Review of Stephen Harrigan, Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2019)
Years ago, I was onboard a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas. As the voice on the intercom finished the proper passenger protocol should we experience a water landing, the flight attendant—who had traded in her standard corporate uniform for a star-spangled red-white-and-blue number topped off with cowboy boots, hat, and silver belt buckle—paused and began belting out “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The 1941 tune has been covered by Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como, among others. It was apparently too catchy, however, for the BBC, which banned the song during World War II for fear that British factory workers would lose focus and abandon their labors to clap along to the melody. The Brits had good reason for concern: my crowded flight soon was hollering “The stars at night / are big and bright / Deep in the heart of Texas!” That should have been my first tip-off. Texas was different.
That’s the theme of Stephen Harrigan’s sprawling new book Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Moving chronologically from the earliest native inhabitants of the land to present day, Harrigan, an essayist for Texas Monthly and a writer of historical novels, sweeps across all the landmarks of Texas’s past. He traces the Spanish conquest and establishment of the mission system (including the Mission San Antonio de Valero, later to be known simply as The Alamo), development of the province of Coahuila y Tejas following the War of Mexican Independence, agitation leading to the Texas Revolution, the Republic years and eventual admission into the United States, the discovery of oil, and the state’s growing political and economic clout in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The basic arc of Texas history is well-known. Initially colonized as a series of religious outposts and trading depots in New Spain, the original colonists developed relations with the scattered Native American tribes in the region while expanding outwards to balance against neighboring imperial powers in French Canada and the British possessions. The precise limits of each nation’s holdings remained in flux at the frontiers, though the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War provided some stability by redrawing the territorial map. French Louisiana was to be divided, with the eastern half transferred to Great Britain and the western lands ceded to New Spain. Meanwhile, Spanish Florida was surrendered to the British in exchange for the restoration of Manila and Havana. Thus, for four decades, the land we now know as Texas would be solidly under Spanish control. This allowed the colonial government to concentrate on developing its established commercial and population centers rather than pressing further settlement. But two cataclysmic events in the early nineteenth century dashed Spanish hopes for dominance in North America. First came the restoration of French Louisiana by treaty in 1800 and Napoleon’s turnaround sale of the vast territory in 1803 to an upstart and expansionist-minded United States of America. The insurgent uprisings in New Spain soon followed, which resulted in an independent Mexican state in 1821.
At the center of this geopolitical triangle between a young US, a retreating Spain, and an infant Mexican Empire was Stephen Austin, who, perhaps more than any other individual, has just claim to the title of “Father of Texas.” Austin played a delicate game; as one of the original empresarios, his 200,000-acre land grant had been authorized by the Spanish government and now needed to be confirmed by the new Mexican regime. Mexico did so, on the condition that Austin could bring at least 300 non-slaveholding families to settle the territory. He did, but soon broke with the Mexican authorities and their mercurial new president, Antonio López de Santa Anna. Sensing the best prospects for growth lay elsewhere, he initiated diplomatic overtures with the US, in the hope of placing Texas in the American sphere of influence.
Hostilities ensued. The Anglo settlers and native Tejanos took up arms against the Santa Anna government and, in 1836, declared themselves the sovereign Republic of Texas. The Mexican army mobilized and besieged Texian troops, including those garrisoned at San Antonio’s Alamo fortress. Here fact often blurs into legend, as the litany of famous names—James Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Travis—has been appropriated as a parable of fallen valor and the stuff of Texas lore.
Chief perhaps among iconic names is Sam Houston, Commander-in-Chief of the Texian Army, first President of the Republic, first US Senator from Texas, sometime governor, and namesake of the fourth-most-populous city in the nation. Houston, who had lived among the Cherokee tribe as a youth and gained fame as Andrew Jackson’s protégé in the War of 1812, cast a Washington-like figure over Texas, serving as its wartime general before transitioning to civil leadership. When his marriage fell apart during his tenure as governor of Tennessee, he disappeared back to the Cherokee, before reemerging and settling in Texas in 1832. When war came a few years later, Houston was the natural choice to take command of the troops.
He was an apt selection of military commander. Houston routed Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto and established a new country that extended east to much of present-day New Mexico, north to Wyoming, and—more hotly debated—south to the Rio Grande. He maintained a working relationship with Mexico and sought peaceful relations with the Indian tribes. As Texas’s president, he sought to put the nation on stable financial footing and, building on Austin’s earlier efforts, laid the groundwork for American recognition of the fledgling republic from his old friend Andrew Jackson, who was by then US president. But Houston was worried about the divisive effect of slavery on the nation, and by 1860, less than 15 years after Texas had achieved its long-desired dream of being admitted into the union, the state’s Secession Convention voted to break away from the US and join the Confederacy. Houston, who was serving as governor at the time, refused to swear loyalty to the Confederate States as mandated by the legislature. And so Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas Revolution, was ousted from public life and replaced with a more compliant office-holder.
If it is difficult to imagine Texas as a “Southern” state, perhaps that has more to do with Texas’s defiance of easy categorization in general than any particular failure to peg the Lone Star State to a shared political agenda. But following the Civil War, Texas suffered the same issues of rebuilding and Reconstruction as the Deep South, and it manifested an unbroken allegiance to the Democratic Party that was to last for nearly a century. During that time, it would launch some of the nation’s most powerful political leaders, including Sam Rayburn, the formidable Speaker of the House; the charismatic senator “Smilin’” Ralph Yarborough; and an ambitious young congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Harrigan clearly enjoys, and is very good at, recounting the stories and quirks of these many personalities. His background as a novelist and essayist shines through as he tells the story of Texas through many vignettes. So we are introduced to an eclectic hodgepodge of Texas personae: Elisabet Ney, whose marble carvings of Austin and Houston stand in Washington’s Statuary Hall; Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who hunted down Bonnie and Clyde; Charles Goodnight, one of the original American cattle ranchers; and H. L. Hunt, the savvy businessman who snapped up the rights to oil fields in east Texas that would make him perhaps the single wealthiest man in the world. But the reader is also treated to diversions about Hunt’s adult sons, who cornered the silver market in 1979; Katherine Anne Porter, a twentieth-century short story writer and novelist; and J. C. Clopper, an Ohioan who is chiefly remembered for being the first person to memorialize the recipe for chili. These asides are each interesting enough in their own right, and in their own way shed light on some aspect of Texas law or culture or mores. But the proliferation of such excursuses helps swell the volume to its doorstop-sized 900 pages.
It’s also apparent that the author prefers some themes, and some time periods, more than others. Harrigan’s works of historical fiction, like The Gates of the Alamo, give away his proclivities: his heart is in Old Texas. To wit, the last thirty years of the state’s political history, basically from George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign on, are relegated to one chapter. LBJ gets substantial treatment, though one wonders if that’s largely because he was too irresistible a character for a novelist to minimize. (The same is true of Harrigan’s attention to Ann Richards, and, to a lesser extent, Ross Perot.) But Harrigan does not disguise his biases—most amusingly, perhaps, an indifference toward football, a near-heresy in the land of Friday Night Lights. And he does not pretend to offer a comprehensive history. Indeed, Big Wonderful Thing (perhaps like its subject) is not easily characterized. It is published by a university press. There are footnotes—present, but comparatively spare—and photographs—plentiful, and often striking. But no one would mistake this book for a fusty piece of academic writing. It is good history for mass consumption: readable, well-researched, and very much of a piece in accepting the mythos of Texas history.
As a matter of historiography, Harrigan acknowledges the tendency to view the historical unfolding of events—in particular the Texas Revolution—as inevitable steps towards progress. But Texas, as Harrigan understands, cannot be reduced so simplistically to a tale of cowboy conquest or roving cattle men and oil wildcatters. Texas was forged in the crucible of its Spanish and Mexican heritage, courted but only slowly accepted into the US, ceaselessly on guard against a still-proud Indian empire, blessed with abundant land and natural resources but cash-poor from the get-go, and always struggling. In many ways the history of Texas is the tale of agon: against the French and British, then the Spanish, against Santa Anna, the Comanches, the Union, against Republicans, and on and on. So it should be little surprise that the state developed a fierce independent streak and a cultural identity totally distinct from any other state in the American South or the American Southwest. Though shifting demographics may call into question whether or not such independence can be sustained, Texas came to embody a sort of self-assured rebel spirit—one that it could afford to embrace full-on when fueled by petrodollars and an enterprising sky’s-the-limit mentality that characterized its inhabitants from the outset.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote that Texas had become a symbol encapsulating both a rich history and an aspirational dream. “Texas,” he said, “is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”
Photo Credit: CMy23, Rio Grande Run, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.