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Texas Historical Literature

by Don B. Graham

Source: The Handbook of Texas Online

Since the time of first European contact, when Texas was a geographic mystery, mission field, and disputed prize, writers have devoted their talents to the area. Their efforts embrace every genre of literature and every facet of Texas history and culture.

Literature through the nineteenth century. In the beginning, Texas literature, though written in Spanish, was formally very much like that of Puritan New England-primarily historical in nature, consisting of narrative, descriptive, and factual prose accounts. The first and most notable work in the early Spanish literature relating to Texas is Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación (1542). This book, translated into English numerous times, is an American classic, a spiritual odyssey detailing the explorer's experiences among Texas Indians. Other significant early Spanish narratives include Pedro de Castañeda's Relación de la jornada de Cíbola, the best account of Vásquez de Coronado's expedition, and Fray Alonso de Benavides's Memorials (1630-34). Also of interest is The Narrative of the Expedition of Hernando de Soto, by the Gentleman of Elvas, parts of which touch upon areas of Texas as far west as Waco (see MOSCOSO EXPEDITION).

Nonfiction accounts also characterized the literature of the revolutionary era. Mary Austin Holley, cousin of Stephen F. Austin and visitor to his colony, produced Texas (1833), the first book in English that dealt entirely with Texas. It initially consisted of twelve letters to people back East, and was much expanded in 1836 into History of Texas. After David Crockett's death at the Alamo, a book entitled Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836) capitalized on the frontiersman's fame in the lively, colorful style of southwestern humor. The Mexican side of the Texas Revolution had its chroniclers as well. For events immediately preceding the Revolution, the best Mexican account is Juan N. Almonte's Noticia Estadistica Sobre Tejas (1835). The best contemporaneous account of the Revolution is José Enrique de la Peña's La Rebelión De Texas: Manuscrito Unédito de 1836, Por un Oficial de Santa Anna. John H. Jenkins III calls it "one of the most important eye-witness records of the Texas Revolution, and especially of the Siege of the Alamo." It was Peña who first reported that Davy Crockett surrendered before being put to death.

In the years immediately following annexation (1846), several works merit attention in so far as they reflect the pluralistic vigor of early Texas history. Victor Prosper Considerant's Au Texas (1854) related the story of the founding and dissolution of the French Utopian community of La Réunion, near Dallas. Viktor F. Bracht's Texas Im jahre 1848, nach mehrjahrigen Beobachtungen dargestellt (1849) told of German immigrants and agrarian life in early Texas. From the Anglo-American perspective there is Noah Smithwick's The Evolution of a State; or, Recollections of Old Texas Days (1900), declared by Jenkins to be "the most fun to read" of all Texas memoirs. John Crittenden Duval, whom J. Frank Dobie called the "Father of Texas Literature," wrote a lively account of his escape from the Goliad Massacre in Early Times in Texas (serial form, 1868-71; book, 1892). His Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace (1872) contains tall tales, legends, true adventure, satire, and straight history. The chapters on the Mier expedition are among the best published accounts of that episode, rivaled only by William Preston Stapp's The Prisoners of Perote (1845). Another failed expeditionary venture of the Texas republic was recorded by George W. Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition (1844). Although most travelers in early Texas wrote favorably of the inhabitants, one memorable exception was famed urban landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose A Journey Through Texas (1857) painted a grim picture of slavery-ridden East Texas, indicting the people as crude, the food as bad, and the level of civilization as negligible. Not until he reached New Braunfels, recently colonized by Germans, did Olmsted find anything fit to eat or any civilization worthy of the name. Narratives of the Texas Rangers constitute a subgenre of Texas writing. Among those dealing with the immediate post-republic era, the best is James Buckner Barry's A Texas Ranger and Frontiersman: The Days of Buck Barry in Texas, 1845-1906 (1932). In the post-Civil War period, James Buchanan Gillett's Six Years with the Texas Rangers, 1875-1881 (1921) is a highly readable and useful personal memoir.

Of the many former Confederate soldiers who moved to Texas after the Civil War, one was young Sidney Lanier, a Southern poet of considerable reputation in his day. He recorded his impressions, including a charming essay on "San Antonio de Bexar," in Retrospects and Prospects (1899). Also in the wake of the war came federal troops. With Gen. George A. Custer was his young wife, Elizabeth B. Custer,q who felt at first that Texas seemed the "stepping off place" but eventually came to enjoy her stay and wrote a lively account in Tenting on the Plains (1887). The cowboy, a subject that dominated Texas literature thereafter, entered the scene in the 1880s. Alex E. Sweet and J. Armoy Knoxq treated cowboy lore in a humorous, satirical fashion in their On a Mexican Mustang, Through Texas from the Gulf to the Rio Grande (1883). Charlie Siringo, a native Texan who rode the range for nearly twenty years, turned author in 1886 with A Texas Cowboy: or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, later revised as Riata and Spurs (1912). Siringo's books became required reading for those interested in the cattle industry.

Fiction about Texas, which began very early in the nineteenth century, is of interest today only to the occasional scholar willing to slog through an undistinguished morass of romantic historical novels. The first Texas novel, L'Héroïne du Texas: ou, Voyage de madame * * * aux États-Unis et au Mexique, "by a Texian," was published in Paris in French in 1819, but was not available in English until Donald Josep's translation of 1937. Its author is identified only as "F-n. M. G-n." After the manner of Chateaubriand, the novel deals romantically with the short-lived French colony named Champ d'Asile, located on the Trinity River about sixty miles from Galveston. Its ideological thrust is characteristic of the strong anti-Catholic bias of early Texas fiction: a Protestant hero marries a Spanish Catholic girl, after which both must flee from ecclesiastical authorities. Timothy Flint's Francis Berrian; or the Mexican Patriot (1826), although set only partially in Texas, introduced two motifs that often reappeared in nineteenth-century Texas fiction: the captivity narrative in which white women are captured by and rescued from Indians (see INDIAN CAPTIVES), and the religious-cultural conflict between Protestant Anglos and Catholic Mexicans, with the hero usually representing the former. Mexico versus Texas, the first novel to incorporate seminal historical events such as the Goliad Massacre and the battle of San Jacinto, was published anonymously in 1838; it was reissued in 1842 under the title Ambrosio de Letinez and credited to A. T. Myrthe, although its title page lists Anthony Ganilh. The novel's argument is characteristic of the period: the dedication poses the rhetorical question "whether anything could have taken place more conducive to the regeneration and improvement of Mexico than the success of the Texans."

The Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet (1843) by Frederick Marryat, a retired British naval officer and prolific author, consists of pure adventure ranging over much of the American West, including Texas of revolution times. Carl Anton Postl, an Austrian ex-monk who wrote prolifically under the pseudonym Charles Sealsfield, used early Texas as the setting for The Cabin Book (1844), in which the hero becomes a general in the Texas army. Frenchman Olivier Gioux, whose pen name was Gustave Aimard, devoted one of his more than twenty novels of the American West to Texas-The Freebooters, a Story of the Texas War (ca. 1860). Charles Wilkins Webber, in Old Hicks the Guide (1845), added the search for a lost Spanish mine to Texas adventure fiction. And Alfred W. Arrington, writing as Charles Summerfield in The Rangers and Regulators of Tanaha...A Tale of the Texas Republic (1856), contributed the bandit motif in his novel, which is set among plantation slaveholders in East Texas in 1845-46. Emerson Bennett's Viola (1852) also takes place during the republic era. Jeremiah Clemens in Mustang Gray (1858) fictionalized the life of Mabry B. Gray, a soldier-bandit of early Texas.

Not surprisingly, the legend of the Alamo proved a popular subject for early novelists. Augusta Evans Wilson's Inez: A Tale of the Alamo (1855) pits an Anglo heroine against the unscrupulous wiles of the Catholic priesthood. Amelia E. Barr's Remember the Alamo (1888) sums up the anti-Catholic feeling of much fiction from the republic and post-republic era: "the priesthood foresaw that the triumph of the American element meant the triumph of freedom of conscience, and the abolition of their own despotism." Barr's autobiography, All the Days of My Life: An Autobiography, the Red Leaves of a Human Heart (1913), which includes a lengthy section on life in late-nineteenth-century Austin, retains more interest today than does her florid fiction. Hostility against Mexicans is also a strong ingredient of novels about the republic. The Trapper's Bride: or, Love and War: A Tale of the Texas Revolution (1869), by W. J. Hamilton (pseudonym for Charles Dunning Clark), is peppered with virulent racist epithets, as is Jeremiah Clemens's Bernard Lile: An Historical Romance, Embracing the Periods of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War (1856). Scores of dime novels exploited the subjects of bandits, rangers, and cowboys, but these belong to the vast underthicket of popular culture. The first novel to make use of the trail drive was Live Boys: or Charley and Nacho in Texas, written by Thomas Pilgrim in 1878 under the pen name Arthur Morecamp. J. Frank Dobie praised its authenticity.

Anglo Texas had its roots in Southern, not Western, culture. The first settlers were slaveholding planters or would-be slaveowners. The early Texas novel most firmly rooted in Old Southern culture was Mollie E. Moore Davis's Under the Man-Fig (1895), which details events in Brazoria County from 1857 to 1880. Even more interesting is her The Wire-Cutters (1899), which moves from a Southern plantation context (in Kentucky) to a West Texas ranch and the conflict between open-range cattlemen and small farmers, a theme that was reprised in hundreds of Western novels to come.

Early Texas poetry was abundant but undistinguished. That from the republic era usually reflected two themes representative of the attitudes of Southerners in general: a martial spirit coupled with religious sentiment. Poems dealing with contemporaneous history were commonplace. "To Santa Anna," a typical piece, addresses its subject as "thou blood-hound of death." Poems honoring such Texas heroes as Ben (Benjamin R.) Milam, James W. Fannin, and Sam Houstonq were plentiful. Later in the era, poets turned to more pacific subjects, writing of labor in poems celebrating the "plough" and cattle drives, or of Texas landscapes and natural phenomena, or of cities, or even, as early as 1849, the blue norther. An excellent brief anthology of such poetry is Early Texas Verse (1835-1850), edited by Philip Graham in 1936. Much of the verse in Graham's collection is anonymous. Among the poets whose authors are named, a few deserve mention. Mirabeau B. Lamar, soldier and statesman, is remembered chiefly for two lyrics, "Carmelita" and "The Daughter of Mendoza." His only volume is Verse Memorials (1857). The poetic reputations of two of his associates in affairs of state rest on one poem of each: "Hymn to the Alamo" by Reuben M. Potter and "All Quiet Along the Potomac" by Lamar Fontaine, son of Mirabeau Lamar's secretary, Edward Fontaine; others have claimed the latter poem. Much better known in the nineteenth century was Mollie E. M. Davis, who, in addition to her fiction, gained renown with Civil War poems published in newspapers. "Lee at the Wilderness" and "Minding the Gap" were widely circulated throughout the South. Davis, known as the "Texas Mocking Bird," published several volumes of verse, including Minding the Gap, and Other Poems (1867) and Poems (1872).

After the Civil War, with the development of the cattle industry, ballads of the range became popular. Usually sung or recited, these ballads were orally transmitted, and the names of their author-composers were often lost. The same process occurred in Spanish verse along the Mexican border in South Texas, where corridos were composed, sung, and passed down from one generation to the next. Collecting cowboy ballads and corridos became a major occupation of scholars and folklorists in the twentieth century. Even the skillful and popular recitative piece "Lasca" (1882), at one time the best known of all Texas poems, was passed around and handed down orally. By the time it got into print, lines had been lost and the author identified only as Frank Desprez. Not until the 1950s was anything known about this Englishman, who was for three years "occupied on a Texas ranch" before he returned to England and became a professional writer. Another famous cowboy recitation was "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball" by William Lawrence Chittenden, an Eastern newspaper reporter who became known as the "Poet-Ranchman of Texas." His poem immortalized the Anson ball of 1885, which is still reenacted each Christmas under the title Cowboys' Christmas Ball; dancers in costume come from hundreds of miles away for this celebration. Chittenden's volume Ranch Verses (1893) has seen many editions. John P. Sjolander, a young Swede, immigrated to the Texas Gulf Coast in 1871, settled on Bayou Cedar, built boats, farmed, and wrote poems for periodicals. In 1928 his poems were gathered into a volume titled Salt of the Earth and Sea. Before his death in 1939 he was called the "Dean of Texas Poets." Except for the cowboy ballads, however, none of the nineteenth-century Texas verse outlasted its day.

The story of theater in Texas is not generally well known. The first edition of the Handbook of Texas mentions folk plays in Spanish that were performed orally along the border (see FOLK DRAMA), but contains no mention of early Texas Anglo drama. There were in fact, however, plays that deserve mention. Again, not surprisingly, the siege and battle of the Alamo was a popular subject. Francis Nona's The Fall of the Alamo: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (1879) told its story in verse. Hiram H. McLane's The Capture of the Alamo: An Historical Tragedy in Four Acts, with Prologue appeared in 1886. The only play dealing with Texas themes that achieved popular success was A. P. Hoyt's A Texas Steer (1890), which traced in a farcical manner the colorful doings of a Texas rancher-congressman named Maverick Brander from Red Dog, Texas, "where men are men and the plumbing is improving." Hoyt's play enjoyed great popularity, was filmed three times including a 1927 version starring Will Rogers, and was still in print as late as 1939.

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