In “Big Wonderful Thing: A Texas History,” Stephen Harrigan explores the “poignantly unguarded self-love” and the “fierce national personality” that oozes from Texans. He is unapologetic in his praise for and fascination with the state. “Big Wonderful Thing,” however, is not a tribute piece; instead, Mr. Harrigan’s history carefully holds in tension the grandeur and grotesquery of Texas’ past.
Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, by Stephen Harrigan (944 pages, University of Texas Press, 2019)
The Texas longhorn is a strange thing. Scrawny and long-legged with eight feet of twisting, turning horn perched on its head—the longhorn is hardy but awkward-looking, relaxed but imposing. As a symbol, the longhorn lacks the emanating power of an eagle or a lion, and only from a distance could it be called majestic. The horns remind us of an Old World aurochs, which are attached to a domesticated cow. This “apparition,” as Stephen Harrigan describes the longhorn, was imported by the earliest Spanish settlers, then nearly extinguished in the early 20th century, and now survives as an emblem and oddity of Texas pride and independence.
Texans are proud of their longhorns, and proud of being Texan. From preserving an entire cattle species and educating students in the mythology of Texas to reveling in slogans like the “lone-star state,” “everything is bigger in Texas,” and “God bless Texas,” Texans love their state and what they have accomplished. They take family trips to the significant sites of the Republic of Texas with a devotion that borders on the religious. They reflexively clap and sing when they hear the words “the stars at night are big and bright.” Monuments and statues of Texas’s history decorate the roadside. Even things like Texan supermarkets (HEB, Whole Foods, and Brookshires), soda (Dr. Pepper), and ice-cream (Blue Bell) are sources of pride.
In Big Wonderful Thing: A Texas History, Stephen Harrigan explores this “poignantly unguarded self-love” and the “fierce national personality” that oozes from Texans. A writer for Texas Monthly, Mr. Harrigan is unapologetic in his praise for and fascination with the state. Big Wonderful Thing, however, is not a tribute piece, which might merely re-mythologize the well-worn stories of Davy Crockett and Stephen F. Austin. Mr. Harrigan’s history carefully holds in tension the grandeur and grotesquery of Texas’s past.
In handling Texas’s mythos, Mr. Harrigan sweeps away facile legends, like Governor James Hogg naming one of his daughters “Ura” (although he did name one “Ima”). Also, James Bowie did not own a “swordlike” Bowie knife, the kind we see today. Rather, his weapon was “a straight-bladed no-nonsense implement suitable for sticking into an enemy.” Turning to the glorified tales of Texas’s past, Mr. Harrigan treads more carefully. His account of the “holy defeat” at the Alamo gently sets aside much of the traditional legend, reminiscent of the Spartans at Thermopylae. Mr. Harrigan, instead, gives readers “a more human story . . . [of people] caught in a deathtrap, counting on reinforcements that never came.”
While Mr. Harrigan enjoys telling how visitors like Georgia O’Keefe and Teddy Roosevelt were awestruck by Texas, he refuses to let Big Wonderful Thing slip into a cloying encomium. Part of this balance comes from the different peoples that populate the history. Mr. Harrigan’s Texas is teeming with a variety of human life. In the 17th century, “Texas . . . was hardly a void,” bustling with tribes like the Teyas, Jumano, and the Apache. The Karankawas lived along the Gulf Coast, and the Caddo spread out through the pine forests of East Texas. People—individuals and groups—provide an essential context for Big Wonderful Thing. From native tribes to Hispanic and Anglo settlers, speculators and homesteaders, inventors and pioneers, factory workers and tech engineers—they all have a place in this portrait and have all left a unique mark.
Of course, the diversity of Texas did not come easily, and Mr. Harrigan does not hide the fact that these groups clashed with one another—sometimes violently. While Texas saw a former slave, Matthew Gaines, elected to the state senate in 1869, it also experienced one of the worst race riots in American history in 1917. The hero status of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief in Texas, is juxtaposed with the often-brutal subjugation of Texas tribes in the 19th century.
Bloodshed does not define Mr. Harrigan’s narrative, but it plays a significant role. From the early battles between Spanish explorers and native tribes to Pancho Villa’s raids and the violence surrounding the civil rights movement, Big Wonderful Thing places these conflicts into a larger narrative of Texans’ struggle for peace. In the Texas revolution against Mexico, Mr. Harrigan explains, “the fight was never just between Texans and Mexicans.” Rather, his landscape of the war takes note of the different peoples scrambling for a place of their own in the new republic, “centralists and federalists . . . big-time speculators and small-scale homesteaders . . . established colonists . . . and rootless volunteers.”
Almost as significant is Mr. Harrigan’s insistence on the importance of place. The landscape of Texas is as diverse as the people that inhabit it. Texas is not a desert, despite what almost every Western depicts. For Mr. Harrigan, Texas is “staggeringly varied,” with “hypnotically featureless plains” stretching into “forests so tropically thick . . . every breath feels like something that must be seized from the greedily respiring trees.” Several major rivers—the Colorado, the Brazos, the Trinity—cut through the land, creating flood plains, cliffs, canyons, and deltas. The “chromatic wonderland of geology” in Palo Duro Canyon jarringly contrasts with the barren Chihuahuan Desert in the south as much as the rolling plains covered in bluebonnets look nothing like the sub-tropical swamps surrounding Houston.
Mr. Harrigan’s emphasis on place includes the ways that natural and technological changes shaped the land and the people. For example, the introduction of barbed wire “fenced” the open terrain, the independent spirit of the land, and its people, promoting the ranching industry but also hemming in native tribes and wild animals. The discovery of oil and its uses transformed parts of Texas into “a big beautiful hellhole.” These man-made changes impacted Texas as much as, if not more than, events like the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston or the nearly statewide drought when it “stopped raining around 1950 . . . until 1957.”
The sheer number of individual Texans, here, is as incredible as the Texas landscape. In one breathtaking paragraph, Big Wonderful Thing connects the lives of Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly, the blues singer Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins, the conjunto musician Narciso Martinez, and Roy Orbison with the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. Along with the usual suspects of Texas lore, Big Wonderful Thing throws light on many overlooked figures. Mr. Harrigan describes political leaders like Jose Antonio Navarro, who was responsible for having “struck the word white from the constitution when it came to voting rights,” as well as the “thunderous voice” of Barbara Jordan in the U.S. Congress, whose leadership shattered ceilings and crossed partisan lines. There are trailblazers like the colonialist Mary Maverick and the activist Heman Sweatt, war heroes like Admiral Chester Nimitz and Audie Murphy, and artists like Elizabet Ney and blues player Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker. Mr. Harrigan’s ability to bring such a cast together into one smooth narrative is a joy to read.
Balancing this parade of great Texans are less appealing characters. Mr. Harrigan reminds us of the Klan’s popularity in the early 20th century, the brutality of the Texas Rangers against Tejanos in Porvenir, and Bonnie and Clyde’s tour of violence and crime. Standard heroes like Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis are depicted along with infamous Texans, including the ruthless gunslinger John Wesley Hardin and Texas’s most corrupt leader, Governor James E. Ferguson.
There is a complexity to Big Wonderful Thing that is masked by Mr. Harrigan’s fluid style. The narrative is fascinating and, at times, overwhelming. Mr. Harrigan recognizes this, saying, “Texas was too large, too old. It was impossible to see one thing.” While the forest is not quite lost for the trees, it is a long and winding path—though well worth it—through the thicket of Texas minutiae. That being said, Mr. Harrigan serves as a masterful guide on this journey, navigating Big Wonderful Thing safely between the abyss of historical revisionism and the fairyland of hagiography. Mr. Harrigan’s Texas is mythically large and as majestically unusual as the longhorn that Texans love so much, but Big Wonderful Thing keeps its feet firmly planted on the ground.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (January 2020).
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The featured image is “Battle of the Alamo” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.