In 2003, University Press of Mississippi published Touring Literary Mississippi. (Full disclosure: I work for the press.). It’s a guide to the hometowns of the state’s writers, the locales that Mississippians have rendered in prose and poetry, and the sites that have influenced its generations of scribes. I’m not sure books of this sort have been published about Georgia, Louisiana, or Florida, but I can imagine them existing. But the state of Mississippi in particular exudes writers like exhaust fumes, across racial and gender lines, and in all genres. Here’s a brief list of just the famous names, some dead and some alive and kicking: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Frederick Barthelme, Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist, Beth Henley, Larry Brown, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, Elizabeth Spencer, Donna Tartt, Richard Ford, Margaret Walker.
Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon–introducing the world, for better or worse, to Hannibal Lecter–in Rich, Mississippi. Hannah is considered one of the wildest postmodernists ever. Welty, Henley, and Ford, have all won the Pulitzer Prize. Faulkner is, well, Faulkner. (To say the Nobel Laureate looms large here is like saying the Sahara Desert is kinda hot.)
I’m not listing these folks to brag (well, not entirely), nor to begin one of those ponderous, deadly-dull baggy monsters about why the South has produced–and continues to produce–so many great and influential writers. Mississippi is my adopted state, where I’ve lived for the past decade; for me, Mississippi boosting isn’t exactly strutting about the home team.
Rather, this is about Texas, the place in which I was born and reared. The population of Texas is almost 21 million people, roughly eight times larger demographically than Mississippi. There are more people in the Dallas/Fort-Worth metroplex–Dallas is my hometown–than in the entire Magnolia State. The population is more racially diverse; the geography is more varied; ethnically and religiously, Texas has multitudes of variety, especially when compared to Mississippi.
But there are more famous writers from Jackson than from the entire state of Texas. Welty, Wright, Ford, and Douglas grew up in Jackson. Gilcrhist’s The Cabal and Other Stories is set here, as are great portions of Wright’s Black Boy.
Quick thinking: name four major Texas writers. By “Texas writer,” I guess I mean writers who grew up in Texas and/or writers who glean from the state for their themes, plots, geography, and moral frameworks.
After two days of back-and-forth emails with Ernesto and some web browsing, I came up with Katherine Anne Porter and Larry McMurtry. Donald Barthelme grew up in Houston, but he doesn’t count–when I think of him, I think of the hippest, strangest Greenwich Village insider you’d ever want to have a drink with, but Texas would never enter the conversation. I’ve heard the name Elmer Kelton batted around in a few newspapers, but I think he’s too obscure even for Bookforum.
So, two writers. That’s it. Why is that?
For starters, size matters, no matter what you’ve heard. Texas is so huge geographically that there are whole regions of the state—the coastal area around Galveston and Corpus Christi, the border towns like Brownsville, the northern Panhandle, the southern hill country where lots of German and Dutch immigrants settled in the early 1900s—that I’ve never even seen. I could strike up a conversation with somebody from El Paso, and we’d end up not sharing a single cultural frame of reference other than we both spoke English. I’ve passed through the eerie, dry desert of west Texas on my way to Big Bend National Park—a thirteen-hour drive from Dallas, which isn’t on the edge of the state by any means—but I know nothing about it. I used to get annoyed when Mississippians, excited to learn I was from Dallas, would ask, “Do you know where such-and-such town is at? My uncle’s baby mama lives there.” I’d just shrug. Half of the time, I’d never even heard of the place they asked about.
I was eighteen before I realized that my experience was uncommon. You ask a Mississippian where Meridian is, and she can tell you it’s an hour east of Jackson, right on the Mississippi/Alabama border. She may never have been there, but she knows where it is, and something about the local scene. You can elicit winces or eye-rolling just by mentioning certain counties, such as Neshoba, where civil rights-related violence went down. Because people know about them. They know enough about regions of the state, are connected by blood or travel to enough parts of it, that have a vested interest in the whole.
In Texas, it’s possible to have a large family—my mother and father have six siblings apiece—that spreads out over 200 miles, but it still within the same state, and maybe even the same region. You can’t do that in most American states. From Jackson, you walk 200 miles and you’re in Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, or the Gulf of Mexico. In New England, this notion gets even more ridiculous—you go 200 miles in any direction, and you may have crossed two state lines, or even the border to Canada..
There are a number of large and midsize cities, with sprawling and multifaceted cultures. Austin, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Galveston, San Antonio. But they’re spread so far apart that they don’t touch each other culturally, or as much as they might if they were in closer proximity. For that reason, it’s hard to even imagine a great Texas novel—they’re too much Texas to grab with your hands, spread too far apart to do it all at once. A good novel about Dallas, for instance, would have problems serving as a microcosm for the rest of the state. The city’s too isolated to have many common links with other Texas towns, even though it’s got surface similarities with Houston and San Antonio. Texas is a big state made up of a series of isolated pockets of existence; the only web is the highway grid.
Okay, fine. But why aren’t there any great city books set in Texas? John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces defines New Orleans. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is one of the many Chicago novels out there. New York, of course, has countless entries, but so does San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta. Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley have given us a Los Angeles that’s more real than the actual city. We think of Elmore Leonard as a Detroit writer, when we’re not thinking of him as a Miami writer. Even smaller locales have their hometown heroes. We see Newark, New Jersey, through Philip Roth’s eyes. Savannah, Georgia, was lionized in John Berendt’s nonfiction Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
But who’s the great bard of Houston? When you think of a Dallas writer, who do you think of? As much as Austin brags about its superiority to the rest of Texas, you would think that it would have its signature writer. But it doesn’t. Why is that?
I can’t speak for other Texas cities—again, the lack of connection—but I think I know why writers have a hard time getting a grasp on Dallas. It’s too smooth, too gaudy, too slick; there’s little to hold on to. But, most of all, it’s too insecure, and spends too much time trying to keep up with the Joneses. Rob Walker once wrote that the city “seemed to tremble with insecurity, always wondering what the coasts think,” and that’s about right. It built an admittedly gorgeous concert hall designed by I.M. Pei in my childhood, but only after Pei had been the architectural gold standard for twenty years. (In five years, Big D will probably commission a building by Frank Gehry.) It’s building an unnecessary and expensive Santiago Calatrava bridge across the puny Trinity River, simply because it wants to look as sophisticated as other cities that have those skeletal, ghostly bridges. Whenever I went to a rock concert there, I was always shocked to see how well dressed people were. I saw a woman wearing a silver lamé dress, unironically, in Lollapalooza 1994, walking in high heels amidst the stoners and punks. It’s hard for me to imagine that sight occurring in Seattle. It’s a beautiful city, but it’s a beauty that’s fickle, constantly looking over its shoulder to see if it’s still in fashion.
Because of this fixation with the new and glistening, Dallas doesn’t treasure its past. The city’s a century old, but you’d never know it from looking. There aren’t many historical landmark signs in downtown—sure, there’s the one by Dealey Plaza, but Dallasites would just as soon forget that it’s there. There’s not a well of great, or at least terrifically sordid, Dallas tales to draw from. At least, I didn’t learn them in school, or on the streets, or anywhere else.
Dallas is all shiny glass surfaces and sunglare reflections. It’s a city you slide off of when you try to grab it. And, if you can’t grab hold, you can’t write about it. I guess Bret Easton Ellis could write a spare, cold-to-the-touch novel about it, filled with brand names and billboards that burn the night sky. Gus Van Sant could direct a film with pretty white surfaces and a slowly gliding camera that shows up empty it all is. Whatever. Maybe I’m sentimental, but I think my hometown, and the state as a whole, deserve better than that. So I’ll keep slipping on it, writing overlong essays that get nowhere (like this one), until I grab hold of enough to at least part of it right, or I slip hard enough, and finally crack the surface.