Cattle. Oilmen. Hipsters. Tycoons. Country and western singers. Stetsons and boots. Salsa and chips. Computer chips. Cowboys. Dallas Cowboys. The Big D. The “Big Drunk’’ (Sam Houston).
Texas is a many splendored thing, both forbidding (New Englanders, except for George H.W. Bush, often shy away) and welcoming (the state, now the second biggest in the country, is growing every day). “Horses and wives were as of little account as umbrellas in more advanced states,’’ the urban designer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of the state in 1854, two dozen years before he would set out Boston’s and Brookline’s Emerald Necklace.
The state may be the cutting edge of modernity today, and yet the old myths, the colorful folklore, endure. Those myths and that folklore may no longer be Texas, but they are what make Texas Texas. Now comes Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize winning author and chronicler of terrorists and Scientology, to explain it all.
Why do we — even those of us who consider Texas a foreign land, which of course it once was — need an explanation? “Because,’’ the Texas native argues, “Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America — the South, the West, the Plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities — what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.’’
In these pages, more a personal meditation than a survey in the tradition of John Gunther’s 1947 landmark “Inside U.S.A.,’’ there is a struggle between the old and the new, the real and the imaginary, always with the acknowledgement that one of the aspects of the old Texas was the hunger for the new — and that, unique in America with the possible exception of California, Texas is the staging ground for the future, and for dreams real and imaginary. Wright notes, as proof, “the architecture of our cities, which have practically obliterated their own native charms in order to become showplaces of other people’s ideas.’’
And while in other places — Boston, for example — what is new often is old, in Texas what seems old (the fajita, for example) is actually new. The fajita was unknown until 1973. (The next year Rafael Osornio would open Sol Azteca restaurant in Boston, one of the city’s first Mexican eateries.)
Wright argues, persuasively, that the hinge of the national view of Texas was the Kennedy assassination. (Look at newspapers of that period and you will notice that the datelines from that fateful November 1963 weekend read: Dallas, Tex. Today the datelines omit the “Tex.’’) America started to look more deeply at Texas then, or to look down at Texas then, or to look elsewhere.
“The Kennedy assassination put an end to the era of heroic Texas movies; after that, the state represented everything Hollywood thought was vile and wrong with America,’’ he argues. The Lyndon Johnson years of ramping up an unpopular war in Vietnam didn’t help.
It was in the post-LBJ era that the legends and folklore began to erode, though with difficulty.
“According to the legends we tell ourselves, Texans get ahead by relying in luck, nerve, and instinct,’’ he writes. “These are good qualities. They might be sufficient in a culture of wildcatters and poker players, but not for engineers or city planners or educators — the kinds of people who actually build urban civilizations, but cities don’t fit comfortably into the Texas myth.’’
And though much of Texas now is urban — or, rather, is dominated by urban centers — the cowboy ethic still prevails. Wright provides as good a précis of that ethic as any sociologist:
‘‘The world is full of danger, and the cowboy has to be ready to defend himself and his family. In place of the law, the cowboy lives by a code of fairness and rough justice. He doesn’t impose his will on others, and he bridles at the suggestion that anyone — especially government — has a right to tell him what to do.’’
Just when the reader begins to wonder how, or why, Wright speaks of Texas as one place — bewildering, boastful, bountiful, bawdy — he comes to the rescue and delineates two Texases: AM Texas and FM Texas. We instantly and intuitively know what he means, and which one of them voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Amid the the state legislature’s fights over bathroom bills, feral hog abatement programs, and a bill allowing the hunting of wild pigs from hot air balloons, the reader comes away with an idea that the state is a place of competing melodies: a bit of Austin country, a few measures of Roy Orbison, a riff from Buddy Holley and, for him, maybe a stanza of “Home on the Range,’’ which applies as much to Texas as to Kansas, where it is the state song. The skies are not cloudy all day.
But, dear Boston reader, do not feel smug. Consider this sentence tucked, inexplicably but unavoidably, in a fat paragraph about Texans and their guns: “Texans drive far more courteously than New Yorkers or, my God, Bostonians, where the consequences for being a jerk may not be fatal.’’ So there. GOD SAVE TEXAS:
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.