God Save Texas, p.1Lawrence Wright
ALSO BY LAWRENCE WRIGHT
The Terror Years
Thirteen Days in September
The Looming Tower
Saints and Sinners
In the New World
City Children, Country Summer
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2018 by Lawrence Wright
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Hal Leonard LLC for permission to reprint an excerpt of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” words and music by Ed Bruce and Patsy Bruce, copyright © 1975 by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, copyright renewed. All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Portions of this work first appeared in The New Yorker as “America’s Future Is Texas” (July 10, 2017) and “The Glut Economy” (January 1, 2018); and in Texas Monthly as “Remembrance of Things Primitive” (February 1993).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Wright, Lawrence, [date] author.
Title: God save Texas : a journey into the soul of the Lone Star State / by Lawrence Wright.
Description: New York : Knopf, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017031324 (print) | LCCN 2017044473 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525520115 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525520108 (hardback)
Subjects: LCSH: Wright, Lawrence, [date] —Travel—Texas. | Harrigan, Stephen, [date] —Travel—Texas. | Texas—Description and travel. | Texas—Politics and government—21st century. | Texas—Social conditions—21st century. | Texas—Economic conditions—21st century. | BISAC: HISTORY / United States / State & Local / Southwest (AZ, NM, OK, TX). | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Cultural Heritage. | POLITICAL SCIENCE / Government / State & Provincial.
Classification: LCC F391.2 (ebook) | LCC F391.2 .W75 2018 (print) | DDC 917.6404—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017031324
Ebook ISBN 9780525520115
Cover photograph Pecos Clouds, FM 1776 South of Coyanosa by Jeff Baker © 2009
Cover design by Chip Kidd
Illustrations by David Danz
Also by Lawrence Wright
One: The Charms, Such as They Are
Two: A Tale of Three Wells
Three: Houston, We Have a Problem
Four: Culture, Explained
Five: The Cradle of Presidents
Six: Turn the Radio On
Seven: Big D
Eight: Sausage Makers
Nine: The City of the Violet Crown
Ten: More Sausage
Twelve: The High Lonesome
Thirteen: Far West, Far Out
Fourteen: Among the Confederates
A Note About the Author
who was there at the beginning
and will be at journey’s end
We’re oilmen and philosophers
Astronauts and ranchers
Fishermen and roughnecks
And college professors.
We’re carpenters and preachers
And artists and physicians
And redneck musicians.
We’re Church of Christ and Baptist
(Evangelical and Southern).
We’re straight and gay and what the hey
We come in every color.
We’re Czech and Greek and Mexican,
Vietnamese and Cajun
We sprawl a quarter million miles
We have no common language.
God save Texas
From the well-intentioned masses!
God save Texas
From the posers and jackasses!
God save Texas
He’s the only one who can!
—unpublished song by Marcia Ball and Lawrence Wright
The Charms, Such as They Are
Subtle was the word my friend Steve used as we drove through a spongy drizzle from Austin to San Antonio on a mild February morning. He was referencing the quality of the pleasures one might experience from observing the Texas landscape—small ones, requiring discernment—although the actual vista in front of us was an unending strip mall hugging a crowded interstate highway. Subtlety is a quality rarely invoked for anything to do with Texas, so I chewed on that notion for a bit.
There are some landscapes that are perfect for walking, disclosing themselves so intimately that one must dawdle to take them in; some that are best appreciated in an automobile at a reasonable rate of speed; and others that should be flown over as rapidly as possible. Much of Texas I place in this last category. Even Steve admits that Texas is where “everything peters out”—the South, the Great Plains, Mexico, the Mountain West—all dribbling to an anticlimactic end, stripped of whatever glory they manifest elsewhere. But in the heart of Texas there is another landscape that responds best to the cyclist, who lumbers along at roughly the rate of a cantering horse, past the wildflowers and mockingbird trills of the Hill Country. Our bikes were in the back of my truck. We were going to explore the five Spanish missions along the San Antonio River, which have recently been named a World Heritage Site.
Steve is Stephen Harrigan, my closest friend for many years, a distinguished novelist who is now writing a history of Texas. We stopped at a Buc-ee’s outside New Braunfels to pick up some Gatorade for the ride. It is the largest convenience store in the world—a category of achievement that only Texas would aspire to. It might very well be the largest gas station as well, with 120 fuel pumps, to complement the 83 toilets that on at least one occasion garnered the prize of Best Restroom in America. The billboards say The Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee’s: Number 1 and Number 2, and also Restrooms You Have to Pee to Believe.
But gas and urination are not the distinguishing attractions at Buc-ee’s. Texas is—or at least the kind of material goods that reify Texas in the minds of much of the world: massive belt buckles, barbecue, country music, Kevlar snake boots, rope signs (a length of rope twisted into a word—e.g., “Howdy”—and pasted over a painting of a Texas flag), holsters (although no actual guns), T-shirts (Have a Willie Nice Day), bumper stickers (Don’t Mess with Texas), anything shaped like the state, and books of the sort classified as Texana. There is usually a stack of Steve’s bestselling novel The Gates of the Alamo as well.
One image on the T-shirts and bumper stickers and whiskey jiggers has become especially popular lately: that of a black cannon over the legend Come and Take It. The taunt has a long history, going back to the Battle of Thermopylae, when Leonidas I, king of Sparta, responded to the demand of the Persian leader, Xerxes, that the Greeks lay down their arms. In Texas, the r
At Buc-ee’s, an aspiring Texan can get fully outfitted not only with the clothing but also with the cultural and philosophical stances that embody the Texas stereotypes—cowboy individualism, a kind of wary friendliness, superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority, a hair-trigger sense of grievance, nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood—a lowbrow society, in other words, that finds its fullest expression in a truck stop on the interstate.
I’ve lived in Texas most of my life, and I’ve come to appreciate what the state symbolizes, both to people who live here and to those who view it from afar. Texans see themselves as confident, hardworking, and neurosis-free—a distillation of the best qualities of America. Outsiders view Texas as the national id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild. Texans, they believe, mindlessly celebrate individualism, and view government as a kind of kryptonite that saps the entrepreneurial muscles. We’re reputed to be braggarts; careless with money and our personal lives; a little gullible but dangerous if crossed; insecure but obsessed with power and prestige. Indeed, it’s an irony that the figure who most embodies the values people associate with the state is a narcissistic Manhattan billionaire now sitting in the Oval Office.
Obviously, those same qualities also have wide appeal. Texas has been growing at a stupefying rate for decades. The only state with more residents is California, but the number of Texans is projected to double by 2050, to 54.4 million, almost as many people as California and New York combined. Three Texas cities—Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—are already among the top ten most populous cities in the United States. The eleventh largest is Austin, the capital, where Steve and I live. For the past five years it has been one of the fastest-growing large cities in America, the metropolitan area surpassing two million people, dwarfing the little college town Steve and I fell for many years ago.
There’s an element of performance involved with being “Texan.” The boots, the pickup trucks, the guns, the attitude—they’re all part of the stereotype, but they’re also a masquerade. Stylistic choices such as the way Texans dress or the vehicles they choose to drive enforce a sense of identity, but they also add to the alienation that non-Texans often feel about the state.
Riding on top of the old stereotypes are new ones—hipsters, computer gurus, musicians, video-game tycoons, and a widening artistic class that has reshaped the state’s image and the way we think of ourselves. That Texas can’t be captured on a coffee mug or a bumper sticker. “I’m the least Texas person I know,” Steve once observed. I’ve never seen him in cowboy regalia, or even a pair of jeans. He hasn’t owned a pair of boots since he was six years old. In college, he took horseback riding as a physical education requirement and got an F. He contends that must have been a clerical error, but the last time he was on a horse he fell off and broke his arm.
Neither Steve nor I could have lasted in Texas if it were the same place we grew up in, but we’re so powerfully imprinted by the culture it’s impossible to shake it off. Still, both of us have considered leaving and often wondered why we stayed. Many times I’ve considered moving to New York, where most of my colleagues live, or Washington, which is Lotus Land for political journalists. I’ve never felt at home in either spot. Washington is a one-industry town, and although writers have influence, they are basically in the grandstands watching the action. New York intellectuals sometimes put me off, with their liberal certitudes, their ready judgment of anyone who differs with them. The city is a pulsing hive of righteous indignation. In any case, I think I’m too much of a rustic to survive there. Once, when I was walking up Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, I saw a nicely dressed older man standing in the street beside the curb. He was turning around in small, distracted circles. All my prejudices against the city came up: here was a man in need, but people were walking by, evidently uncaring. In Texas, we wouldn’t let a confused old man place himself in danger. I approached him as any gallant Texan would and said, “Sir, are you okay?”
He looked at me in puzzlement. “I’m waiting for a cab,” he said.
* * *
WRITERS HAVE BEEN sizing up Texas from its earliest days, usually harshly. Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist before he became the designer of New York’s Central Park, rode through in 1854. “Horses and wives were of as little account as umbrellas in more advanced states,” he noted. In 1939, Edna Ferber arrived on a prospecting trip that led to her novel Giant. That book, finally published in 1952, was a sensation. It popularized the image of Texas millionaires as greedy but colorful provincials, whose fortunes were built largely on luck rather than hard work or intelligence. That there was truth in this summation was part of the sting. When the New Yorker writer John Bainbridge passed through the state in 1961, gathering material for his book The Super-Americans, he found Texans still reeling from what he called ednaferberism. “Few documents since the Emancipation Proclamation have stirred as much commotion,” Bainbridge observed; however, he also noticed that the movie had just come out, and it was booked on nearly every screen in the state. In the movie version, Rock Hudson plays the cattle rancher with a spread the size of several states; James Dean is the roughneck, who rises from nothing to build a stupendous fortune; and Elizabeth Taylor is the civilizing Easterner, who acknowledges the exploitation of the Mexicans who do all the labor but fail to reap the profits. It’s been three quarters of a century since Giant first appeared on bookshelves, but the archetypes that Ferber codified still color the perceptions of Texans by both outsiders and Texans themselves.
Bainbridge observed that the condescension of non-Texans toward the state echoes the traditional Old World stance toward the New. “The faults of Texas, as they are recorded by most visitors, are scarcely unfamiliar, for they are the same ones that Europeans have been taxing us with for some three hundred years: boastfulness, cultural underdevelopment, materialism, and all the rest,” Bainbridge wrote. He diagnosed the popular disdain for Texas as a combination of “hostility born of envy” and “resentment born of nostalgia.” He added: “Texas is a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life-sized but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life. They are not pleased by the image.”
When Bainbridge visited, Texas was in the backseat of the national consciousness, a marginal influence despite its swelling oil wealth and sui generis political culture. By the time Gail Collins, The New York Times’s op-ed columnist, arrived to research her 2012 manifesto, As Texas Goes…How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, the accumulation of economic and political power meant that Texas now had a hand on the steering wheel. Alarm had set in. “Texas runs everything,” Collins wrote, expressing a typical liberal complaint. “Why, then, is it so cranky?”
Steve and I have talked over the question of whether Texas is responsible for fomenting the darker political culture that has crept over our country, which is the charge that outsiders like Collins often make, citing as evidence Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, George W. Bush and Iraq, Tom DeLay and redistricting, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party—an impressive bill of particulars that has contributed to the national malaise. Steve takes the position that Texas is simply a part of the mainstream. Its influence may seem disproportionate, but it’s a huge state and it reflects trends that are under way all across the country. “If you visualize America as a sailing ship, Texas is like the hold,” he says. “When the cargo shifts, it’s bound to affect the trajectory of the vessel.”
I’m less forgiving. I
* * *
WE DECIDED TO begin our ride at the farthest of the five missions—San Francisco de la Espada, established in 1731. From there it was about thirteen miles to the oldest mission, the Alamo, in downtown San Antonio.
Texas has had a lot of blood spilled on its soil, and although the term “terrorism” wasn’t in coinage during the settlement of the state, people on all sides understood the stakes. Torture, scalping, beheading, indiscriminate and imaginative murders were the nature of the conflict between the native world and the European colonizers. The idea of the missions was to provide sanctuary for the Coahuiltecan Indians, where they could be Christianized and turned into farmers and artisans. “The point was to make them as much like Spaniards as possible,” Steve says. Unfortunately for the Coahuiltecans, they were caught in a crossfire between the Spaniards and the Apaches, as well as the Comanches, who ruled the savage plains. “It was like modern-day Syria,” Steve observed.
A wedding was going on in the little Espada chapel, so Steve and I wandered over to an outbuilding where an amateur baseball league was selling barbecue plates. We ate on a bench in a field of purple clover beside the ancient granary and listened to the nuptial music. A waft of incense floated from the tiny sanctuary, and the sun suddenly broke through. Already in February we could feel the breath of July.
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