Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Great Texas Novel, part 2

Bryan Curtis helped kick off the blog's The Great [Your State Here] Novel series with his case for The Great Texas novel.

He also suggested I check with the authority on this matter, Professor Don Graham of the University of Texas. I took Bryan's advice.

Here's what Don Graham said:
However interesting Billy Lee Brammer's novel The Gay Place might be, it is not the Great Texas Novel. In my experience it is journalists, mainly, who know and celebrate Brammer's novel, but Texans as a whole do not. Journalists and those who follow politics closely like the book because it's a thinly veiled portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, it deals with Texas politics, it bleeds liberal, and it's written in a literary style. The book has been kept in print by academics who use it in their classrooms and by twenty-thirty somethings who are excited to find something literate coming out of Texas.

A state-wide poll would reveal, I have little doubt, that Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is the Great Texas Novel. Wildly popular in the mid-1980s, it seems to be less well known among undergraduates today, for example, than it once was, but among what Virginia Woolf called the common reader--and among readers of Texana--it would easily win. For one thing, the novel goes back to the mythic period of Texas history--the cattle drive epic--and brings that world alive with stirring action and memorable characters.

The other Great Texas Novel, certainly the greatest on a scale of high literary artistry, is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. But it too has a smaller following than the popular massive appeal of Lonesome Dove. McCarthy places too many demands on readers, both in terms of style and content, for the book to seize the collective imagination of the state. But it is an absolutely great novel, in the same league, some critics believe (vide Harold Bloom), as the best of Melville and Faulkner. There is nothing quite like it in post-WWII American fiction.

Finally, for all those who stereotype Texas, and hence its literature (or supposed lack of), I would refer them to Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology, W.W. Norton, 2006 (paperback), edited by yours truly.
Other Don Graham books include Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire (2003), Giant Country: Essays on Texas (1998), No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy (1989), and Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (1983).

Don Graham is J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor at The University of Texas.

Thanks to Don for sharing these valuable insights, and thanks to Bryan Curtis for pointing me toward Austin in the search for The Great Texas Novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great New York (City) Novel, click here.
For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part1, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.