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“Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas,” By Stephen Harrington

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on April 16, 2020

Having not lived in Texas for almost 20 years now (Has it really been that long?), though I still make frequent visits, I have been going through a period of nostalgia for my adopted state, with the result I have read three books about Texas in rather rapid succession: God Save Texas, by Lawrence Wright, Goodbye to a River, by John Graves and Big Wonderful Thing, by Stephen Harrigan. All three are excellent reads, but Harrigan’s book is a tour de force.

Harrigan acknowledges that when he was approached to write this book by the University of Texas Press, he was not at all sure he was the right man for the job, not being a professional historian.

It turns out that Harrigan is perfect1y suited to the job. He is an excellent historian, as is vividly obvious from the book. Also, he has a great deal of personal knowledge about Texas, having been writing magazine articles about it for Texas Monthly and other publications for years. He has interviewed many of the characters covered in the modern-day era of the book. Most important, Harrigan is native born and a Texan through and through, with a deep understanding of the culture.

(Is there such a thing as a professional historian? I know there is such a thing as a professor of history, but is history itself a profession? Napoleon called it “a lie agreed to.”

I wasn’t sure at first whether I wanted to read this book or not, but I was hooked in the opening chapter, about Big Tex, the gigantic automated cowboy greeter at the annual Texas State Fair in Dallas – by far the largest state fair in the country. I couldn’t put it down. (At 830 pages, it wasn’t easy to pick up either, but Harrigan’s writing style helps it along smoothly and enjoyably.)

Big Wonderful Thing is a very credible history of the state, spiked and spiced with an anthology of events, celebrities, villains, clowns, cultural icons and absurdities. (I’ll let you decide where George W. Bush belongs.) Its title is part of a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe’s description of Texas when she first moved to Canyon, Texas to teach art in 1916.

Though it is obvious the author is deeply and abidingly in love with Texas, he doesn’t shy away from its flaws. He addresses them straight on, including Texas’ greatest ones: rampant racism and extreme xenophobia. He evokes Faulkner, who loved and despised the South simultaneously. I’m like these guys, only without any of the writing talent. I love Texas, but I despise its racism, xenophobia and blood culture.

Harrington also has thoughts about the contradiction of two disparate Texas characteristics: valor and arrogance, though he acknowledges the obvious that valor is in decline and arrogance is ascendant.

The blood culture is understandable, though inexcusable. Texas has experienced turmoil, conflict, war and revolution throughout its history, between and among Spain, Mexico, American immigrants, America and Native American Indians, particularly the Comanches, up to and beyond the Civil War. (Texas fought on the side of the Confederacy enthusiastically and was enthusiastically punished for it after the war.)

One of the minor themes I enjoyed reading about was the shift in political dominance in Texas from Democrat to Republican. I saw the exact same thing happen in Oklahoma when I was attending the University of Oklahoma. (Every Oklahoman secretly wants to be a Texan and thinks he or she basically is, except for the second Saturday in October when Oklahoma plays Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.)

The funny thing about this change of party is that there wasn’t really any change at all. Both states are pathologically conservative, so, when Democrats became Republicans, their politics remained the same.

(This conservatism may be changing in Texas. Some think the state is turning purple, trending to blue. You can’t have three major cities without absorbing some cosmopolitanism. A major influx of Hispanics has had an influence also, which state politicians seem to be resisting like at the Alamo.)

Like the rest of America, Texas is a land of immigrants. It has been fought over by continuous streams of immigrants of various sorts, nationalities and motivations, fighting to hold and to live on it. (Think Six Flags Over Texas.) But, regarding immigration, Molly Ivins’ observation applies presciently that “Texas is just like the rest of the country, only more so.”

Harrigan sums it up thusly: “People viewing Texas from the outside have always recognized that there is something different about it, not just in its expanse but in its attitude, also, in its annoying, ineradicable mythic presumption. But it’s hard to live here and not feel a little of that presumption stirring inside you…there is … a hard-earned conviction that the word “Texan” belongs to you as righteously as it does to anyone else.” I certainly feel that way.

A colleague of mine used to tell this joke about himself. He was recruited to our advertising agency in Dallas from one in Chicago. For the first six months he lived in Texas, he looked down on it. Within 12 months, he had bought a pick-up truck, and within 18 months, he had a shotgun hanging on a rack in the back seat of the pick-up. That’s what Texas does to you.

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