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.


Mariann said...

great column; had read it in the Statesman and enjoyed it then -- and hey, happy Cinco de Mayo!

In the immortal words of my friend Jaxon, "Somos tejanos"!

-- Mariann Wizard

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