Texana Book Reviews -- April 1997
(by Mike Cox)

Diverse Spring Assortment
(April 25, 1997)

Texas is so diverse, it's hard to group what's published about the state into a neat category -- other than simply calling it Texana.

Here's a spring assortment of recently-published titles, as multi-hued as a field of wildflowers, about Texas:

Disaster at Texas City
(April 18, 1997)

The approach of death is not often called pretty, but that's what several witnesses remembered about the morning of April 17, 1947 in Texas City.

A fire -- apparently caused by a tossed cigarette -- had broken out about 8 a.m. that day in the hold of the ammonia nitrate-laden Grandcamp, a World War II-era Liberty ship moored in the midst of one of the larger petrochemical complexes in the nation.

By 9 a.m., flames were shooting through the open hatch of he freighter and a large crowd of onlookers had gathered. One person said the smoke was "a pretty gold, yellow color" while another described the plume as "orange smoke in the morning sunlight . . . beautiful to see."

Twelve 12 minutes later, the ship and its crew and everyone around it disintegrated in an explosion so powerful it was felt up to 150 miles away. Virtually everything -- and every person -- within 2,000 feet of the ship disappeared or was mangled. In Galveston, 20 miles to the south, the blast knocked people off their feet and shattered building glass. Some thought the explosion and the towering column of black smoke was an atomic attack presaging another world war.

The Texas City explosion, a half century ago this month, remains the worst industrial disaster in American history. The University of Texas Press has marked the 50-year anniversary with publication of a new look at the explosion, "The Texas City Disaster, 1947" by Hugh W. Stephens. The 141-page book sells for $16.95 in paperback.

As is the case with any major disaster, what happened that spring in Texas City is a tale of tragedy and drama, one of human suffering and strength. But Stephens tells the story with academic detachment in a work that reads more like a graduate thesis than a book.

That makes the book more of an effort to read, but no less important as a useful reference for future researchers and as a cautionary document for anyone interested in public safety issues. A political science professor at the University of Houston, Stephens does a good job of showing the several factors that culminated in the disaster.

Though Ron Stone's 1987 book, "Disaster at Texas City" is a much more readable account of the Texas City explosion, Stephens' book, reflecting the author's academic credentials, is more extensively researched. It would make a good text book for anyone involved in emergency management planning.

Beyond that, Stephen's book amounts to a final report of sorts, a synthesis of all the published and previously-unpublished material on Texas' second worst disaster. Authorities found 468 bodies and estimated another 100 or so people simply disappeared in the explosion. Only the Galveston hurricane, which preceded Texas City by 47 years, was deadlier.

At the end of the book, Stephens ponders briefly whether such a disaster as Texas City could happen again. His conclusion is yes it could, unless the various responsible jurisdictions "exercise unremitting vigilance in fulfilling their duties."

Though many more safety systems are in place today, and communication is much more reliable, the problem of fragmented jurisdiction remains, Stephens says.

"Fundamental lessons of this (the Texas City) experience give us little reason for optimism," he writes, invoking the historian Thucydides' observation that even when we understand our mistakes, human nature being what it is, we tend to repeat those mistakes.

(April 11, 1997)

By only one day, thanks to a mule that was not quite as fast as a good horse, Noah Smithwick missed the Lexington of the Texas Revolution, the so-called "Come and Take It" incident at Gonzales in October 1835.

Though Smithwick was not on hand when a handful of armed Texans successfully resisted an attempt by Mexican troops to seize a cannon the colonists had been using to protect themselves from the Indians, the book Smithwick wrote about his adventures in early day Texas is now in the vanguard of another revolution. While this new revolution will not change which flag flies over Texas -- nor its borders -- it will have a profound effect on our culture, particularly in book publishing, book collecting and the way we get information.

Future historians will note that Smithwick's classic book, The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Early Texas was the first book-length work of Texana to go on-line on the Internet. The memoir J. Frank Dobie called the "best of all books dealing with life in early Texas" is now available free of charge, around the clock, anywhere in the world at http:\\www.lsjunction.com, a non-profit web site devoted to Texas history.

In the 1890s, as an old man with failing eyesight then living in California, Smithwick began telling his daughter stories of his experiences in early day Texas. She put these tales on paper and in 1899 they were published in a book.

At the end of the book, Smithwick lamented that he probably would never see Texas again. "I am proud to note the progress she has made," he dictated to his daughter, "though I can scarcely realize the transformation that progress has wrought." As fine a storyteller as he was, Smithwick would be without words to describe what has happened to his book.

The Evolution of a State was quietly launched into cyberspace last August by Austinite and Corpus Christi native Duncan McKeever, a self-styled Generation Xer whose technological skill with computers is matched only by his love of books. Working with McKeever, Lyman Hardeman, an ex-patriot Texan living in Fairfax, Va., has added the Smithwick book to his three-year-old Texas history Web page, Lone Star Junction.

Hardeman now has four classic works of Texana on the Internet and plans to add many more. In addition to Evolution of a State, Dobie's Guide to Life and Literature in the Southwest, Amelia Barr's Remember the Alamo and O. Henry's short story, "Last of the Troubadours," have been digitized. All are in the public domain and are available to anyone with Internet access.

Smithwick's memoir, Barr's 1888 novel and O. Henry's short story are available because they were published longer than 75 years ago and are no longer under copyright protection. Dobie, though even he could not have foreseen the computer revolution that may change the very nature of the book world, never copyrighted his book on Texas literature.

"Not copyright in 1942/Again not copyright in 1952" appears on the verso of the printed version of Dobie's work, which began as a classroom handout when he taught Texas literature at the University of Texas. "Anybody is welcome to help himself to any of it in any way," appears beneath the two "Not copyright" notices.

As Hardeman notes in the introduction to the "Southwestern Classics Online" portion of his Web page, many "of the classic books about Texas and the Southwest are largely inaccessible to all but a few collectors, or to hard-core historians willing to commit the time and expense to travel to a few major libraries."

The on-line version of the Smithwick and Dobie books are not indexed, but they are searchable and can be down-loaded. Anyone wanting to can print one of the books in its entirety, or selected pages.

Though only four items of Texana currently are available on-line, McKeever estimates at least 3,000 public domain books -- mostly classic works of literature -- have been digitized.

"No one could have imagined that this many books would be on line even two years ago," McKeever said. "And it's not slowing down."

As a hobby and because he appreciates the classics, McKeever operates a Web page called Virtual Bookshelf at http:\\www.islandmm.com. He currently has 12 American literature titles and 8 short stories on-line. In addition, he has a searchable short story index.

A listing of all books now available on-line can be found at a site called On Line Book Page operated by Carnegie Mellon University in New York at http:\\www.cs.cmu.edu\books.html. Roughly 700 of the 3,000 books and 3,000 short stories currently on the Internet have been put up by Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort that can be visited at http:\\www.promo.net\pg\.

Hardeman said he also intends to use volunteers -- people willing to scan, or digitize, books and then electronically "proof" them for errors -- to get rare and out of print Texas titles up on the Internet. "Right now I'm working on John C. Duval's biography of Big Foot Wallace," he said. "Other books I intend to get on line as soon as possible are Hubert Bancroft's two-volume History of the North Mexican States and Texas, 1531-1889, John Henry Brown's two-volume History of Texas From 1685 to 1892 and Francis R. Lubbock's Six Decades in Texas."

All of these books are out of print, expensive when they do turn up on the market and generally only found in libraries. But in 20 years, McKeever believes, most books -- even newly "published" titles -- will be available on the Internet. "The technology is already available, but the big publishers are waiting on better software to protect their copyrighted material."

Though copyrighted material will still have to be paid for by the end user, the literature of the world in the public domain will be available to anyone, McKeever said. This movement is not being fueled by economics so much as by people who admire the written word and want to see the democratization of books.

"If the new frontier of the Internet is analogous to the California gold rush of 1849," McKeever said, "the only people making money off this movement right now are the ones selling the pick axes, the hardware and software."

Sam Houston: A Sneak Preview
(April 4, 1997)

One hundred and sixty-one years ago this spring, Sam Houston and his nearly mutinous army moved east across Texas with General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his forces not far behind.

As far as Santa Anna was concerned, the rebels were no better than pirates. At the Alamo he had shown no quarter, and none would be given in the next confrontation. Houston and his men would receive no more mercy than had been afforded Bowie, Crockett or Travis.

When those two armies finally met near the San Jacinto River on April 21, 1836, the future of Texas was decided.

For 15 years, Austin writer James L. Haley has been working on a book about Houston that may help us understand him better than we ever have.

The biography will not hit the shelves for another couple of years, but if the portions of the manuscript Haley recently offered me a sneak preview of are any indication of what the final product will be like, the book will be worth the wait.

In the weeks preceding San Jacinto, Houston was patient. So is Haley's publisher. "I was supposed to be finished with it 10 years ago," he said, "but the University of Oklahoma Press has been extremely understanding."

The Norman-based press realizes it has no corner on the Sam Houston book market. Some 60 to 70 books about Houston have been published over the years, including Marquis James' Pulitzer Prize-winning The Raven in 1929. Four major books on Houston were published in 1993, the bicentennial of his birth.

The titles and subtitles of these books have tended to be suggestive of the man: Words or phrases like "giant," "colossus," "destiny," "star of Texas," "sword of San Jacinto" have been called on to convey the importance of Houston over the years.

Haley, however, has decided to go with something simpler -- Sam Houston. If really pressed, he said, he will assent to a subtitle of "A Biography."

Other, more pressing writing projects have helped delay Haley's biography but the main reason has been the ongoing discovery of new material. Houston left big footprints, literally and figuratively, and Haley keeps finding new paths to follow.

"I've gotten previously-unpublished letters from Houston descendants, and at the Catholic Archives I found a cache of Houston papers donated by his last son, Andrew Jackson Houston," Haley said. "No one has ever gone through that material before."

In addition to ferreting out never before examined Houston papers, Haley has been revisiting previously published Houston books and their footnotes. He has been able to corroborate some of the colorful Houston anecdotes in some books, but not all of them. In other cases, he has dug deeper and found revealing new insight into the Virginia-born, Tennessee-raised man who changed Texas history.

When Haley's book is published in the spring of 1999, it probably will be added to the other Houston biographies for sale at the gift shop in the visitor's center at the 67 foot tall statue of Houston off I-45, six miles south of Huntsville. The local Chamber of Commerce calls this concrete monument, dedicated Oct. 22, 1994, the "tallest statue of an American hero in the world."

On a recent visit, to get the full effect, I circled the statue by taking Highway 112 to Park Road 40 and then getting back on I-45, headed north. The giant Houston -- wearing a frock coat and carrying a tipped cane -- was soon visible. He looked like he had just stepped out from the pine trees, a stand of timber as tall as he is. When I got back to the base of the statue, Houston looked even taller.

"Your name could be here," is stamped into one of the bricks in the sidewalk around the granite base of the statue. "Information available at the Visitor Center. (409) 291-9726."

Indeed, many names already grace the sidewalk around this giant Houston. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, a graduate of Sam Houston State University, has a brick along with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, several state prison units, former Polish president Lech Walesa, the Kermit Junior High School seventh grade Texas history class, the Crabb's Prairie Firefighters and Ladies Auxiliary, Huntsville's First Baptist Church, numerous other individuals and organizations, a cellular phone company, an insurance company, and two cultural icons of the late 20th Century, McDonald's and Walmart.

With the constant roar of traffic on the nearby interstate, this is not a place for quiet contemplation, despite the fragrant dogwoods and other attractive landscaping. Still, standing beneath this towering Texan (another catchy phrase already used in a Houston biography), I wondered what Houston, as a mere six-foot something mortal, would think if he could see what has been done in his honor -- an Egyptian-like monument on Texas' second-busiest interstate highway. More than 34,000 vehicles a day speed past this Texas Spynx.

Houston, too, was given to contemplation and the quiet pleasure of reading, particularly the classics. When wandering the woods in Tennessee as a youth, Houston had with him Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad.

"Houston would be absolutely tickled with this monument and the one at San Jacinto," Haley said. "His writings reflect all this modesty, but there is so much cleverness to that writing, you can tell how big his ego really was. He would have been pleased with a statute big enough to saddle and ride the Trojan Horse."

Is Houston deserving of this giant statue and several shelves of books? Haley does not hesitate in his answer:

"The revolution would have failed without Houston. There were too many hotheads. The Texans without Houston would have fought Santa Anna at the wrong place and time and been beaten."

Book Reviews from Previous Month: (March 1997)

Return to Lone Star Junction Home Page

Copyright © 1997