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Spirit of Texas

May 2024
9min read

Its peculiarly local exuberance is nourished by rare traditions and an untamed individualism.

This Is Texas. Improbable event, incredible success, unprofitable loyalty, colossal hardship, heart-breaking failure went into its making. By turns expansively liberal and hidebound conservative (sometimes both at once), Texas is often as contradictory and unpredictable as its rivers : Canadian, Red, Sabine, Neches, Trinity, San Jacinto, Brazos, Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, San Antonio, Nueces, Rio Grande. It can also be smartly calculated: Now and then somebody turns a crazy dream like a man-dug ship channel into profitable business for all concerned.

Texas has had its share of heroes, some native and some borrowed from other states. It has also originated or borrowed a notable gallery of shysters, spoilspirits, and gunmen. Extreme breeds averaged out in time; the state was built mainly by men for whom it was not necessary to erect either statues or scaffolds.

As Texas went on building what it needed, it stayed big but lost its old spaciousness. It is true that several dozen counties are still full of the loneliness that invited frontiersmen; in some, human beings don't add up to five a square mile. But other parts are crowding. Texas is becoming an urban state. Meanwhile, the city and country folk-sense stays pretty much the same; whatever the scene or accent, the state's tongues preserve talking lore of men who have held lively opinions about everything from God almighty to county politics and cures for rheumatism.

Because Texas has never tried to isolate itself from its past or from its future, it has changed more than most states. Through successive stages of wilderness, foreign dominion, republican government, and hardy statehood, an untamed independence has been nourished by every-thing about Texas: geography, tradition, history, custom. Capable of friendliness and co-operation, this Texas individualism resists standardization and quiescence. It is prodigal of natural resources, jealous of its name, confident of the present, willing to gamble on the future. Both piety and ambition get stirred with restlessness here. A bifocal attention to what is behind and what is ahead accounts for much of the vitality and most of the contradictions in Texas.

Texas contradictions begin with geography. This geography is more than a map defining 267,339 square miles, of which 3,695 are covered with water. Before maps were made, slow geologic changes were prophetic of the quick-changing periods men have recorded. Several hundred million years ago, the Permian Sea covered western and northwestern reaches of Texas. High mountains struck from north to south. The heaving up of the west, the vanishing of the sea, the slow erosion of the mountains, the shifting of waters made Texas foundations. These rocks and leavings, separated into the numberless habitations of plant and animal, underlie the contradictions of coastal and high prairie, piney woods, post-oak land, valley, blackland, rolling plain, wild rockiness, desert stretches, peaks. The highness and lowness of Texas ranges from Guadalupe Peak's 8,751 feet in Culberson County to zero. This is essential, then: Texas is many widely differing places.

Not less than places, the kinds of weather that blow hopscotch across 'Texas differ. "Texas weather," said Sir Swante Palm after a weary year of trying to record it, "is not so much variety as surprise." In that mood of "What next?" Texans escape boredom-by-climate. Long hot stretches, however, have made refrigeration a highly popular science. Hot or cold, the weather has a great deal to do with the popular tags and gags applied to Texas at home and abroad—more than anything else, perhaps, except the Texas Revolution, the Cowboy Age, and Oil.

It was partly weather that inspired the northern general whose name began with S to declare that if he owned Hell and Texas, he'd rent Texas and set up his tent in Hell. Touchy about wisecracks like that, Texans have used whatever imagination and verbal skill they had to make the inevitably bad appear worse and raise that worse to something that might evaporate in laughter. Hence the tall tale, and the tenderfoot shocker. So Texas has dust storms, does it? Well, nothing like what it used to have:

   One spring the dusties blew so thick
   We staked five claims above Clay Crick
   Fifty foot high in the fallow air.
   Blows lots worse on the prairie. There
   Was a friend of mine—fellow named Blye—
   Rode up a dust-cloud six miles high
   Saw where he was and he come home loping;
   Lucky for him the cloud was sloping.

This kind of tall tale was designed partly to hoist the self-respect of people sensitive to criticism. With a different twist, it could be used to bring the other fellow's towering opinions of himself down a peg or two. Strength, exploit, bigness, beauty, wealth, weather—always the weather—made likely topics, and still do.

   Heat? Well some. Here last summer
   I guess it rose to boiling and one.
   Fellow come by—some sort of drummer,
   About your size. Raised in town.
   Not used to sun. Melted him down.
   When he got set to go home again,
   I reckon he stood about three-foot-ten.

Like remarkable littleness, remarkable bigness has ad-vantages and disadvantages. Bigness in Texas was a blessing when it came to acquiring range for cattle. It was something else for the traveler. To an Easterner used to short distances, Texas seemed mighty like a void, a jumping-off place. Being human and having to put up with size whether they liked it or not, Texans made a virtue of mileage. Hence one kind of Texas megalophily. Ranches, hats, jackrabbits, fortunes were either made big or made to sound that way. The big story was free and flourished in the years when Texas was acting out romances and farces of sudden wealth and melodramas of sudden death. More recent Texas "brags" are quite another matter. They are no more genuinely Texan than the funny cowboy suits and imitation Indian feathers.

For essentials, Texas takes a long look backward. This retrospect sweeps unequal periods of history, including three hundred and seventeen years of conflicting Indian, Spanish, French, and Mexican influence, penetration, and power. Nothing much remains of all that if the eye is in a hurry—chapters in books, some colorful words, a few legends, attractive picture spots where tourists catch the past between hamburgers and the next motel. Serious social historians keep asking if "Texas Under Six Flags" means anything more than the following chronology, which school children are required to learn and adults inclined to forget:

   Spain, 1519-1685
   France, 1685-1690
   Spain, 1690-1821
   Mexico, 1821-1836
   Republic of Texas, 1836-1845
   United States, 1845-1861
   Confederacy, 1861-1865
   United States, 1865-

The earliest records of Spanish and French dominion, like the stories of Karankawa and Comanche, are unrealities today. Mexican impressions are clearer, changed and renewed by new times and closeness. Some tokens, like the indigestible imitations of Mexican cuisine served everywhere in Texas, are casual. Others, like the steady feeling for Mexican art and craft, are more serious and more essential. Greater influence still rises in agreement between Texas and Mexico on some matters where good neighborliness connects with simple humanity or humanitarianism, unassisted by planned tours, economic subsidies, and high-flown resolutions.

For at least a century the contributions of the Texas Negro have been widespread and subtle. In earliest evidence of it, it could hardly be distinguished from the Negro's contribution to any other part of the South. Recently, however, the Texas Negro has found a redefined position and a heightened responsibility in the life of the state.

Successive generations of European groups have cast in their languages, ideals, and ways of living. English, Scotch, and Irish were early in this mingling; many came in the second and later generations from homes in other states, while others traveled straight from Ireland, Scot land, and England. Germans, Scandinavians, and Czechs joined them. In smaller numbers other nationalities appeared in Texas. All disappeared to reappear as Texans. A few institutions, a few communities, an occasional holiday will mark these separate nationalities, but especially since the first world war there has been a rapid unification of cultures.

Texas puts to use not only other periods and foreign cultures but also the significance of particular events. Two days in the Texas calendar are red—for Texas Independence and for the Battle of San Jacinto. In local observances, there is a growing inclination to include impartially Washington, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Christopher Columbus in the devotion of days to people. Doubtless this tendency rises less from Olympian tolerance than from American love of holiday.

In its rhetorical account of its spirit, Texas would be wasteful to put any line like Travis' "I shall never surrender or retreat" noisily. Much of the excited punctuation of Texas history is not rhetorical, nor political, nor military. Disaster, wonder, sudden change crowd popular recollection—the storm that tore Galveston to shreds in 1 goo, twenty-four-inch rains and terrifying spells of dryness, the quick craziness at Spindletop and Borger, the romances of the Texas Rangers.

Such history may lift the heart or divert the curiosity of strangers. But mere glory and romance, fine rhetoric, drama and melodrama, excitement and sensation are medicines sure to stupefy the spirit at last. It is not unimportant or uncharacteristic that young Texas historians —really young ones, in high school—are attending to the history of communities, businesses, schools, churches, professions, ranching, farming, industry. The Old Post Road from Bobtown to Sawgut is less glorious than the approaches to the battlefield of San Jacinto. But it winds through a little part of Texas history, and the little histories are getting told.

All this suggests that whatever was enthralling about the fact of Texas in early time submits to change—to change and to judgment. The Texas grizzlies are gone. So are the bighorn, the otters, the bison. The longhorns and the mustangs follow. Instead, what? What is there instead of the Chisholm Trail, wild horses, wide ranges? Lots of airplanes, 86,500 miles of oil and gas pipelines, expressways everywhere and—a good many things that seem tentative and transient in a day when the propellered airplane is dated.

There are some people in Texas—not many, but some—who remember earlier times not as "enthralling" at all but as spare, pertinent, functional. Now and again they are inclined to reverse the process of examination, very carefully and irreverently to scrutinize the shiny things that to other Texans suggest growth and progress. Build a very modern house and one of them will note its big windows glaring at the Texas sun and call it a four-walled frying pan, despite its air-conditioning. In this attitude there is more than intransigence. At one extreme it is a pose, of course, but in the middle it insists on values and notes the ludicrousness of many proud human devices.

What is past and passing gives Texas archives and museums the hard task of maintaining clear views, of keeping things defined and original. They are doing a remarkably good job. In this process of stopping time there are ironies, of course; Texas writers have used them in novels, essays, and verse.

   We brought prim order out of old wild living
   learned what we could; what we could not, surmized:
   our spinning wheel stands polished there and steadied;
   horn-handled spoons are safely sterilized.
   No trace of years appears upon the labels;
   note their pristine wording as you pass;
   lighting's indirect upon our tables'
   bright estate of muskets under glass.

Time helped out in another conflict across Texas. Against lawlessness, ugliness, discomfort, and ignorance, head-on opposition was roused many generations ago. Preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers who asserted the importance of learning, faith, science, and beauty did not always see the results of their assertions. Gradually, the looks and life of Texas changed. The counter-frontier movement persisted. It is prevailing.

In education it is prevailing because of a fundamental shift in the attitude of youth. Great grandfathers had precepts enough on this subject. "Education is the guardian of democracy;" "The open mind is the only safe companion of good citizenship"—these and other sententious declarations upon the benefits of trained intellect have echoed in the halls of Texas. They have been inscribed on stone and other durable materials on countless walls. For years, these sentiments seemed only to speed departing minds, artistic talent, and planning ability to far corners of the earth. Every year there was an exodus of promising young Texans. Theoretically the youthfulness of things Texan should have held them. It is beginning to do so. For twenty years a growing proportion of young Texans have chosen to stay at home. Perhaps in the depression a younger generation got stuck. Perhaps in the war of the forties another younger generation aired their living and opinions so widely that they were ready to stay put. Whatever the cause, the results are obvious and in general good.

It is particularly good that future leadership will be supplied from such groups of men and women. In politics alone, the difference is easy to predict. Not that Texas politics has not always had vitality enough. But statesmanship has too often had to get along beside other things. The mildest politician in Texas history, a candidate for postmastership a long time ago, gave the state its best political epigram. When told that he was losing votes and would have to put another face on his campaign, he answered: "I have one face; it will have to do." He was defeated.

A greater danger to Texas in the way of representing its meaning is the unimaginative, commercial, smart-aleck professional Texanism. But there are still genuine counterparts of the young Tennesseean who told his neighbors in 1836 that he was off to Texas to fight for his independence. Sometimes this spirit is reported over-generously. Recently a leading oil man declared in effect that except his past, his self-respect, his family, and his chance to work out his own future, no Texan has anything that he won't change for something better. This is exaggerated, of course. Like their fellow-citizens elsewhere, a good many Texans have been encouraged by economic stress to trade their self-assertion for security. But this trade is not a pattern. Patterns don't set so easily in Texas.

Nor can the whole spirit of Texas be patterned. The integrity of the state's varying points of view does not come from stereotype. Now and then, it is true, somebody gets away with disregarding the people, with voting them in masses, with riding roughshod over their interests. The very self-consciousness of the smart ones, the trick pullers, is evidence that this sway is temporary. It is temporary in any place that has an honest tradition of independence.

In Texas the central tradition has had to look to men and women who could memorize courage and endurance and unselfishness. Texas has never developed its minds so conscientiously as some states, nor polished its manners so politely as others. It could do with more taste, more moderation, more serenity, more wisdom. But something may be said for its friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to try anything at least twice. If big-heartedness and wide-mindedness are not invariable in Texas, they are common enough to encourage some expectation of them. One thing is sure. Things will be different tomorrow. As the odds in Texas history go, there's a fifty-fifty chance that they will be better.

Professor Ralph H. Gabriel of Yale University has put the main fact about Texas this way, and truly:

Texas is an Empire in its own right. To drive from the dry grasslands of the Panhandle across the lowland cotton country, through the Magic Valley, to the Gulf ports, and on to the eastern oil fields is to pass through half the material phases of American civilization. For all its diversity, Texas has in a spiritual sense a unity born of its history, which includes the war for freedom in 1836 and nine years of independent membership in a society of nations. The individualism and the hopefulness of a frontier which has just passed is confirmed and magnified by an industrial revolution that is just beginning. Texas is particularistic yet very American.

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