Biography 26.4 (2003) 763-766
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Bert Almon, a Texas native and current professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Alberta, surveys eighteen autobiographies reflecting aspects of nineteenth century to contemporary Texas. In a straightforward, common sense approach, Almon avoids theories and critical approaches to autobiography and region, focusing instead on the content of each work as it reflects not only a life but how a changing Texas shapes the writing about oneself.
Almon's vocabulary and his selection of chapter headings connecting each writer to places and historic periods in Texas suggest the identity studies of the 1960s and 1980s, particularly in literary and American Studies approaches to an "American self." The nature of Almon's research—original spadework collecting these life writings together—demands such an approach, given the breadth of his undertaking and the lack of previous scholarship on the less-known writers in particular. Because the book is a general survey yet critically suggestive, it is appropriate for general readers interested in the state, its history, and writers, as well as for scholars of autobiography, memoir, and life writings who may see in this compilation possibilities for further analysis.
Almon relies on A. C. Greene's regional demarcations of the state and its characteristics for his fundamental sectional readings of these Texas writers. We find varieties of "stubborn selves" writing out of five subregions: East Texas, South Texas, North Texas, Central Texas, and West Texas. Almon adds a "sixth state," or subregion—the Mexican diaspora—which has no fixed geographical area. In opening this discussion, Almon undermines the hegemony of his arbitrary sections, because this idea expands them, arguing that the identity-building of minority writers such as Mexican-Americans suggests special concerns and challenges in the state. Reflecting a history of sectionalism and racism in Texas, Mexican-American autobiographies demonstrate that the "stubborn self" is not a matter of idealized man (and woman) against nature, as in pioneering, or the romance of the cowboy, but daily battles against discrimination and displacement. Though Almon himself uses terminology that perpetuates the category of "other" ("Anglo Texas" and multiculturalism, for instance), and his representation of "minority" writers is limited, he recognizes that this diaspora will in fact constitute a majority of the population shortly in this century. Perhaps an unintentional tension exists within the book: we learn through the availability of existing published texts more about "Anglo" Texas than the majorial "multicultural" [End Page 763] writers, whose statistical absence invites speculation as to how they may or may not be "Texas" autobiographers.
As a whole these autobiographies, presented in part chronologically as a parallel to historical events in Texas, review the various migrations, brief nationhood, war with Mexico, and effects of the Civil War which mark Texas "exceptionalism." Almon opens with Sallie Reynolds Matthews's Interwoven: A Pioneer Chronicle. Matthews (1861-1938) lived through the Civil War, the Comanche wars, the decimation of the buffalo, the era of the open range and cattle drives, the closing of the range and the coming of the railroad, and the coming of the modern age in West Texas. Her family background further reflects the dynasties of two West Texas ranching families, and as Almon observes, hers is a "relational" autobiography, focusing on family and the personal while referring to the historical periods. Though one of Almon's basic arguments is that Texas exceptionalism is challenged both by the technical/urban changes in Texas places and "multicultural" writers who focus on issues of race, identity, culture, and family rather than physical or metaphorical place, Matthews's autobiography suggests that issues of gender also challenged the idea of Texas exceptionalism in Almon's earliest autobiographical record. If we accept Almon's repeated claim throughout the book that his women autobiographers are primarily "relational," interested in family history and relationships, then "Texas exceptionalism" may be redefined against itself. The exceptional, as implied in the range of Almon's selections...