Friday, 5 August 2011

Texas Exceptionalism -- by Ty Cashion

(presented at the 115th annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association, El Paso, March 3, 2011. Ty Cashion is Professor of History at Sam Houston State University and is presently working on a book manuscript, “Will Western History Ride Again?” & Other Tales of Texas and Regional Identity from the Intellectual Frontier).

Photo: Ty Cashion and son touring Huntsville prison. 

The following excerpt, written by Benjamin Moser for a recent issue of The American Scholar, represented to me a dilemma that speaks to the central issues we’ll be discussing, while also demonstrating the challenges our field faces:

The lack of literature defines Texas generally. Texas is a central part of the country at the center of the modern world. It has educated people, outstanding universities, extensive libraries, rich foundations. But it has produced remarkably few books. Its bibliography reads less like that of California or New York or Massachusetts and more like that of a middling Latin republic. A visiting historian, turning from the study of Ecuador to the study of Texas, could do so with little strain. In both places, he would find exhaustive accounts of ancient battles. He would find detailed descriptions of native cultures. He would find warm biographies of great leaders. He would find uncritical, well-illustrated books published by large companies to celebrate industry and culture. He would find statistics and archives. He would find antiquarian depictions of customs and mores bearing little resemblance to the behavior of the people around him. His hosts would recommend the place's official writers, unknown abroad and unread at home.

If our visiting historian probed beneath this thick bedrock, he—or she—would also discover a stratum of scholarship whose range of subjects and methodological sophistication compares favorably with works produced about California, New York, and Massachusetts, over which Poindexters with subscriptions to The American Scholar have cooed and clucked. Competition for the most recent scholarly book prize awarded annually by the Texas Institute of Letters provides an appropriate case in point. Just as Benjamin Moser imparted, most of the volumes among thirty entries recounted ancient battles, described native cultures, introduced us to great leaders, and depicted the state’s customs and mores. As representations of his generalizations, however, they could not have provided a starker contrast.

Paul Carlson and Tom Crum, for example, in Myth, Memory, & Massacre, recast the “ancient battle” of Pease River as a kind of frontier My Lai. The “native culture” of fox chasing, which Thad Sitton brings to life in Gray Ghosts & Red Rangers, compels us to reconsider the complexities of race and class. Then, there is the “warm biography” rehabilitating our carpetbagger governor, Edmund J. Davis, by Carl Moneyhon. Likewise, we might also contemplate the “customs and mores” depicted in the social landscapes and racialized identities of the edited volume, Recovering the Hispanic History of Texas. Rest assured that other entries—books about women, the Texas left, free labor, and the environment, along with a selection about the resident slackers who keep Austin weird and two books concerning the politicians who make it bizarre—could just as easily have made the same point. The upward thrust of this historiographical incline, moreover, is no recent phenomenon.

Anyone who truly keeps up with their Lone Star historiography, then, would be left flabbergasted over such a critical assessment of Texas letters. Flabbergasted, that is, not for the fact that it missed the mark so widely, but because someone as well-credentialed as Benjamin Moser—a native Houstonian, an editor at the Harvill Press in London, and a former New Books Columnist for Harper’s Magazine, with degrees from such prestigious universities as Brown and Utrecht—should know better.

Each year since the new millennium began, publishers have turned out close to two hundred books about Texas, which accrues to about two thousand titles over the course of the first decade. They have also laid the ax to about as many trees on behalf of California and New York as they have on Texas, which personally, I found surprising. But, as Moser’s article made plain, it wasn’t really numbers that he had in mind anyway; it was the give and take between scholarly and popular representations of history and culture that seem to redeem the sacrifice of all those trees in some places, and make it a waste of natural resources in others.

I must presume that in California, New York, and Massachusetts, the pulp slung at casual readers is typically informed by substance that is lacking in the popular history Texas produces. Yet, I can assure you that what passes for scholarship in Texas too often suffers from the myopic defects associated with the writing of local history. Our visiting historian, in fact, might find it difficult to distinguish between the lines where popular history ends, and where scholarship begins.

More important, our visiting historian would be hard pressed to find a tradition of intellectual history that is capable of navigating the currents of thought that subsume our prolific, but checkered canon. That’s another defect inherent in local history. The intellectual tradition of Texas is the intellectual tradition of the South; it is the intellectual tradition of the West; it is the intellectual tradition of the Borderlands. Yet, while Texas figures prominently in the history of the latter field, it has scarcely registered in the historiographies of the South and the West since the mainstreams in those fields began emerging from the shadows of their progenitors during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Someone wanting to know what makes the South tick might readily reach for C. Vann Woodward’s Burden of Southern History. Similarly, Patricia Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest explains the nature of the West. If our visiting historian bought the rhetoric of popular history contending that the land sandwiched between those regions represents something exceptional, he might dredge up Seven Keys to Texas, a product of intellectual alchemy so flawed by lapses of logic and rebarbative racism that not a single scholar dignified it with a review. At the same time, no one stepped forward to condemn it. Moreover, the Texas Historical Commission named its own scholarly book prize for the author of that corrupted work. What kind of signal does that send to our colleagues in other fields?

If you had figured at the outset that I was going to dismiss Benjamin Moser’s observation as merely the product of highbrow condescension, let me tell you—we need to take this guy seriously. To do otherwise would be a grave mistake. Especially since such a highly regarded publication as The American Scholar shotgunned his considered judgment to an erudite public that no doubt accepted it at face value. There’s no profit in avoiding issues that beg exploration, and investigating why the American intelligentsia so casually dismisses the writing of Texas history is worthy of a full-blown expedition. Sure, too many of those two-thousand books about Texas were written by Texans for a particular kind of Texan, evidence the disproportionate number of reprints of old classics that fuel the demand for new works on kindred topics. The dense haze and insufferable pong of the gunsmoke and horseshit that characterizes traditional Texas history, however, should not be reason enough to explain why Texans who have written with a wider audience in mind remain mostly “unknown abroad and unread at home,” to twist the critic’s phrase.

While the generalizations Moser articulated might be in error, the perception that Texas lacks a substantial bibliography surely exists, but not as emphatically as his implication that what has been written is inconsequential. Such misguided impressions so widely taken for granted represent an appropriate point of departure for framing the discussion of some larger issues. Central to any conversation is the untenable claim that Texas is somehow exceptional in the American experience, or “Texceptional,” to use my own neologism. This notion has cultivated the shallow and ideologically motivated self-perception that Texans commonly embrace. Before moving on, let’s clear up this matter by making a few unadorned observations.

If you were to ask the first ten typical Texans you encounter on the street if there’s anything about their land that’s special, I’ll bet at least nine of them would reflexively declare that it is the only state to have enjoyed the status of nationhood. Depending on how you slice it, several states could make such a claim, but none of them tugs at the fabric of Texceptionalism quite like Hawaii. It gained recognition in 1843 as an independent state and even went by the official title, the Republic of Hawaii, during the five years preceding its annexation by joint resolution. “Joint resolution.” Now, there’s a phrase that should sound familiar to any red-blooded Texan.  The chief difference between Hawaii and Texas is that in 1898 the islanders had been compelled at the point of a bayonet to surrender their sovereignty to become a territory, whereas a half century earlier Texans voted willingly and overwhelmingly to swap nationhood for statehood.

Map courtesy of rootsweb.

There also exist a few other holes in that Texceptionalist cloth where logic presents a moth’s banquet.  At the bottom line, only four territories truly broke the American mold.  Perceptions of “Islander” Hawaii, “Indian” Oklahoma, “Mormon” Utah, and “Mexican” New Mexico speak for themselves.  The idea that Texas also represents a land apart becomes significantly weaker by comparison.  In the same way, the Texas brag equating bigness with exceptionalism suddenly takes on the tinny ring of rank sophistry. Rather than continue debating this issue, let me go ahead and concede the point that Texas is unique—just like the other 49 states. Now, let’s move on and talk about matters of substance.

Largely because Texceptionalism resides in the domain of popular culture, historians have seldom taken its associated brags and stereotypes seriously. In the absence of any meaningful scholarly challenge, it has dulled the work of Texas studies attempting to fix the state within regional contexts. Conversely, it has provided a convenient pretext for western and southern historians to discount the significance of Texas within the scope of their research. Judging by so many unqualified exclusions, I suspect that when regional historians set out to produce works intended to be regionally inclusive, they weigh Texas in the balance and realize their choice—they can either ignore it, or become Texas historians in their spare time.

The reluctance of regional historians to include Texas in their studies can be attributed only in part to an inability to distinguish where popular history ends and scholarship begins. Being unable to distinguish where the South ends and the West begins accounts for the balance. Yet, in a profession where inquisitiveness is otherwise endemic, the poverty of meaningful debate between southern and western historians over the role that Texas has played in the development of these regions is bewildering. It’s also unwarranted. While distinguishing between the two sections is not a facile exercise, neither does it present an insuperable problem. By virtue of training, consider that to a southern historian, all of Texas is southern, because figuratively the beholder is standing in the South listening for echoes. As Walter Buenger, whose Path to a Modern South demonstrated, you don’t have to cup a hand to your ear to pick up the strains of Dixie reverberating from even the farthest corners of the state.

As a matter of perception, the collective ear of western historians tilts toward incipient voices. They do not emanate from every part of Texas. Standing somewhere out yonder in an unambiguous West, the kindred patois becomes detectable in places where history and memory suggest that the Old South’s time was passing, and the West’s moment in time was at hand. The dominant DNA of the Texan West can surely be traced to the Old South, but, to channel Progressive era historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the parent culture just as surely lost its vigor along an indistinct frontier line, where the transformative power of adaptation imparted renewed vitality. What emerged in the gathering momentum was something regionally distinct. We can still debate where the West begins, but if we acknowledge that it is not a corollary to the limits of the South, then some seemingly complicated issues no longer appear so convoluted.

Allegory of Manifest Destiny ca. 1872 by John Gant

That brings us back to the impediment of Texceptionalism. This guiding mythology residing at the core of the state’s traditional history resonates so strongly in the popular imagination that it has actually left us bereft of a usable past. As a representation of our historical memory, consider that the conventional metanarrative is informed by rugged individualism, Manifest Destiny, and Social Darwinism. Those who continue clinging to such a past are loath to concede that directly ahead of us lies a new age that is unavoidable, where the limits of the global frontier, the environment, and American imperialism are already in view. To continue seeking an identity and values in a nineteenth-century frontier ethos seems not only antediluvian, but dysfunctional as well.

Today our own intelligentsia generally embraces the premise that Texans, regardless of background, are one people who share a common experience. No one owns the proprietary right to tell how our history unfolded. The story that belongs to people of color as well as women and different ethnicities and social classes, and from their point of view, is just as legitimate as that of the Anglo-Texan male. As producing scholars, we have demonstrated an increasing appreciation for the progressive developments that inform the interpretive work of our colleagues in related fields, whether regional and Borderlands studies, economic, or environmental history, or human studies in ethnicity, gender, and culture.

Any reconfigured metanarrative that draws from such a progressive historiography must acknowledge on one hand the fin de siecle that renders the traditional history unusable, and, on the other, the emergence of a multicultural, post-Christian American society of which Texas is a part. Like it or not, the Anglo ascension that began with the filibustering campaigns of the late eighteenth century has just about run its course. Rest assured that such a transformation no more portends Anglo-Texan subjugation by ethnic Texans any more than Christianity will become usurped by paganism. It merely means that others count, and that Christianity is losing its monopoly, if not its followers, in an otherwise Christian society.

If one of the fundamental jobs of history is to explain how we got here from over yonder, then the progressive canon represents the ingredients for a new usable past, one that is in search of a gravitational axis capable of informing the twenty-first century Texan mind. If that’s not quite clear, consider that Texceptionalism’s center of gravity is represented by the Texas Revolution and nineteenth-century frontier. For the sake of argument, let’s say the focal point of a new metanarrative will revolve around the social, economic, and political changes emerging from World War II that transformed Texas into the place it is today. The revolution and nineteenth-century frontier remain important in explaining the provenance of traditional values, but they are only one side of a multifaceted experience.
I’m not advocating the politicization of our history; I don’t have to. Merely proposing an alternative to the traditional metanarrative will be received by Texceptionalists like a declaration of war. You think the State Board of Education’s hearings in Austin last spring was more fun than going to the circus? Just wait. A new usable past that possesses the form and context it presently lacks, one that captures the popular imagination of Texans and appeals to their collective intellect, will expose Texceptionalism as a Potemkin Republic resting fitfully on a crumbling foundation that is incapable of supporting the weight of its own words. Who knows? Perhaps opening up a new front in the discourse of our nation’s culture war may finally engage our colleagues in other fields and gain the attention of Poindexters with subscriptions to The American Scholar.

No comments: