- State of Minds: Texas Culture and Its Discontents
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[End Page 308]
The state of Texas has some kick to it. A statement such as this, of course, exclaims nothing new, for even the state’s non-denizens from the other forty-seven members of the lower forty-eight, Hawaii, Alaska, the remainder of the North American continent, and contemporary Western civilization at large know of Texas’s “kicking” character. Despite the world’s familiarity with Texas, however, Don Graham has taken it upon himself to compile a decade’s worth of his own critical writings into State of Minds: Texas Culture and Its Discontents. As suggested by the carefully selected final word of the book’s subtitle, Graham hopes to drive the final nail into the coffin of the state’s aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual naysayers. A task almost as large as Texas itself, Graham’s attempt ultimately succeeds in presenting an original portrait of a state that is often stereotyped along with its diverse cultures and its discontents.
Graham’s collected essays—which stem from 1999 to 2009 and include such varied topics as Zane Grey, John Howard Griffin, Oprah Winfrey, Mary Karr, and Cormac McCarthy—grapple directly with Texas’s internal artistic and cultural histories and the external forces that have seemingly neglected them. It doesn’t take him very long to start throwing punches: “I think the key to understanding all of this literary hullabaloo is that if Texans don’t celebrate the writing of their native state, nobody else is going to. Examples of the general disparagement of Texas literary culture by outsiders are abundant” (2). A litany of grievances ensues. And while such a list does in fact include obvious jabs from very recent sources, Graham takes the basis for his book even further and into the unobvious. Take, for example, the book’s title. As indicated by the dust jacket, “John Steinbeck once famously wrote that ‘Texas is a state of mind.’” Yet for those familiar with the state, it “is more than one mind-set, more than a collection of clichés, more than a static stereotype.” Even the non-evaluative but nonetheless ambiguous observation of a western American Nobel laureate houses enough possible malcontent to attract Graham’s defensive measures. Setting these preemptive strikes aside, however, one finds that Graham’s feelings about Texas have much in common with those feelings generally expressed by the members of the Western Literature Association about the American West. Simply replace “Texas” with “West” and one could still accurately claim that it “is more than one mind-set, more than a collection of clichés, more than a static stereotype.” [End Page 309]
The essays themselves extend far beyond these troubled beginnings with a constant stream of affirmative acknowledgments and critiques of Texas letters and culture. Take, for instance, “White Like Me,” in which Graham revisits and reviews John Howard Griffin’s remarkable book Black Like Me (1961) and the man behind it. A man who, as it turns out, was from Texas. As “someone who had grown up in a segregated world,” Graham admits that he did not “really understand the emotional and psychological impact of Jim Crow until 1961” when he first read the book (35). Black Like Me and its author had an enormous cultural impact on the American South and the country at large—and it all started in Mansfield, Texas, a small town in the vicinity of Dallas. I had read the book prior to reading Graham’s essay, but I had no idea that Griffin was a native Texan like me. Nor had I known that Texas, or the American West for that matter, had played such a large role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The history of this particular period of American culture generally rests on events in the South and the Northeast.