Classic West Texas Books
May 01, 2018
Texas is a vast state - second in geographical size only to Alaska. The state includes a number of distinct regions, and for the purpose of this post, allow me to name some that come to my mind:
- South Texas
- Central Texas
- North Texas
- West Texas
Some of you all will likely object to that list, but for the sake of this post, let’s agree that those regions all are distinct both geographically and culturally.
I grew up in West Texas - Midland, to be exact. Midland, to my mind, is right in the middle of West Texas, a region that in my mind extends from Fort Worth to El Paso - and so is the largest of the regions of Texas. The geography of West Texas is varied, but is generally quite dry, and “minimalist.” Perhaps the strongest bonds of West Texas, then, are not the geography - but the people. People in West Texas seem, to me, to be more welcoming and warm than their fellow Texans. They are also fiercely independent and can be quite reserved - which I think is a marker of the historically greater difficulty that people have living in the region. It’s hot, dry, and a fair drive to a city of real size.
I have a deep and abiding love for West Texas. So much so that - though I try to avoid it - I am nostalgic for the land of my youth - the tough, independent women; and the quiet, reflective men.
Thankfully, my love of West Texas is shared by some truly outstanding writers. I’ve been reading their work, and want to highlight some of the best books about West Texas here.
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, 1968
Larry McMurtry is best known for his popular novel (and later film) Lonesome Dove. Long before that book, the author published this book (his first), a collection of essays about West Texas. In it, he shines a light on the myth of the cowboy and the open range, Texas exceptionalism, and the wealth of the state. He also gently disparages Texans from other regions. When someone wants to know what it’s like to be a native Texan, I recommend they read this book - which is a much more accurate examination of Texas than much of the overly saccharine and self-congratulatory material many people read about the state.
This book, with an interesting publication history, has some of my favorite prose about West Texas:
“On the rims of the West - and perhaps, in America, only there - one can still know for a moment the frontier emotion, the loneliness and the excitement and the sense of an openness so vast that it still challenges - in Gatsbian phrase - our capacity for wonder.”
Goodbye to a River, a Narrative, 1960.
This is arguably the most important Texas book of the 20th century. Its importance is indicated by the book frequently being compared to Walden, and doing for Texas (and the Brazos River) what Thoreau did for New England.
For me, though, my love of the book lies not with its latent environmental activism, but with its use of a journey to explore the violent history of West Texas along the Brazos, as well as meet some of the “old timers” along the river. These stories bear witness to the history of the region, and give a flavor of the early Anglo settlers in the area. Graves reflects on his identities as a Texan, veteran, and accidental conservationist. Notably, the book was designed by fellow Texan Carl Hertzog.
A Personal Country, 1969.
Of all the books in this post, this is my favorite. In the second sentence of the book, Greene sets out his purpose:
“If this is a history, it is an emotional history of a boy and a man in that place [West Texas], and part of that place in them.”
The book is very much in the vein of Goodbye to a River, with Greene seeking to retrace some of the steps of his youth - and to try and discover what parts of West Texas worked in to his persona. Most arresting to me is the way he writes about the land and the place, one quite familiar to me.
Indeed, it’s hard for me to write about the book - and so I simply commend it to your attention with my highest praise.