Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wizardry Writing

I am not a poet and I know it, which aside from the old “Roses are red, violets are blue” formula, is about as far as I can go in things poetical. In freshman English at Angelo State University, I got tripped up on iambic pentameter and haven’t figured it out yet.

But you don’t have to be a poet to enjoy good poetry. You don’t even have to know what iambic pentameter is to spot the difference between pleasing rhyme and doggerel.

When longtime Austinite Mariann Wizard asked if I would be interested in reviewing her autobiography in poems, “Sixty,” I hesitated. My reviews mostly concentrate on non-fiction Texana, I told her. Still, she offered to send a copy for me to take a look at and I agreed. (Interestingly enough, she was an old friend of cartoonist-historian Jack Jackson, discussed in the previous entry in this blog.)

One reason I assented was that I knew something of her story. A bright Fort Worth girl, she came to the University of Texas in the 1960s and soon got swept up in what came to be called “the Movement.”

Actually, Wizard did most of the sweeping. She was one of the founders of the iconoclastic underground newspaper called The Rag in 1966 (merely possessing the first issue got me unceremoniously thrown off campus at Sidney B. Lanier High School) and was married to another figure in Austin’s nascent civil rights and anti-war movement, George Vizard.

In 1967, Vizard was murdered while working as a clerk in a convenience store in then North Austin. Some years later, when police arrested a suspect in her husband’s death, I was involved in the newspaper coverage. Later still, I reviewed a true crime book written about the case.

One of the 60 poems in this collection, written a year after his slaying, deals with Vizard. Others range from a topic familiar to all Austinites – traffic congestion – to the seasons. A few of the poems are as steamy as a late May afternoon after a thunderstorm. All of them, from traditional verse to haiku, invite reading and reflection.

In addition to Wizard’s wizardry words, her longtime friend Scout Stormcloud took the color images that add to the book’s visual appeal.

Published by Lulu.com, an on-line publisher, the 100-page book is available for $39.95 or at $15.95 for a digital download. For more details, contact Wizard at awizard@awizardslife.com

New Texas History Movies published

One day in the fall of 1959, as a fifth grader at Austin’s T.A. Brown Elementary School, I watched as my teacher passed out a red and blue softcover booklet called “Texas History Movies.”

The booklet, through pen and ink cartoons with dialog and captions, told the history of the Lone Star State in comic book form. I’m sure most of my fellow classmates felt like I did, hardly able to believe that our teacher would be giving us a comic book. I had piles of Donald Duck and Classics comics at home, but we weren’t allowed to have them at school. They were comic books, after all. Now our teacher was handing out comic books.

I pored over “Texas History Movies,” which began as a cartoon series in the Dallas Morning News in the late 1920s, with every bit as much relish as I would have shown for the annual 25 cent Donald Duck summer vacation special issue. And like hundreds of thousands of Texas school children, I learned a lot about Texas history in a very palatable way. It was like eating chocolate brownies laced with tasteless medicine.

Nearly a half century later, I now know that I was among the last group of Texas school kids to get that book. The same year I received it, its longtime distributor, Mobile Oil, decided to discontinue it. For years, the oil company which had a flying red horse as its logo gave the book away free to Texas school districts.

In explaining its decision to drop the book, the giant company cited economics, and the fact that the booklet no longer fit its world-wide business plan. The real reason, of course, was the criticism Mobil already had begun to receive about the book’s politically incorrect language and themes. The term “politically correct” had not even been coined yet, but with a text unchanged since the 1930s, the book was Anglo-centric to say the least.

That lack of diversity – harshly demonstrated in places – was a product of its times. I doubt seriously if it inflamed any more racism on the part of its young readers than may already have existed, courtesy of their parents and grandparents. The main effect it had was to get school kids caught up in what has always been a pretty compelling story. In fact, I feel safe in betting that “Texas History Movies” fostered more historians than it did racists.

Now, thanks to the late Jack Jackson (who also read the book as a youngster) and the Texas State Historical Association, a modern cartoon history of Texas done in the spirit of “Texas History Movies” is available for a new generation of Texas children. As its title implies, “The New Texas History Movies” is a new book from the ground up, with drawings and text by Jackson. While it is now deemed politically correct (TSHA produced a sanitized version of the original back in the 1970s) and thus not likely to corrupt the innocent young minds of grade schoolers and middle school pupils, the new book is still interesting and in places, funny.

The 48-page softcover is available for $9.95. (To read more about the book or to order copies, go to the TSHA Web site at www.tsha.utexas.edu)

In addition to his drawings, Jackson wrote a five-page essay, “A Bit of History about Texas History Movies,” to close out the book. As he pointed out, the original comic book had a strong influence on his career.

Sadly, this was Jackson’s last work. He died by his own hand a year ago, his body found in the family cemetery near Stockdale in South Texas.

Hopefully this book will influence new generations of Texas kids. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire another child to become as solid an artist and historian as Jackson.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

"Lone Star Pasts"

Mike Cox “Texana” for April 2007

This is a slightly revised version of my April 2007 “Texana” column in the Austin American-Statesman.

For Texans immersed in their state’s colorful history, March and April are the High Holy Days.

Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico gained approval at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 2, 1836. The Alamo fell on March 6. The final big date in the Texas version of the holy days is April 21, the anniversary of Sam Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

Scores if not hundreds of books have been published on Texas’ emergence as a sovereign nation. Taking a different approach, Texas A&M University Press has published a book about how we remember not only that epoch but the entire Texas story. Edited by Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas” ($45 hardback, $19.95 paper) is a collection of 11 essays by an assortment of scholars that explore our collective memory.

OK, it will be difficult to say more about this book until getting “collective memory” defined. In his foreword, historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage puts it this way:

“Scholars have adopted the conceit of ‘historical memory’ [AKA collective memory] to describe the amorphous and varied activities that groups have employed to recall the past. Recently, older notions of memory as a passive process of storing and retrieving objective recollections of lived experiences have given way to an understanding of memory as an active, on-going process of ordering the past.”

Got that? In other words, no one has yet disputed the fact that a large Mexican army overwhelmed the Alamo and killed most of its Texan combatants. But ever since then, Texans and the world have remembered the Alamo in their own way. And those memories have continued to evolve.

Further, to get back to Brundage, collective memory is not merely the recollection of a somewhat-mutually-agreed-upon past, but “rather the product of intentional recreation. Collective remembering forges identity, justifies privileges, and sustains cultural norms.”

That history can be used to achieve things both worthy and unworthy is what makes this an important, if Ivory Tower-ish topic of study. Indeed, again in Brundage’s words, “the confluence of history, memory, power, and identity…vexes our postmodern age.”

Clearly, “Lone Star Pasts” is not light reading for anyone interested in learning more about Texas’ yesterdays. Its essays, if at times burdened with overly dense academic speak, demonstrate that we built our history and that it is a monument still under construction. The design changes with the times and for specific reasons. To continue the metaphor, the historical monument we have raised could even be razed at some point, replaced by a whole new line of thinking. Beyond metaphor, we even debate whether to remove or change long-standing monuments.

“Lone Star Pasts” needs to be read by anyone who may feel compelled to wade in the next time there’s a fight about the modern propriety of an old monument to a Civil War figure once considered a hero but by some seen as a defender of slavery or whether a state five generations removed from the Civil War should be apologizing for slavery, an institution no living person has anything but a collective, constructed “memory” of.

Hopefully, the last great military battle has long since been fought on Texas soil, but it seems we are always ready to get into a word fight about how we should remember those conflicts and the circumstances which preceded them.

Particularly interesting is Cantrell’s essay, “The Bones of Stephen F. Austin: History and Memory in Progressive-Era Texas.” The largest wave of nostalgia for Texas history swept over the state in the mid-1930s, climaxed by a centennial celebration in 1836. But as Cantrell shows, the first surge in historical recognition came early in the second decade of the 20th century, highlighted by the exhumation of Texas colonizer and Capital City’s namesake for reburial in the State Cemetery.

As some hundred politicians, reporters and Austin relatives looked on, the first bone handed up from the grave was his “almost perfectly preserved” skull. First to hold it was Austin’s grandniece. Watching the scene, a reporter for the Galveston News tried to one-up Shakespeare’s Hamlet with this passage:

“The great brain cavity of the illustrious colonizer and diplomat was filled with the soil for which he suffered and endured and pleaded and it seemed appropriate that the clear and prophetic brain which once planned, organized, nurtured, directed and preserved this state should in the process of time be supplanted by some of its rich, warm earth.”

Austin’s bones went into a new casket which lay in state in the Capitol before being reburied on the highest spot in the State Cemetery, a prominence now called Republic Hill.

Gov. O.B. Colquit played a big part in getting Austin the recognition that most Texans still agree that he deserves. In fact, he pushed for and signed legislation getting other monuments placed across the state, including a statue at Sam Houston’s grave in Huntsville.

Colquitt also battled the Daughters of the Texas Revolution over how the Alamo should be preserved (whether as historically accurate as possible or as a memorial park). The DRT won, but at least we continue to remember that old mission and what happened there. The same, apparently, cannot be said for arguably the most powerful Texan of the 20th century – President Lyndon B. Johnson.

As Ricky Floyd Dobbs shows in his essay, “Lyndon, We Hardly Remember Ye: LBJ in the Memory of Modern Texas,” with the passage of time (he has been dead since 1973, out of the White House since early in 1969) Johnson is losing name recognition in his home state. As Dobbs put it, “Lyndon Johnson doesn’t fit Texas anymore.”

If that is really the case, no telling how our collective memory will be transformed by the time the next big occasion to reinvent ourselves comes along – the 2036 bicentennial of Texas.

Here goes

Never let it be said that an old dog can't learn new tricks. Of course, it may take an old dog longer to learn a new trick, but I'm still able to get up and walk to the feed bowl.

After some 40 years of talking about Texas books in Texas newspapers, I hope to expand into the new medium of the blogosphere. My hope will be that word of this site will spread and we can get a real good conversation going about Texas books. I am literally learning as I go here, so we'll see what happens.

My plan, at this point, is to update this blog as frequently as I can. I encourage comments, suggestions, suggested books to write about, and, of course, your opinion on Texas books.

I am primarily interested in talking about mainstream Texas books...titles from commercial publishers, regional presses and academic presses. I certainly will talk about well-done self-published books, however.