writer

McMurtry And Twain

Larry McMurtry is, by many standards, Texas’ best writer.

He wrote “Horseman, Pass By” to wide acclaim when he was just 25, which became the movie “HUD,” starring Paul Newman. When he was thirty, he published “The Last Picture Show,” which won him even greater critical praise and the movie that followed launched Cybil Shepard’s career.

“Terms of Endearment” is another of his great novels. The film that followed pumped sales of the book when Jack Nicholson and Shirley McClain took the lead roles. McMurtry’s best book is his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove.” That became, to most Texans anyway, the best television miniseries of all time.

McMurtry grew up on a ranch in Archer County, Texas, where there’s about five people per square mile. It is interesting that another famous American writer owned land in Archer County. That was Mark Twain. He didn’t live there, but he did own land there, as an investment. This 320 acre plot is still known locally as “the Twain property.”

So these two great writers, Twain as perhaps America’s best and McMurtry as perhaps Texas’ best, both owned land in Archer County, Texas. Small world. Both were Southerners. Both grew up in small, rural, agrarian towns. Both wrote classic books about the American West and about the cowboys and pioneers that inhabited those vast, rugged, haunting landscapes.

Now let me stop here to tell you an interesting story about Twain and the land he owned in Archer County. One day he received a letter from the County Clerk of Archer County saying that his land was in danger of being repossessed due to unpaid taxes. Twain had a man in Texas who was supposed to pay those taxes but he had failed to do so. So, Twain immediately paid the back taxes and saved the land. He was quite angry about the whole affair. He explained in a now somewhat famous letter to his friend William Dean Howells that he had had a man in Texas who was supposed to take care of those taxes, but that man had taken the money and run, so to speak. He wrote that if he ever caught up with him he would suffer on a Biblical scale. Twain said that “he shall beg for brimstone, he will beg in vain.” Now there’s beautifully worded threat even the mafia could be proud of.

Many years ago I sent a copy of the Twain letter to McMurtry. I had stumbled across it in the Twain papers at Vassar University. I told him that he might be pleased to know that he wasn’t the only famous author to have owned land in Archer County. He wrote back in his straightforward, modest style. He said
that he didn’t know about that, but he was glad to know and that he would check into it to see if maybe they had owned some of the same land. I guess they didn’t. I never heard any more about it. But the day I received that letter from the great man himself – that was a mighty fine day.

As a teenager, I used to lie awake at night reading McMurtry. I felt a special connection with him because we lived on the same road, U.S. 281. Six hundred miles apart, it is true, but on the same road. He lived a mile off of U.S. 281 in north Texas and I lived a mile off of U.S. 281 in south Texas. He could hear the trains where he was and I could hear them where I was.

He and I were both lovers of books and of Texas. We both grew up in ranch country. He played the trombone. I played the trombone. And as the years passed, the similarities continued. He went to North Texas State and so did I. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and I… I read it. He now lives in Tucson, where I went to doctoral school, and wrote my thesis – on Mark Twain.

McMurtry is now in his 80s. Given the parallel nature of our lives,
I’m praying he has many beautiful years ahead of him.

What It Means to Be a Texas Gentleman

One of my favorite, but now largely unknown speakers in American history was Robert Green Ingersoll. Redwater, Texas was originally named Ingersoll – after him. He was a philosopher and a popular intellectual, the most sought after orator of his time. He left us many fine proverbs. One of my favorites is this:

“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”

Being graceful in victory is easy, but in defeat, to be dignified and composed and still hopeful for a better day, requires deep character.

As the country prepares to make the transition from one president to another, I’m reminded of an example of this kind of rare decency in defeat. It comes from George H. W. Bush. In 1992, he had just lost a bruising presidential campaign to a much younger, far less experienced Bill Clinton. It must have been excruciatingly painful for Mr. Bush. After all, it was said that he had the longest resume in the Western World. How could he lose to someone who was, at least on paper, less qualified for the job? But he accepted his defeat with grace.

As these fine Texans, George and Barbara, were moving out of the White House and the Clintons were soon to move in, George left a letter for Bill on the Oval Office desk. It has received a good deal of attention online over the past months, but it is a remarkable testimony to good character and it certainly deserves a re-reading. The letter is dated January 20, 1993. It says:

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good Luck – George

Texans have long valued a true southern gentleman. If anyone ever needs a clear definition of what that means, have them read this letter from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton.

Oscar Wilde’s Tour of Texas Gives Us Life

Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” He would be pleased to know that we’re going to talk a good deal about him in the next few minutes.

Few people know that this great playwright, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the author of “A Picture of Dorian Grey” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”, lectured in Texas in 1882. He was just 27 years old.

He liked reciting his entire name like that to show off his Irish heritage. He said he had been shedding names since he was a boy and hoped one day to be known simply as Wilde.

At 27, he was already enormously famous in Europe as a writer, theater critic, an architectural historian, a Classicist, and the leader of the Aesthetic Movement. He was known for dressing opulently in purples and brocades, often with an eccentric sunflower in his lapel. So there was great curiosity about what would happen when this Irish Dandy, as he was known, lectured in the macho world of Texas cowboys.

When he had passed through customs in New York City, he famously said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” So, many Texans, being Texcentric as we are, wondered what the genius would think about our state. Well, for the most part, he liked Texas.

As he took the train to Galveston, through East Texas and Houston, he was fascinated by all the alligators lying lazily on the muddy banks of the bayous.

His first lecture was in Galveston, which was the largest city in Texas at the time. Oscar loved it there. He said, “Galveston, set like a jewel in a crystal sea, was beautiful. Its fine beach, it’s shady avenues of oleander, and its delightful sea breezes were something to be enjoyed.”

He said, “The people of Galveston were wonderful to me. They made me an honorary Colonel in the Texas Rangers. So I wrote immediately to all my friends and told them that they should henceforth address me as Colonel Wilde.”

From Galveston, he traveled to San Antonio by train, in what he regarded as the monstrous Texas heat. Incidentally, he said that traveling by train, whizzing by everything at 40 miles an hour, was no proper way to see new country. The proper way to see new country was on a horse.

In San Antonio, Wilde stayed at the Menger Hotel, which of course still exists today. And even in 1882, the Menger was known for luxury. And so was Wilde. He often said, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without necessities!”

He toured the famous missions in San Antonio. He said, “The San Jose Mission was the finest example of beautiful architecture I came across in all of the Americas.”

He was quite moved by “those old Spanish churches with their picturesque remains of tower and dome, and their handsome carved stonework, standing in the…sunshine of the Texas prairie.”

As for the Alamo, though, he described the “noble” structure’s condition as “monstrous.” He thought it a shame that Texas had allowed this most “sacred of shrines to fall into such Philistine conditions.” The Alamo had been, in those days, used as an Army depot.

He lectured in San Antonio on architecture and interior design. He loved the local use of the natural wood and stone that was so available in the hill country, but warned about the overuse of horrid wallpaper. He believed that a child raised in the ambiance of such wallpaper could later use it as a “defense for a life of crime.”

Wilde was asked in Louisiana how his lecture in San Antonio had gone and he said that the women had loved it, but the men, not so much. Indeed, the men were quite a distraction, he said, “walking in and out with their squeaky boots and clangy spurs. The men were going out for beer, you see. Evidently,” he said, “men in Texas cannot survive more than an hour between beers.”

If he were to return today, 135 years later, he would likely find us about the same.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.

Think There’s No Poetry In Texas? Think Again

A New Yorker told me that he never uses the words Texas and poetry in the same sentence.

He thinks Texas poetry is an oxymoron because he doesn’t see how such a refined art form could be produced in a macho culture. But he is wrong. Cowboys and vaqueros were reciting poetry in the warm glow of firelight on the Texas plains hundreds of years ago.

A modern inheritor of this tradition is Walt McDonald. He gives us this poem that celebrates country music in Texas. It’s called “The Waltz We Were Born For.”

“I never knew them all, just hummed
and thrummed my fingers with the radio,
driving five hundred miles to Austin.
Her arms held all the songs I needed.
Our boots kept time with fiddles
and the charming sobs of blondes,

the whine of steel guitars
sliding us down in deer-hide chairs
when jukebox music was over.
Sad music’s on my mind tonight
in a jet high over Dallas, earphones
on channel five. A lonely singer,

dead, comes back to beg me,
swearing in my ears she’s mine,
rhymes set to music that make
her lies seem true. She’s gone
and others like her, leaving their songs
to haunt us. Letting down through clouds

I know who I’ll find waiting at the gate,
the same woman faithful to my arms
as she was those nights in Austin
when the world seemed like a jukebox,
our boots able to dance forever,
our pockets full of coins.”

Here is another one I enjoy from well-known Texas poet, Chip Dameron. It is printed in the shape of Texas. You begin in the Panhandle and work your way down to the Rio Grande. The words celebrate the part of Texas in which they reside. It is called “A State of Mind.”

Last, here is Violette Newton, Poet Laureate of Texas in 1973. She wrote this humorous poem which speaks directly to the problem of getting respect for Texas poetry:

Up East, they do not think much
of Texas poetry. They think Texans
have no soul for aesthetics, that all
they do is pound their own chests,
talk loud and make money.
But every time I’m nearing Austin,
I look up at a painted sign
high on the side of the highway
that says, “Bert’s Dirts”
and to pyramids of many-colored soils
sold by Bert, and I swell with pride
at that rhyming sign, I puff up
and point to that terse little title
and wish we could stop
so I could go in
and purchase
a spondee of sand
to make a gesture of my support
for poetry in Texas.

Take that, New York.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.