Deconstructing Texas: The diversity of people, place, and historical imagination in recent Texas history Chapter uri icon


  • The volume in which this essay appears testifies to the fact that Texas has no shortage of professional commentators. For example, in 1961 John Steinbeck remarked, "Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. . . . A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner." He was on the mark. As others have noted time and again, Texans possess a peculiar attachment to a dual, though precociously compatible, national identity. One of the roots of this biculturalism, this binationalism, is the state's singular past, which Steinbeck also referred to as "its own private history based on, but not limited by, facts."1 Historians of Texas, it seems, have struggled mightily to fairly and accurately document the state's rich, diverse, yet oddly obscured past on the one hand, and on the other hand to grapple daily with the popular, powerful, emotionally charged historical myths that make up so much of Texan identity. The original Texas Through Time: Evolving Interpretations (1991), edited by Walter L. Buenger and the late Robert A. "Bob" Calvert twenty years ago, was entirely devoted to combating old, chauvinistic, triumphalist myths in a manner more resembling a barroom brawl than a genteel academic dispute. Its overwhelming focus on myth, however, was more than justified. Myth is a peculiarly strong problem in Texas history. While historical documents and sources are capable of multiple kinds of intellectual interrogation, Texas myth demands the opposite. It brooks no critical engagement. It, like any myth, depends on uncritical submission. Myths are handed down and accepted, not put under any scholar's microscope. They cannot withstand that kind of scrutiny; therefore, to attempt to unearth, catalog, and analyze them invites vague, unformed, yet undeniably passionate charges of disloyalty, of bad taste, and of foreignness. So despite any and all contrary evidence, Texas myth insists that slaves must be happy, women must be cheerful yet silent helpmates, Mexicans must be treacherous, and Indians must be deadly, implacable foes. The influence of Texas myth, an exaggeration of the broader U.S. frontier myth, is that such ideas are "known" without evidence. These myths, particularly in their more traditional forms, are enmeshed with age-old power relations and attitudes that today would surely be considered racist, nativist, sexist, and classist.2 By no means are they neutral, inconsequential notions. Interpretations emanating from a creation myth around the Alamo and its Anglo defenders as slain martyrs, as blood sacrifices to the creation of a new utopia, also invoke rugged frontiersmen who heroically reclaimed the land from the alleged savagery of its Indian and Mexican inhabitants; they also invoke the supposed cultural superiority of Anglo, Protestant frontiersmen over everyone else, and the sacrosanct belief in Texan independence as a preordained chapter of manifest destiny. But even these origin myths have origins themselves. Forged in the nineteenth century by amateur scholars, these myths were greatly extended into the realm of academic and popular knowledge by professional twentieth-century scholars such as (but not limited to) George P. Garrison, Walter Prescott Webb, J. Frank Dobie, Charles W. Ramsdell, and Eugene C. Barker. The crystallization of fictive myth into officially sanctioned history occurred at a time of great change in Texas. In the aftermath of Civil War defeat and the arrival of Jim Crow, these myths created a separate, unique identity by substituting a culturally homogenous, heroic, and sacred past in place of the state's actual unruly, untidy, diverse past.3 This essay owes a great debt to the first Texas Through Time. Its intellectual guidance to any scholar working on Texas history is incalculable. And of course, the original Texas Through Time also had a style! Texas Through Time's critical, no-nonsense, unsentimentality expected as much from its readers as from its authors. Its keynote essay demanded that the state's historians "challenge the cultural heritage received from previous generations with an intellectual toughness and an honesty based on the point of view of the present one." This essay takes up how historians have answered that call. It focuses first on how historians since the late 1980s have directly addressed and engaged the origins of these seemingly irrefutable, irreducible myths that are so much a part of the Texas "cultural heritage." Second, the essay examines how historians view the people of this state, especially the interpretive evolution of traditionally marginalized groups such as African Americans, Mexican Americans, immigrants, women, as well as white people regardless of power and influence. Third, this essay will demonstrate that a diversity of ideas on how to view Texas has shaped modern historiography from the contributions of fictional literature, the concept of borderlands, urban studies, works that focus on the natural environment and Texans' shaping of it, as well as studies of place within Texas. Such topics lend themselves to different kinds of historical imagination that open up entirely new lines of inquiry. All these interpretive changes continue to diminish the power of older myths.4 This essay finds that scholars of late have deconstructed the traditional telling of Texas history and are reassembling the pieces of this shattered narrative. The unifying theme to this larger intellectual project is an attempt to more critically deal with the state's diverse past. If the scholars of distant eras constructed "useable pasts" that assembled mythic historical narratives around the ideological and social assumptions of their own times, then modern historians have attacked these ways of perceiving Texas history with narratives indebted to more socially egalitarian attitudes and postmodern intellectual trends: a greater concern for gender equality and racial/ethnic diversity, an interest i

author list (cited authors)

  • Blanton, C. K

complete list of authors

  • Blanton, CK

Book Title

  • Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away from Past Interpretations

publication date

  • December 2011