Texas myth is often mistaken for Texas history. That’s unfortunate, because Texas truth is often so much more interesting than Texas myth.
The Texas story is one of constant struggle of people against the caprices of nature and the caprices of their fellow human beings.
Three hundred years before the first stirrings of the Texas rebellion in 1836, Spanish explorers led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca waged a long-running battle for survival after a storm washed their raft onto the shore of what would become Texas. Cabeza de Vaca’s exploration party — or what remained of it — wandered Texas for eight years.
As he wandered, Cabeza de Vaca was cast in many roles — including merchant, surgeon and slave to native tribes who were displeased with his intrusion. The Spaniard eventually became the first to write a book about Texas.
Those who came before Cabeza de Vaca and those who came after were different in every conceivable way, but they had this in common: a desire to claim Texas.
Trying to claim Texas is like attempting to lasso a whirlwind. Texas will try to beat you with its heat or its cold. Texas will try to beat you with its rivers or with its deserts. Texas can make people rich and make people poor, and in less time than it takes to tell. Then, Texas will make them trade places.
It’s a history that aches to be told, but all too often it’s a history that’s been hijacked by purveyors of Texas myth who paint over the nuances contained in inconvenient details.
When most people think of Texas history, they focus on a few months in 1836. As compelling a story as that is, it is only part of what shaped modern Texas.
An ambitious project has been initiated by Dave Hamrick, the director of UT Press. Hamrick assembled an impressive team of writers and scholars who will research and write 16 volumes of Texas history and culture.
“We wanted to publish a history of Texas that would be the new ‘Lone Star,’” Hamrick told the American-Statesman’s Joe Gross. “Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans,” written by T.R. Fehrenbach, was first published in 1968. “That book sort of bulges at the Alamo and only goes until about the 1950s; it doesn’t include the Kennedy assassination. I think the history of modern Texas is better than the Alamo,” said Hamrick. It’s an ambitious undertaking and, like Texas itself, one rich in promise.
The writers recruited for the effort include Bill Minutaglio, author of “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty,” writing a pair of books on politics and business; Jewish studies professor Robert Abzug writing “As Others See Us: Insiders, Outsiders, and the Idea of Texas”’ and anthropology professor Cecilia Ballí writing “A Reported Memoir: A History of Texas Borderlands.”
Blanton Museum of Art curator-at-large Annette DiMeo Carlozzi will write about Texas art. Gregory Curtis, a former Texas Monthly editor, will write about Texas writers. Karl Miller, a UT history professor, will cover Texas music. Elizabeth Engelhardt will write on Texas food. Shirley Thompson will write on the African-American experience — which began with Estevanico, a Moor who was one of Cabeza de Vaca’s company. Larry Speck will write on architecture. Martha Menchaca will cover Tejano/Tejana experience. Charles Ramirez Berg will write on film. Frank Guridy drew the sports assignment. Charlotte Canning will cover theater, and Roy Flukinger will write on photography.
The series opens with the 2017 launch of an overview history of Texas. Writing that will be Stephen Harrigan, an award-winning author whose novels include “Gates of the Alamo” and “Challenger Park” a book about the daily lives of astronauts that the New York Times hailed as “science factual.”
Given the span of time to be covered, it is a daunting assignment. Harrigan said the work has to be “credible but intensely readable — it’s tricky but intriguing.”
Where will he begin? Harrigan replied that he isn’t sure but cracked that it “won’t start with dinosaurs.” Given that he will have to cover a span of centuries populated by a plethora of epic figures, Harrigan figures his most difficult choices will be deciding what hits the cutting room floor.
“The work won’t be by-the-numbers politically correct, but it will be complete,” Harrigan said, adding that he will begin the project by “re-reading general histories of Texas, interviewing historians and then diving into the primary material.”
The project is budgeted at just over $1 million, and Hamrick said a little less than $1 million has been raised so far. Even though the first word has yet to be written, the project has garnered national notice. The Texas bookshelf project — to be supported by a website with supplemental content including audio and video — “sets a new standard and establishes a new genre for university presses and publishers everywhere,” said Peter Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press.
It’s a Texas-size project, and it deserves Texas-size support.