Southwestern Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Preface | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter


Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest


1
A Declaration

In the University of Texas I teach a course called "Life and Literature of the Southwest." About 1929 I had a brief guide to books concerning the Southwest mimeographed; in 1931 it was included by John William Rogers in a booklet entitled Finding Literature on the Texas Plains. After that I revised and extended the guide three or four times, during the process distributing several thousand copies of the mimeographed forms. Now the guide has grown too long, and I trust that this printing of it will prevent my making further additions -- though within a short time new books will come out that should be added.

Yet the guide is fragmentary, incomplete, and in no sense a bibliography. Its emphases vary according to my own indifferences and ignorance as well as according to my own sympathies and knowledge. It is strong on the character and ways of life of the early settlers, on the growth of the soil, and on everything pertaining to the range; it is weak on information concerning politicians and on citations to studies which, in the manner of orthodox Ph.D. theses, merely transfer bones from one graveyard to another.

It is designed primarily to help people of the Southwest see significances in the features of the land to which they belong, to make their environments more interesting to them, their past more alive, to bring them to a realization of the values of their own cultural inheritance, and to stimulate them to observe. It includes most of the books about the Southwest that people in general would agree on as making good reading.

I have never had any idea of writing or teaching about my own section of the country merely as a patriotic duty. Without apologies, I would interpret it because I love it, because it interests me, talks to me, appeals to my imagination, warms my emotions; also because it seems to me that other people living in the Southwest will lead fuller and richer lives if they become aware of what it holds. I once thought that, so far as reading goes, I could live forever on the supernal beauty of Shelley's "The Cloud" and his soaring lines "To a Skylark," on the rich melancholy of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," on Cyrano de Bergerac's ideal of a free man, on Wordsworth's philosophy of nature -- a philosophy that has illuminated for me the mesquite flats and oak-studded hills of Texas -- on the adventures in Robert Louis Stevenson, the flavor and wit of Lamb's essays, the eloquent wisdom of Hazlitt, the dark mysteries of Conrad, the gaieties of Barrie, the melody of Sir Thomas Browne, the urbanity of Addison, the dash in Kipling, the mobility, the mightiness, the lightness, the humor, the humanity, the everything of Shakespeare, and a world of other delicious, high, beautiful, and inspiring things that English literature has bestowed upon us. That literature is still the richest of heritages; but literature is not enough.

Here I am living on a soil that my people have been living and working and dying on for more than a hundred years -- the soil, as it happens, of Texas. My roots go down into this soil as deep as mesquite roots go. This soil has nourished me as the banks of the lovely Guadalupe River nourish cypress trees, as the Brazos bottoms nourish the wild peach, as the gentle slopes of East Texas nourish the sweet-smelling pines, as the barren, rocky ridges along the Pecos nourish the daggered lechuguilla. I am at home here, and I want not only to know about my home land, I want to live intelligently on it. I want certain data that will enable me to accommodate myself to it. Knowledge helps sympathy to achieve harmony. I am made more resolute by Arthur Hugh Clough's picture of the dripping sailor on the reeling mast,

On stormy nights when wild northwesters rave,
but the winds that have bit into me have been dry Texas northers; and fantastic yarns about them, along with a cowboy's story of a herd of Longhorns drifting to death in front of one of them, come home to me and illuminate those northers like forked lightning playing along the top of black clouds in the night.

No informed person would hold that the Southwest can claim any considerable body of pure literature as its own. At the same time, the region has a distinct cultural inheritance, full of life and drama, told variously in books so numerous that their very existence would surprise many people who depend on the Book-of-the-Month Club for literary guidance. Any people have a right to their own cultural inheritance, though sheeplike makers of textbooks and sheeplike pedagogues of American literature have until recently, either wilfully or ignorantly, denied that right to the Southwest. Tens of thousands of students of the Southwest have been assigned endless pages on and listened to dronings over Cotton Mather, Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, and other dreary creatures of colonial New England who are utterly foreign to the genius of the Southwest. If nothing in written form pertaining to the Southwest existed at all, it would be more profitable for an inhabitant to go out and listen to coyotes singing at night in the prickly pear than to tolerate the Increase Mather kind of thing. It is very profitable to listen to coyotes anyhow. I rebelled years ago at having the tradition, the spirit, the meaning of the soil to which I belong utterly disregarded by interpreters of literature and at the same time having the Increase Mather kind of stuff taught as if it were important to our part of America. Happily the disregard is disappearing, and so is Increase Mather.

If they had to be rigorously classified into hard and fast categories, comparatively few of the books in the lists that follow would be rated as pure literature. Fewer would be rated as history. A majority of them are the stuff of history. The stuff out of which history is made is generally more vital than formalized history, especially the histories habitually forced on students in public schools, colleges, and universities. There is no essential opposition between history and literature. The attempt to study a people's literature apart from their social and, to a less extent, their political history is as illogical as the lady who said she had read Romeo but had not yet got to Juliet. Nearly any kind of history is more important than formal literary history showing how in a literary way Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob. Any man of any time who has ever written with vigor has been immeasurably nearer to the dunghill on which he sank his talons while crowing than to all literary ancestors.

A great deal of chronicle writing that makes no pretense at being belles-lettres is really superior literature to much that is so classified. I will vote three times a day and all night for John C. Duval's Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace, Charlie Siringo's Riata and Spurs, James B. Gillett's Six Years with the Texas Rangers, and dozens of other straightaway chronicles of the Southwest in preference to "The Culprit Fay" and much other watery "literature" with which anthologies representing the earlier stages of American writing are padded. Ike Fridge's pamphlet story of his ridings for John Chisum -- chief provider of cattle for Billy the Kid to steal -- has more of the juice of reality in it and, therefore, more of literary virtue than some of James Fenimore Cooper's novels, and than some of James Russell Lowell's odes.

The one thing essential to writing if it is to be read, to art if it is to be looked at, is vitality. No critic or professor can be hired to pump vitality into any kind of human expression, but professors and critics have taken it out of many a human being who in his attempts to say something decided to be correct at the expense of being himself -- being natural, being alive. The priests of literary conformity never had a chance at the homemade chronicles of the Southwest.

The orderly way in which to study the Southwest would be to take up first the land, its flora, fauna, climate, soils, rivers, etc., then the aborigines, next the exploring and settling Spaniards, and finally, after a hasty glance at the French, the English-speaking people who brought the Southwest to what it is today. We cannot proceed in this way, however. Neither the prairies nor the Indians who first hunted deer on them have left any records, other than hieroglyphic, as to their lives. Some late-coming men have written about them. Droughts and rains have had far more influence on all forms of life in the Southwest and on all forms of its development culturally and otherwise than all of the Coronado expeditions put together. I have emphasized the literature that reveals nature. My method has been to take up types and subjects rather than to follow chronology.

Chronology is often an impediment to the acquiring of useful knowledge. I am not nearly so much interested in what happened in Abilene, Kansas, in 1867 -- the year that the first herds of Texas Longhorns over the Chisholm Trail found a market at that place -- as I am in picking out of Abilene in 1867 some thing that reveals the character of the men who went up the trail, some thing that will illuminate certain phenomena along the trail human beings of the Southwest are going up today, some thing to awaken observation and to enrich with added meaning this corner of the earth of which we are the temporary inheritors.

By "literature of the Southwest" I mean writings that interpret the region, whether they have been produced by the Southwest or not. Many of them have not. What we are interested in is life in the Southwest, and any interpreter of that life, foreign or domestic, ancient or modern, is of value.

The term Southwest is variable because the boundaries of the Southwest are themselves fluid, expanding and contracting according to the point of view from which the Southwest is viewed and according to whatever common denominator is taken for defining it. The Spanish Southwest includes California, but California regards itself as more closely akin to the Pacific Northwest than to Texas; California is Southwest more in an antiquarian way than otherwise. From the point of view of the most picturesque and imagination-influencing occupation of the Southwest, the occupation of ranching, the Southwest might be said to run up into Montana. Certainly one will have to go up the trail to Montana to finish out the story of the Texas cowboy. Early in the nineteenth century the Southwest meant Tennessee, Georgia, and other frontier territory now regarded as strictly South. The men and women who "redeemed Texas from the wilderness" came principally from that region. The code of conduct they gave Texas was largely the code of the booming West. Considering the character of the Anglo-American people who took over the Southwest, the region is closer to Missouri than to Kansas, which is not Southwest in any sense but which has had a strong influence on Oklahoma. Chihuahua is more southwestern than large parts of Oklahoma. In Our Southwest, Erna Fergusson has a whole chapter on "What is the Southwest?" She finds Fort Worth to be in the Southwest but Dallas, thirty miles east, to be facing north and east. The principal areas of the Southwest are, to have done with air-minded reservations, Arizona, New Mexico, most of Texas, some of Oklahoma, and anything else north, south, east, or west that anybody wants to bring in. The boundaries of cultures and rainfall never follow survey lines. In talking about the Southwest I naturally incline to emphasize the Texas part of it.

Life is fluid, and definitions that would apprehend it must also be. Yet I will venture one definition -- not the only one -- of an educated person. An educated person is one who can view with interest and intelligence the phenomena of life about him. Like people elsewhere, the people of the Southwest find the features of the land on which they live blank or full of pictures according to the amount of interest and intelligence with which they view the features. Intelligence cannot be acquired, but interest can; and data for interest and intelligence to act upon are entirely acquirable.

"Studies perfect nature," Bacon said. "Nature follows art" to the extent that most of us see principally what our attention has been called to. I might never have noticed rose-purple snow between shadows if I had not seen a picture of that kind of snow. I had thought white the only natural color of snow. I cannot think of yew trees, which I have never seen, without thinking of Wordsworth's poem on three yew trees.

Nobody has written a memorable poem on the mesquite. Yet the mesquite has entered into the social, economic, and aesthetic life of the land; it has made history and has been painted by artists. In the homely chronicles of the Southwest its thorns stick, its roots burn into bright coals, its trunks make fence posts, its lovely leaves wave. To live beside this beautiful, often pernicious, always interesting and highly characteristic tree -- or bush -- and to know nothing of its significance is to be cheated out of a part of life. It is but one of a thousand factors peculiar to the Southwest and to the land's cultural inheritance.

For a long time, as he tells in his Narrative, Cabeza de Vaca was a kind of prisoner to coastal Indians of Texas. Annually, during the season when prickly pear apples (tunas, or Indian figs, as they are called in books) were ripe, these Indians would go upland to feed on the fruit. During his sojourn with them Cabeza de Vaca went along. He describes how the Indians would dig a hole in the ground, squeeze the fruit out of tunas into the hole, and then swill up big drinks of it. Long ago the Indians vanished, but prickly pears still flourish over millions of acres of land. The prickly pear is one of the characteristic growths of the Southwest. Strangers look at it and regard it as odd. Painters look at it in bloom or in fruit and strive to capture the colors. During the droughts ranchmen singe the thorns off its leaves, using a flame-throwing machine, easily portable by a man on foot, fed from a small gasoline tank. From Central Texas on down into Central America prickly pear acts as host for the infinitesimal insect called cochineal, which supplied the famous dyes of Aztec civilization.

A long essay might be written on prickly pear. It weaves in and out of many chronicles of the Southwest. A. J. Sowell, one of the best chroniclers of Texas pioneer life, tells in his Life of Bigfoot Wallace how that picturesque ranger captain once took one of his wounded men away from an army surgeon because the surgeon would not apply prickly pear poultices to the wound. In Rangers and Pioneers of Texas, Sowell narrates how rattlesnakes were so large and numerous in a great prickly pear flat out from the Nueces River that rangers pursuing bandits had to turn back. Nobody has written a better description of a prickly pear flat than O. Henry in his story of "The Caballero's Way."

People may look at prickly pear, and it will be just prickly pear and nothing more. Or they may look at it and find it full of significances; the mere sight of a prickly pear may call up a chain of incidents, facts, associations. A mind that can thus look out on the common phenomena of life is rich, and all of the years of the person whose mind is thus stored will be more interesting and full.

Cabeza de Vaca's Narrative, the chronicles of A. J. Sowell, and O. Henry's story are just three samples of southwestern literature that bring in prickly pear. No active-minded person who reads any one of these three samples will ever again look at prickly pear in the same light that he looked at it before he read. Yet prickly pear is just one of hundreds of manifestations of life in the Southwest that writers have commented on, told stories about, dignified with significance.

Cotton no longer has the economic importance to Texas that it once had. Still, it is mighty important. In the minds of millions of farm people of the South, cotton and the boll weevil are associated. The boll weevil was once a curse; then it came to be somewhat regarded as a disguised blessing -- in limiting production.

De first time I seen de boll weevil,
He was a-settin' on de square.
Next time I seen him, he had all his family dere--
Jest a-lookin' foh a home, jest a-lookin' foh a home.

A man dependent on cotton for a living and having that living threatened by the boll weevil will not be much interested in ballads, but for the generality of people this boll weevil ballad -- the entirety of which is a kind of life history of the insect -- is, while delightful in itself, a veritable story-book on the weevil. Without the ballad, the weevil's effect on economic history would be unchanged; but as respects mind and imagination, the ballad gives the weevil all sorts of significances. The ballad is a part of the literature of the Southwest.

But I am assigning too many motives of self-improvement to reading. People read for fun, for pleasure. The literature of the Southwest affords bully reading.

"If I had read as much as other men, I would know as little," Thomas Hobbes is credited with having said. A student in the presence of Bishop E. D. Mouzon was telling about the scores and scores of books he had read. At a pause the bishop shook his long, wise head and remarked, "My son, when do you get time to think?" Two of the best educated men I have ever had the fortune of talking with were neither schooled nor widely read. They were extraordinary observers. One was a plainsman, Charles Goodnight; the other was a borderer, Don Alberto Guajardo, in part educated by an old Lipan Indian.

But here are the books. I list them not so much to give knowledge as to direct people with intellectual curiosity and with interest in their own land to the sources of knowledge; not to create life directly, but to point out where it has been created or copied. On some of the books I have made brief observations. Those observations can never be nearly so important to a reader as the development of his own powers of observation. With something of an apologetic feeling I confess that I have read, in my way, most of the books. I should probably have been a wiser and better informed man had I spent more time out with the grasshoppers, horned toads, and coyotes.

J. FRANK DOBIE
Austin, Texas
November 5, 1942




Preface | Life and Literature of the Southwest Title Page | Next Chapter
Southwest Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction



Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.