The personal essay is a difficult form to master. First, a writer must have something original or important to say and, second, he must say it in a memorable and effective fashion. Substance and style, in other words, have to be present. Given the fact that insight and wit are always in short supply, both among writers and the general human population, and given that writing to deadline, as in a weekly newspaper column, only increases the odds that whatever is insightful and witty is overshadowed by the mundane and the pedestrian, it is a happy occasion when a new and distinctive voice announces itself. Such is the case with this book of essays by Lonn Taylor. Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy has both substance and style, and in abundance.
Taylor is no novice in the writing trade. A professional historian and former curator at the Smithsonian Institution now retired to Fort Davis, Texas, Taylor has previously written numerous academic monographs. Many of the essays here draw upon his historical knowledge and ability to do research, but they wear their learning lightly and are written for a general audience. Taylor began writing the “Rambling Boy” column for the Desert-Mountain Times in Alpine in 2002, shortly after he arrived in Fort Davis, and when that newspaper ceased publication, Taylor was invited to continue his column with the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa. The present volume gathers fifty-three essays and places them in three sections: “Texas Past,” “Texas Family,” and “Texas Present.”
As Taylor notes in his introduction, “I am convinced that the history of Texas is a far more complex story than the cardboard cut-out narrative about the Alamo and Goliad that most Texans learned in their seventh-grade Texas history classes.” As a result, we read about Ferdinand Lindheimer, Roy Aldrich, Luis Jiménez, Tigie Lancaster, and scores of other fascinating Texans, living and dead. We read about his kin and the stories they told, all of which he sets down now with affection and the perspective of age. And we read about some of the places (San Antonio’s River Walk) and creatures (horned frogs) and institutions (Fort Worth bars) that define the culture of the colorful state in which we live.
Part of Taylor’s appeal is the sheer effortlessness of his prose. He is a master at the oh-so-casual opening sentence that draws you in and holds your attention completely. To take a couple of examples, almost at random: “Not long ago I was prowling around the shelves of the Wildenthal Library at Sul Ross State University” (62); “The other night my wife and I had dinner at one of our favorite Marfa restaurants, the Blue Javelina” (162). From these beginnings, he then draws on historical research, personal memory or experience, and keen observation, in [End Page 89] varying proportions, to carry the reader along. “Desert Rain,” for example is not only a marvelous description of thunderstorms but a meditation on the importance of rain to the desert ecosystem, to life itself, though obscured by our increasingly urban outlook. Throughout the book, Taylor captures the reader’s attention with gentle humor, sly irony, attention to detail, graceful and clear prose, and a humane and intelligent point of view. “Even though it has a population of only 1,160 people, Fort Davis can be a difficult town for strangers to find their way around in” (3). So too with Texas itself: Taylor is a valuable guide to the territory.
TCU Press deserves credit and thanks for cultivating and encouraging the literary resources of our state. The handsome design is the work of Barbara Mathews Whitehead, who in addition to setting the type, also provided the original illustrations, a feature made possible by Al and Darlyne Lowman, patrons of the book arts. In his evocative foreword, Bryan Woolley, who grew up in Fort Davis and who still claims it as “the home of my soul” (xii) hopes that this volume is...