged and convicted not of killing his wife’s paramour but of tying him up and removing his love-making organ with a razor. The court noted that the accused could not therefore justify his act under the statute. The court held:

Article 1105 of the Penal Code expressly permits homicide in order to prevent maiming …. Doubtless, if serious bodily injury had been inflicted by the appellant in an attempt to kill the injured party, his immunity would be secure under the statute but the record negatives such an intent, and makes it plain that his intent was not to kill, but to torture and maim the paramour.

The conviction and sentence of 60 days in jail and a fine of $300 were upheld. In Texas at that time, that sentence seemed reasonable. In Massachusetts it would have seemed an outrageous endorsement of a criminal act.

            I wrote a San Antonio lawyer to ask him if this law was still on the books. He replied, “The bit about shooting the guy doing the horizontal mambo with one’s wife is one of those things bound up in Texas lore.” But he continues, “I hope it’s true. I’ve heard it often enough, but I don’t know if it ever was the law.” As you know from my own research with the Key Reporter, it was the law until 1974. But the Texas lawyer continued, “In any case, it is not the law today, as we are, regrettably, becoming more like other states in our jurisprudence.” That “regrettably” is an interesting comment, and it supports the stereotype if not the generalization.

            When we move from the realm of lore and myth to current state of affairs, we find the myth of the frontier is confirmed in Texas by its incorporation in Texas law. All non-felons have the right to possess and carry shotguns and rifles. They can’t carry them into schools, government buildings, or bars. There are a few places they are prohibited, but otherwise they are permitted. The only restriction is that persons must not brandish firearms in a way to threaten anyone.

            Secondly, non-felons may also possess handguns without permits or license, but they can only carry them around their house or place of business or if they are going to or from a hunting or fishing trip. And they must not brandish them at all.

            Persons with concealed-handgun licenses may possess and carry concealed handguns anywhere except in the specified prohibited places. And it is important to remember that Texas is what is called a “shall issue” state as regards concealed handgun licenses. If one meets the statutory requirements, one has a right to a license without having to show a need for the license and without securing permission from the local sheriff or the local chief of police. Texas also has a different legal standard from other states concerning deadly force which one can use in defense of oneself, in defense of others, and to protect one’s property in case someone is about to steal it.

            These are generalizations rather than universal truths about Texas only because the law is not always either obeyed or enforced. But they are generalizations which, being embodied in law, cannot be dismissed as stereotypes. They are the foundation of the frontier myth. They are Texas law, and as such should be universally recognized and obeyed by Texans. For good or ill, they set Texas far apart from most of the rest of the nation. The Internet expresses these sentiments in the form of jokes—jokes pertaining, for example, to restaurants—“Be sure to sit in the non-shooting section;” a Texas restaurant “is where you can eat the cast of Bambi.”

            This is by no means the whole story on Texas, but it is a side of Texas and an extension of the myth of the frontier and the myth of the frontier hero that calls, I believe, for sober reflection and possibly for alteration.

             In conclusion I am deeply grateful for your invitation to reflect on Texas history, laws. mores, and myths. One can never deny the appeal of a state so original, complex, and dynamic. It offers an inspiring heritage.


[1] I owe all this knowledge to Mr. T. R. Fehrenbach, who is, I believe, a member of this organization. And I ought to beashamed of myself even talking about this subject in his presence because he knows so much more about it than I do.