- The Hawkins Ranch in Texas: From Plantation Times to the Present by Margaret Lewis Furse
Richard White has argued that there is a place for memory if historians remember they are not the center of the historical enterprise. “History has limits and historians embody those limits,” he wrote in June 2002 article from the Journal of American History, “Here is the Problem: An Introduction,” adding that between historians and subjects lies “an abyss” (18). Promising in its early chapters, Margaret Lewis Furse’s The Hawkins Ranch in Texas hovers too near this abyss. Furse has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, taught at Rice University and the University of Texas, and is currently a managing partner of Hawkins Ranch Ltd. Her story of her family is entertaining, insightful, and authoritative, but it has two personalities. Some readers may cringe at her highly personal scholarship, which is part history and part memoir.
Furse begins her family story with the 1846 founding of their ancestral plantation near where the Colorado River drains into Matagorda Bay. The intimacy of the narrative added to the excellent research on the antebellum period promises a tight analysis of family and community. After chapter 10, however, the book veers from history into a contemplative discourse on the mundane ebbs and flows of small-town coastal Texas. She admits that her “family history is not the product of the kind of research aimed at relating the story to public events that become the story’s frame and rationale” (5). But she strains objectivity as she moves the Hawkins family history forward into the twentieth century and closer to her own lifetime.
Furse intends to provide “glimpses of the past,” declaring her role as reporter observing through “the lens of one family” (5). She does this well, sometimes uncomfortably so in the later chapters. Readers are likely to begin questioning Furse’s agenda as the discussion focuses on the failures of a wayward aunt. The woman is one of the “young lady ranchers,” including Furse’s mother, who serve as her central characters in the saga’s second half (4). Furse hoped her story would provide “practical and psychological clues for family business in general, especially the ranching business” (5). But the book offers few practical applications to business, especially ranching. Pitting entrepreneurial opportunity against emotional attachment, Furse broadcasts a message regarding the future of the Hawkins [End Page 321] Ranch—a future where the family must “steer between the poles of heritage and business” (192).
Furse‘s book is a labor of love, but it is limited in its contribution to historical literature. It may actually leave some readers sensing they are intruding too far into private lives. Furse does provide insightful information regarding the social and communal evolution of the Bay City and Matagorda Bay region. There are many clever and accurate bits of history throughout the work. But shadowy family discord becomes overbearing, and it ultimately detracts from the scholarly value of her historical analysis.