Remembrance of Texas Past
The Year in Texas Lit
We remember the Alamo. Agnostics in the Church of the Alamo had reason to be a little mystified by all the Alamo hoopla that took place last year. But Stephen Harrigan's The Gates of the Alamo -- which eventually made it to The New York Times bestseller list and other major lists -- went a considerable way toward converting even those people most vigorously uninterested in San Antonio's old brown shrine and the consequences of the battle that took place there. He does it in a deceptively simple way, deceptive because arrigan's eight years of research for the novel don't show up on the page as "research." He writes with a keen awareness that anyone who tears down the hackneyed myths of Travis, Crockett, and Bowie has to supplant them with another story to believe in. In this case, it's a more global and affecting tale than anything conjured up by the King of the Wild Frontier (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-03-24/books_feature.html).
Jose Enrique de la Peña was a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army who fought at the Alamo and later recorded an account of what happened there. One brief passage of de la Peña's story has been angering Crockett defenders ever since his diary was first translated 25 years ago. That's because de la Peña says that Crockett was captured by Mexican soldiers and executed by order of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna instead of dying in battle. At a sometimes-heated conference at UT in April, historians, archivists, and Alamo experts gathered to hear the results of tests on the diary that would reveal whether it was authentic or forged. (It's real.) Still up for debate: Whether authenticity equals accuracy (did de la Peña report the truth?) and why it matters so much how Crockett died (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-05-05/books_feature.html).
We remember Mary Karr. Cherry picks up where The Liar's Club, the bestselling Texas book of the Nineties, left off, in that awful place by the Texas coast. Cherry received generally favorable reviews, disregarding the pretty nasty one by Don Graham in the pages of Texas Monthly. "I've been that mad before but never at someone I wasn't sleeping with," Karr quipped in a Dec. 8 interview in The Texas Observer.
Goodbye to a River turns 40. Last year, John Graves received the Bookend Award -- a lifetime achievement award -- from the Texas Book Festival (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-11-17/portfolio10.html). If you've read any of Graves' books, in person he's just what you would expect him to be: quiet, thoughtful, and plain-spoken. It was a thoroughly fitting tribute to a man who turned out to be quite a redeeming antidote to all the political strangeness that hovered around the Festival. The fascinating John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960, edited by Dave Hamrick, was published in 2000 as well.
19th-century Texas makes a comeback. It may be a fluke, but the publication this spring by major houses of three novels set in 19th-century Texas had the effect of kicking up the dust of old Texas trails and making them seem alive. Harrigan's The Gates of the Alamo was followed by Bud Shrake's The Borderland: A Novel of Texas (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-03-31/books_feature.html), which picks up, as if on cue, several years after the close of Harrigan's novel, followed in April by Steven Saylor's A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, which uses a certain famous punster as a guide for revisiting the horrors of Austin's Servant Girl Annihilator murders in the 1880s (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-04-07/books_feature.html).
The Larry McMurtry publishing machine thrives, despite prognostication to the contrary. Almost three years ago, McMurtry decided he'd written enough fiction for one lifetime, and declared that he wouldn't be making any more of it. He must have just been thinking out loud because November brought us Boone's Lick, the first novel in what is supposed to be a new series by McMurtry set in the Old West. Reviews are generally lukewarm (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-12-29/books_readings.html). It was a busy year for McMurtry, with two titles preceding Boone's Lick -- Roads: Driving America's Great Highways, and Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West from 1950 to the Present, which McMurtry edited (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-08-04/books_roundup2.html). Scribner reprinted Dead Man's Walk, Lonesome Dove, Comanche Moon, and Streets of Laredo in new paperback editions.
Dallas Morning News curtails book coverage. In September, the Dallas Morning News, which has a long tradition of commanding national respect for its book pages, slashed the amount of its literary coverage by reportedly more than 50%, though Sue Smith, deputy managing editor of the Lifestyles section, doesn't put a hard number on it and in fact says that the paper is working on finding ways to fit in more reviews. In October, Texas writer Clay Reynolds, a professor at the University of North Texas and a contributor to the Morning News' book pages, sent out an e-mail to about 25 people urging them to register their discontent to Managing Editor Stuart Wilk. "If you are in any way concerned with books," Reynolds wrote, "if you are in any way concerned with book writing, publishing, or even reading, and you live in or are in any way connected with Texas and the Southwest, this issue concerns you, because it concerns one of the principal newspapers that services this state and region."
On October 26, Wilk wrote a letter to Reynolds stating that the new placement of book reviews, called "The Review," was "an attempt to broaden the appeal of our books coverage and at the same time better package our reviews of audio books and CDs. ... The Review also is meant to reflect the way books are actually sold today. Book retailers (and web sites) have found strong synergy between books and recorded music; we hope to do the same." Wilk stressed in his letter that the attempt to appeal to a "broader, younger readership" would not "dumb down" the paper's book coverage, but judging from copies of letters that admittedly upset Texas writers sent to Wilk, the appeal hasn't quite worked. On October 17, C.W. Smith (Understanding Women: A Novel) wrote Wilk that "the new home of the book reviews is heavy with pointless graphics that are calculated, I suppose, to draw a visually oriented audience (semi-literate) to a medium that imagines that it must cater to it or die." But Sue Smith disputes that assessment. "Some readers may question this but we are very devoted to books coverage," she says. "I know that they may not understand this, but actually we were trying to eventually do this as a way to give them more [coverage]. "We weren't trying to make it less inviting to people who are keen on books coverage," she continues. "We actually were trying to make it attractive."
Also this fall, the Statesman gave freelance columnist Mike Cox, who has been writing "Texana," a column about Texas writing since 1982, the option of either cutting back to one column a month from his present pace of two per month or remain at two columns a month for the price of one. Cox opted for the latter, saying, "I do enjoy writing the column, but I'm also sort of like Dr. Samuel Johnson who said that none but a blockhead writes for free."
The good news: The San Antonio Express-News, whose legendary book editor Judyth Rigler retired this fall, increased its book coverage from one and a half pages to two.
The Katherine Anne Porter House opens in September (auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-10-06/books_inperson.html). She couldn't wait to get out of Kyle, but Porter might like the idea that nearly one million dollars have been spent to refurbish the house in which she grew up. A house that Porter liked to pretend was a Southern plantation has now become a painstakingly restored small home with a new, large building in the back yard that will be used for teaching and readings. In fact, what is now a bathroom used by Melissa Falcon, an alumna of the creative writing program at nearby Southwest Texas State and the writer-in-residence at the Porter House, used to be sleeping quarters for all of the Porter children.
Last summer, students from the Hays County Consolidated Independent School District began attending creative writing classes at the house in an effort to solve a situation that -- judging from what Porter had to say -- has been in existence since she lived there: a lack of cohesiveness in the community. "It's a scattered school district," Falcon said in June, "because it's kids from different towns coming in all going to the same high school. There's this real sense of Oh, I live out behind the Conoco' like they're not a part of the community. And that was Katherine Anne Porter's ... a lot of the feeling that she had about Kyle was that she wanted a sense of community. And back then it was a small town and now it's kind of this space by Austin." Porter is the only author to make appearances in both Best American Short Stories of the Century and Best American Essays of the Century. Porter devotees should look for a book of essays coming out in April from TCU Press, From Texas to the World and Back: Essays on the Journeys of Katherine Anne Porter, edited by Mark Busby and Dick Heaberlin.