Place shapes people and people shape culture.
Texas writer and literary lion, Larry McMurtry, knows all about this premise. In fact, he has spent several decades making this geocultural reality his own truth and his books are both products of and reflections of The West.
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas is a book of nine essays by Larry McMurtry. The book was first published in 1968.
As a new resident of Texas, I love to hear the stories of this place, and I want to hear from the state’s best storytellers.
It’s interesting to me how dated some of the material is—for instance, he describes Austin, but he does so over 50 years ago and the description, while insightful, is of another city. I blame the fact-based form more than the writer. At the same time, some of the things McMurtry says about other parts of the state ring as true today as I imagine they did then.
Like this one:
In Dallas, a flavorless Protestantism seems to have yielded superpatriotism as by-product. The Dallas true believers have made conservatism a religion-surrogate: they hate liberals the way passionate religious dogmatists once hated heretics.
And this one:
The South is memories, memories—it cannot help believing that yesterday was better than tomorrow can possibly be. Some of the memories are extraordinarily well packaged, it is true, but when a place has been reduced in its own estimation no amount of artful packaging can hide the gloom.
We suck at conflict resolution in this country. We suck because we generally lack the skills as individuals, and we almost always lack the collective will do to the right thing as a nation. The price we pay is, therefore, sky high. Until you resolve the conflict in the right ways, it lingers and festers.
When I lived in rural North Carolina as a teenage boy, my friends would constantly remind me that The South was gonna rise again. I would nod and then ask, “Then what?” No one said they’d reinstitute slavery on Day One. It didn’t need to be said. It was nevertheless understood.
Today, nuance is napping. Today, we do need to say what is. For me, this is what is: I believe We, the People, need to atone for our two original sins—slavery and genocide—and until we do, we’re going to keep paying too high a price as a society. Atonement and restitution will not wipe away racism. This is about acknowledging the damages done. It’s too important to leave the next generation. The time is now to take these immense and long-overdue first steps.
Money Doesn’t Make The Man
McMurtry also examines class in 1960s Texas.
Amid the bland Texas middle class, our vulgar rich can seem baroque and delightful, and indeed, certain of them are delightful. As a class, however, they exhibit all the difficulties of the desperately confused, and they are dangerous in proportion to the amount of power they wield. They are frequently very able and very strong people, but I have yet to meet one whose abilities or whose strength counterbalances his insecurity.
That’s casting some serious shade on your fellow countrymen. Of course, this is often the work of a conscious writer. The dark side is the side that needs words to light it up. Thankfully, McMurty has excellent words to express his deepest thoughts.
I know not which “dangerous men” the author has in mind in the above passage. I do know he shows no indication in his book that he thinks highly of President Johnson, who at the time of the writing, held immense power and did not always use it wisely.
I’m sure there were other men that McMurty considered when he took out his knife pen. He did not write about the Bush family in this book, as that family’s Texas story didn’t fully emerge until the 1980s when Goerge Bush became Vice President, and then President. Even if they had emerged in time, the Bush family are Yankees who emigrated to West Texas for the oil. They’re Eastern prospectors, or they were.
Cowboy Love and Longing
The theme of the collection is the disappearance of the Old West, and with it, a way of life lived by a few short generations of cowboys. The McMurty clan lived this life, and Larry McMurtry saw it fade away and in its place, he witnessed the rise of modern Texas.
Now that it’s 2019, we can argue about what parts of modern-day Texas are worth celebrating and keeping. We can also turn to more books, fiction, and nonfiction by The Bard of Archer County. A friend has recommended Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond.
Prose In Accordance with the Land
“A lyricism appropriate to the Southwest needs to be as clean as a bleached bone and as well-spaced as trees on the llano.”
Damn. That is fine advice for a writer to dispense and for another writer to soak up.