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The Once and Future State: A Writer’s Texas II

            Thank you very much, Tom, and thank you very much for inviting us to do this today. Our topic is the relation of art to place, specifically Texas art to Texas.

            For quite some time, and for many people extending even to the present, the expression “Texas art” has been as much an oxymoron as “Texas philosophy.” The early settlers in Oklahoma put up a sign at the Red River, and it said, “Texas Begins Here.” Those who could read turned back. So I think it’s appropriate that we’re going to begin our discussion of writing today by showing you something from the medium designed for illiterate people.

            You may note at the end one of the benefits of being the moderator. Let’s run the film.

            What can I say? After that extraordinarily realistic portrayal of the state of Texas, we’re going to have an informal discussion about Texas, its myths, and how it has affected writing.

            What I’m going to do is introduce our panelists, make a few opening remarks myself, and then jump back into a panelist seat, and we’ll throw the football around. I should also say that we will have a question period afterward, we hope, but if you have anything that comes up or jumps into your mind in the meantime, please just go ahead and say it.

            Our panelists, beginning to my left, are Elizabeth Crook, who is from San Marcos and grew up in the Hill Country. We’re going to notice a certain geographical diversity as we go across here. She’s the author of The Raven's Bride: A Novel of Sam Houston and Eliza Allen and the novel Promised Lands: A Novel of the Texas Revolution.

            And I should say, as we finish with Apollo 13—and I’m introducing Elizabeth—but it occurred to me that it’s quite interesting here that the first word spoken by a human being on a heavenly body was the last name of a hero of the Texas Revolution: “Houston, the Eagle has landed.”

            Lest you think that our heroes of the Texas Revolution spent all their time cleaning their muskets and riding their horses, you need only to dip into one of Elizabeth’s books. They show the extraordinary relation between emotion and history, and they are written with a clean, strong, and beautiful style.

            Our second panelist, Steve Harrigan, is the author of several nonfiction books, among them Natural State and Water and Light. His first two novels were Aransas and Jacob’s Well. His third novel, The Gates of the Alamo, is soon to be published by Knopf.

            In my humble opinion, Steve is the most lyrical writer Texas has ever produced. His prose is as crystal clear as Barton Springs used to be.

            The final panelist is Don Graham, who is the J. Frank Dobie Regent’s Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the author of Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas; No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy; and most recently, Giant Country: Essays on Texas.

            In spite of his lofty title, Don is an author as strong as onions and as tart as Ruby Reds. He loves Texas the way longhorns love cactus. He thinks you should burn it first.

            Now, as we get into this and we get to our distinguished panel, I’m going to exercise my prerogatives to set up our theme. When I went to college at Rice, writing was what happened elsewhere in England or Ireland or Russia or France, New England, the South, but certainly not here. I think that has something to do with the newness of our culture. We were too busy building Texas to write or read about it, and until very recently we were suspicious of those who did. I think it also has something to do with size, literature tending to blossom in tight, close cultures, fertile with memories and rich in human history.

            Until recently the ratio of history to land in Texas has been about the same as that in Siberia, and I mean no insult to Siberia by that. We may not be the head, we may not be the heart, we may in fact be the wart on the toe of English-speaking culture, but we have given the world some enduring mythic characters, some of whom we’ve seen on this screen: the frontiersman, the cowboy, the wildcatter (that up-from-nothing James Dean shaking his rebellious, oily fist in Rock Hudson’s face, giving the you-know-what to the established order), and of course, the astronaut, that can-do cowboy, riding off not into the sunset but to the moon itself.

            We’ve also had our hand in cradling the blues, Tejano music, and literature, and Southern Gothic. But writing until recently in Texas has been like looking for oil. You didn’t always find it in the pretty places. I grew up on the Houston Ship Channel, as yet unsung in poetry and song.

Sweet Ship Channel, flow softly until I end my song.

            Oh, ship channel, I long to hear you, away you rolling channel.

Away, I’m bound away across the wide ship channel.

I’m still working on this, but you get the idea.

            I grew up watching those ships go by, headed for romantic-sounding places like the Straits of Malacca, Vera Cruz, Zamboanga. I wanted to get on them and go, I didn’t care where, just out of here, out of where I was, away from all those refineries that belched fire into the night, into a place where I didn’t have to go in the back door of the library to check out books lest I be beat up by kids coming out the front.

            I wanted to and I did, but no matter how far away I went, I kept coming back, both to live and to write. The film Apollo 13 was set right down the road from where I grew up. There’s something about Texas, something that keeps us here and writing about it. What is it? That’s what our panelists are going to tell us.

            How has our writing—this was our question—and our work in particular been inspired by, dependent on, or a rebellion against those myths we just saw on that screen?

            Steve, you take the first shot at that.