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


Jean Laffite: Prince of Pirates
(February 28, 1997)

The French explorer La Salle has been getting all the attention lately with the excavation of the wreckage of his ship in Matagorda Bay, but he was not the only colorful French speaking visitor to early day Texas.

In 1817, Jean Laffite began using the tip of Galveston Island as a base for a very lucrative privateering operation in the Caribbean. But within a few years in the nearby United States, privateering -- a once fashionable way for governments to privatize naval operations -- was beginning to be regarded as simple piracy. Laffite also was a slave trader, another enterprise frowned on in the U.S.

But Laffite was a gentlemanly pirate and he had been a lot of help a couple of years earlier in the Battle of New Orleans, the fight in which General Andrew Jackson established once and for all that the United States would be a separate nation and not part of the British empire. He later turned down an offer of a presidential pardon for any of his activities prior to 1815.

Laffite's story has been told many times before, in books and in movies, but never more accurately than in Jack Ramsay's well-written new biography, "Jean Laffite: Prince of Pirates." Published by Eakin Press, the 209-page book sells for $21.95.

Though Laffite was French speaking and every bit Gallic in spirit, Ramsay does not believe he was actually born in France, as some have claimed. More likely, Ramsay writes, Laffite got to New Orleans from the French colony that eventually became known as Haiti.

Laffite's Texas connection was his three-plus years as lord of Galveston Island, where he held himself forth as governor of a colony of 100 to 200 persons. The principal structure in his settlement was a two-story wooden house painted bright red and visible for miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually, the U.S. Navy forced him to abandon the isle and the lucrative trade he had developed there. He left behind the red house -- Maison Rouge -- and intriguing legends of buried treasure. Several years later, on another island refuge, he died in middle age, apparently of natural causes.

The research that went into this biography is impressive: Ramsay's notes and bibliography take up 46 pages -- nearly a quarter of the book.

An appendix as interesting as the main text examines the so-called "Journal of Jean Laffite," a handwritten document held by the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center in Liberty that most scholars, including Ramsay, believe to be a fake.

In his final chapter, Ramsay assesses Laffite's voyage into the world's folklore. His life left in its wake a rich collection of tales -- particularly treasure and ghost stories. Some evidence exists that Laffite encouraged the development of legend around him. Certainly, he was reputed to have done much more as a pirate than he ever really did.

For so noted a figure, no one has yet to figure out when and where he was born or when or where he died and was buried.

As Ramsay wrote, "He was one who came from nowhere and disappeared into nothingness. . . He choose to be a person of mystery. Perhaps, in his final days, he took satisfaction in the knowledge that the tales that would be told about him would far outstrip his actual deeds."


J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend
(February 21, 1997)

Texas history is full of examples of gutsy stands -- the Alamo, Sam Houston's delaying the decisive fight with Santa Anna despite heavy criticism from his own men and later, Houston's courageous support of the union when most of the rest of the people in Texas wanted secession as the nation was in freefall toward Civil War.

What the late historian and rancher J. Evetts Haley did after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas did not change the course of history, but it took a lot of fortitude and nearly cost him his reputation: He set out to write and publish a book containing the truth about Lyndon Johnson, at least the truth as Haley saw it, as the Texan who had become President on Nov. 22, 1963 sought election to a full term in the White House.

The result of Haley's effort was "A Texan Looks at Lyndon," a self-published paperback which became the second best seller of 1964. Only the Bible outsold Haley's book that year.

"A Texan Looks at Lyndon" was not an objective piece of scholarship weighing both sides of the story. It was a double-barreled literary shotgun blast at the President of the United States, one well-respected Texan taking on another.

Even some of Haley's friends said he had gone too far in writing such a book. San Angelo newspaper publisher Houston Harte, an old friend of Haley's (and also a strong supporter of LBJ) said, "Haley can no longer be considered a serious historian."

Midland writer Bill Modisett devotes a chapter to the "A Texan Looks at Lyndon" story in his recently-published biography of Haley, the first booklength study of the West Texas historian to be published since his death at 94 in the fall of 1995. "J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend," was published by Staked Plains Press. The 213-page book sells for $40 in hardback and $26.95 in paper.

The LBJ expose is only one example of the late Haley's strong principles, beliefs which not always made him popular. He successfully defended himself in a libel suit brought in connection with his first book, a history of the XIT ranch, even riding into Mexico in search of an old grave to bolster the evidence in support of one of his points. He ran for governor in 1956, knowing full well there was no way he could win.

There was more to Haley than his politics, of course -- he was a fine writer, successful rancher and devoted family man -- but it is hard to separate the various elements of his life, so strong were his political convictions.

Some of the best writing in this book is not about Haley, but about Haley's favorite country, West Texas:

"There were unexpected pleasures in this harsh land: the muted pastels that painted the sky in delicate hues on spring mornings, the fragile beauty of flowers that adorned the devil's pincushion and prickly pear cactus in a beauty-and-the-beast contradiction, the faintly pungent odor of purple sage catapulted into bloom by an unexpected rainfall, a rare April snow glittering in the bright Texas sunlight. There was a strange attraction to this land. . ."

"J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend" won't be the only book on Haley's colorful, controversial and productive life, but it is the first one out of the chute and will serve as an even-handed overview of Haley's story.

As novelist Elmer Kelton wrote in his introduction for Modisett's book, "History will probably be kinder to J. Evetts Haley than many of his contemporaries have been. History has always favored the leaders, the individualists who blazed their own trails and lived by their own lights, those who chose to be out in front -- alone if necessary -- rather than simply fit in with the crowd. Not even his detractors could ever accuse Evetts Haley of being one of the crowd."


Michener: A 336-Page Bibliography
(February 14, 1997)

If a writer is prolific enough, he produces one more book than he may realize -- his bibliography.

Someone else will compile it, of course, but a descriptive listing of a writer's life work can be book length.

James Michener's bibliography, for instance, fills a book of 336 pages, about the size of an average novel (but not one of Michener's average novels.) Compiled by David A. Groseclose, "James A. Michener: A Bibliography," has been published by State House Press and sells for $45. A limited edition signed by the author and Michener is available for $200.

Michener's career as a successful writer had its start with four short sentences, the beginning of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Tales of the South Pacific":

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands.

The book beginning with those sentences was published in 1948. While not having quite as famous an opening as "Call me Ishmael," Michener's first novel was the beginning of a whale-sized body of work. In the nearly half-century since then, Michener has gone on to write hundreds of other beginnings, followed by uncounted hundreds of thousands of other sentences. While his total words and sentences remain uncounted, coming up with the number of Michener titles has proven a bit easier, though definitely a major project.

The numbers: Sixty-nine books, 23 of them novels, from "Tales of the South Pacific" to his latest work, a just-published collection of sonnets. In addition to the books, Michener's bibliography includes 135 contributions to anthologies, collections and books; 78 forewords, introductions and miscellaneous pieces of commentary; 271 magazine articles; and 127 newspaper articles. In all, 680 works -- roughly one piece a month.

Of this impressive ouevre, which began when the author was in his 40s, two books deal with Michener's adopted home state of Texas: the 1096-page novel "Texas" (published in 1985 and subsequently translated in 10 different languages) and "The Eagle and the Raven," published in 1990. Michener also has done five forewords to various Texas-related books and three magazine articles dealing with some aspect of Texas.

The bibliography also includes books about or related to Michener, audio and video materials by or about Michener, magazine and newspaper articles about Michener and major reviews of Michener's work. Under "Michener Miscellany" are noted a coffee cup and T-shirt bearing the author's likeness. In all, there are more than 2,500 entries in this annotative bibliography, the work of a Phoenix lawyer who is a dedicated Michener collector.

Even a casual perusal of this bibliography shows that little has escaped Michener's attention during his long literary career. He has written about everything from Texas to Japanese art, from the space program to sports, from politics to the art of writing.

Groseclose's bibliography is an outstanding work of scholarship, a valuable reference for collectors, researchers, librarians, Michener fans -- anyone with an appreciation for belles lettres.

Though this bibliography only lists 78 forewords, introductions and pieces of miscellaneous commentary by Michener, he actually has done 79: He also wrote the foreword to this book. And in it, Michener offers a short anecdote about, as he puts it, "the vagaries of the written word."

When he was 9 or 10 years old, while at a swimming hole in "a trivial streamlet near our town" (in Pennsylvania) he saw that one of his friends apparently was having trouble. Believing he was in danger of drowning, the future novelist swam out and helped the boy to shore. Someone witnessed this act of bravery and the story made the local paper the next day: "Local Lad a Hero. Saves His Companion."

A couple of days later, the youngster Michener believed he had saved from drowning came and punched him in the nose.

"Saved my life? You nearly drowned me. Got in my way as I was making it to shore," the boy said to Michener.

That was the end of a friendship, and as Michener wrote, "I was left to ruminate, at that early age, on the vagaries of the printed word, a mystery which still perplexes me."

While Michener continues at 90 to ponder this mystery, millions of readers are left to their own ruminations on the millions of printed words produced by this remarkable writer who decided to spend his final years in Texas.


Black Texans
(February 7, 1997)

The best history of African-American Texans -- out of print for years -- has been republished and expanded.

In 1971, the publishing company operated by the late Texas bookman John H. Jenkins brought out Alwyn Barr's "Black Texans," a book well-received at the time as the best overview of black history in Texas and long overdue. At the time, historian Joe B. Frantz correctly predicted the book would "likely be the orientation book of persons writing on [Texas blacks] for years to come."

Despite its critical acclaim, however, the book went out of print. In 1983, more than a decade after its publication, the man who had first brought it out proclaimed "Black Texans" a fundamental work in his book "Basic Texas Books." This further increased demand for it, of course. But even though Jenkins was touting one of his own books, all modesty aside, he was right.

Now, more than a quarter century after its publication, "Black Texans" is back into print in an affordable ($15.95) trade paperback issued by the University of Oklahoma Press. Not only that, its author, a history professor at Texas Tech University, has added a new chapter to cover the major developments in black history in Texas since his book first was published.

"Black Texans" also features a new preface and a revised index, making this new edition all the more useful. Though the first edition was a hardback, and the second edition is available only in paper, OU's new edition essentially relegates the 1971 book to mere collector's item status. The second edition will be the one to turn to for the best understanding of African-American history in Texas.

In fact, as Barr points out, the story of Texas' blacks goes back as far as the beginning of European exploration of Texas. A black slave named Estevan accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his journey across Texas four centuries ago.

Barr's well-done book shows that blacks went on to play an important role in the development of Texas. Twenty to twenty-five percent of the cowboys who pushed cattle from Texas to the railhead in Kansas during the 1870s were black. This mass movement of Texas cattle has been credited with restoring the state's economy following the Civil War.

Much of what is known about slave life in Texas comes from interviews with former slaves done during the Depression by writers hired by the Works Progress Administration. Narratives collected from Texas slaves were published by Bill Wittliff's (cq) Encino Press in 1974. OU Press has now published "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives," a similar collection of the recollections of former slaves who had moved to Oklahoma.

Edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, the 543-page book is available for $49.50 in hardback, $24.95 in paper.

Many of those interviewed by the WPA workers had come to Oklahoma from Texas after emancipation in 1865, but some had been slaves not of white people, but Native Americans in the Indian Territory. Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks all were known to have held slaves.

The narratives are both fascinating and chilling. One woman, born on a planation near the East Texas community of Marshall, recalled how slaves dreaded nightfall. "Patrollers" carrying pine tar torches walked through the slave quarters periodically during the night looking for anyone who was not indoors. Any slave found out at night was whipped, she recalled.

Some 200,000 blacks fought in the war that ended slavery. After the Civil War, the Army had two black cavalry regiments, the 9th and the 10th, and two black infantry regiments, the 24th and 25th.

OU Press has reprinted the best book on those black foot soldiers, "The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891" by Arlen L. Fowler. The 167-page book, first published in 1971, sells for $12.95 in paper.

A final book dealing with African-Americans in Texas is "Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore." Edited by Francis E. Abernethy, Patrick B. Mullen and Alan B. Govenar, the 364-page hardback is the latest volume published for the Texas Folklore Society by the University of North Texas Press. The book sells for $29.95.

Named for the African-American holiday that commemorates the day Texas blacks first heard they had been freed (June 19, 1865), this collection covers everything from a discussion of the food slaves ate to the story of Bongo Joe, the colorful character who until the late 1980s was part of the night scene in downtown San Antonio.


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