If you are of a certain ripe age and remember the words of old-timers, mostly men, the phrase “Now, the way I see it,” is a complete sentence with a period at the end. The words are an opening, a beginning wherein the speaker is about to give an opinion, having been run through the sieve of personal mental evaluation. He or she has been “studying on it” for a considerable amount of time. It amounts to a philosophy arrived at, not by book learning, but by experience.
As for me, my opinions which are not philosophical, but what I think about things, lots of things, have been arrived at through book learning, ruminating and sifting information over the years. The personal subjects about which I am qualified to speak and express opinions are literature (English literature and the American Southwest), history (Texas, Southwest and West), folklore (Texas and the Southwest), and lately natural science (Southern Plains and Cross Timbers). But in all these categories mentioned the writing has been with endnotes, quoting other authorities to prove that I have a right to my opinions whether I agree or disagree; i.e. I’ve done my homework. Even when writing fiction, the research is always in the back of my mind—accuracy of time and place.
In these, my twilight years, I am ready to sing my September song—do another kind of writing—informed by education, grounded in experience, infused with wisdom that only time provides, and without the encumbrance of endnotes and bibliography.
This is the way I see it.
Where is the Southwest?
(This piece was a lecture Dr. Bob Frey asked me to give for TCU honor students in a course, Literature of the Southwest. I taught the same course as adjunct professor from 1985 to 1997. Dr. Fred Erisman, department chair at the time, asked me to revive the course, then titled Life and Literature of the Southwest, first taught by Mabel Major, some thirty years earlier. It was she who first introduced me to the literature of the region that would become the time and place on which much of my writing is centered. Dr. Frye also used the same final exam question I proposed in my course on the first day of class—“Using examples from texts covered in this course, define the Southwest and the characteristics that identify it.”
The first lecture was not only the introduction to the course but the answer to the final. The real work came in offering examples from the reading that illustrated the characteristics of the place. It was the first time I had enough experience and confidence to speak in my own voice about my heart’s country.)
Revisionist historians were not the first to point out that “The West” – that magical, golden place recognized in poetry, books, films – was in more than one place. There is the ranching, farming, mining, exploring, settling, female, male, Indian, Black, Hispanic, rural, urban – and a dozen more – Wests, each having distinguishing characteristics of time and place. There is also the created and invented West, often more powerful and influential than the so called “real” West. By invented and created, I offer the example of the Wild West and rodeo arena in which the West was gathered up and transported to somewhere including Europe so that everybody could get a look at cowboys, Indians, Mexicans and Western women—Western life. How real do you think that was? Much of it was, indeed, real but within the confines of enclosed space images and truth could be manipulated.
I would like to make a case for the Southwest as one of the “Wests” with not only its own boundaries but its own set of characteristics, characters, philosophy and writing.
After telling you the Southwest has its own boundaries, I can’t tell you exactly where they are. The best I can do is say, take your pick. You can’t be wrong. Eugene Hollon says it’s the four states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Lawrence Clark Powell says it “is the semi-arid land from the Pecos of New Mexico – Texas to the Salinas of California including deserts, mountains, and river valleys, cities and seacoast.” His definition depends on “coloration, configuration of landscape and the “absence of lush growth due to sparse rainfall.” Walter Campbell (Stanley Vestal) says it is West Texas, Western Oklahoma, New Mexico, parts of Kansas and Colorado. Kenneth Kurtz says it is extreme West Texas, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Arizona, most of Utah and Nevada, and a large part of California. Erna Ferguson suggests that the Southwest is a triangle, the points of which are San Antonio, Los Angeles and Fort Worth. Odie B Faulk declares it is a rainbow or semi-circle from Corpus Christi to Santa Barbara to the Mexican border as the base. J. Frank Dobie, venerable folklorist and chronicler of Texas insists: “The principal areas of the Southwest are Arizona, New Mexico, most of Texas, some of Oklahoma, anything else north, south, east or west that anybody wants to bring in. … Life is fluid and definitions that would apprehend it must also be.” My own definition – which counts for absolutely nothing – is that the Southwest encompasses the Trans-Pecos region, Northern Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, a bit of Southern Colorado where the Arkansas flows and Oklahoma. This closely fits Dr. James Ward Lee’s boundaries and he notices that “his” Southwest takes in those places of the earliest Spanish influence – a good identifier.
Characteristics of the Southwest:
This is where it gets good. Nothing much of interest in mapping. But – the Southwest is where the mountains and rivers are few but mark perimeters; where the rivers run fast, deep, shallow and not at all. It is rocky, thorny, brushy, prickly. The climate is dry, arid, but not consistently. Only the wind is consistent. It is a place of aberrant weather – of drought and flood, of hot as hell and cold as ice – and the specialties of prairie fire, tornado, heat lighting that portends no rain, mirages, ghostly lights.
The culture is diverse and never consistent; three cultures on a collision course – was then, is now. Varieties of disharmony testify to a region where differences, not likenesses, are the unifying characteristics. Life in the Southwest and therefore, the literature that reflects it, is often compared to a mosaic where separate pieces intersect to form a brilliantly colored and harmonious whole. While bright is a proper adjective, congruous is not. A more fitting image is a triptych, a three paneled painting or carving, usually of religious significance and often depicting the lives of the saints, with each piece joined to the other to form the whole. One may imagine Anglo (in the form of settlers, traders, cavalry), Indian, and Mexican figures and symbols occupying separate panels of a Southwestern triptych. Each panel is hinged and bolted to the next with Spanish steel, because if was the Spanish who came for glory, God and gold, who brought horses, cattle, seeds and a land management system – new trinities – joining yet dividing all other cultures for better or worse in the place known as New Spain. The constant aggravation of landscape, weather, and racial classes and the friction of all three elements rubbing against each other account for the distinguishing characteristics of the life and the literature of the Southwest. Tom Pilkington, author of My Blood’s Country, notes this “cultural cohesion – the influence of Spain and Mexico. In most things historical the shadow of imperial Spain falls across the region – across its distant past, its place names, its laws, many of its ruins and tourist attractions.”
The Southwest has distinct rhythms – all the rhythms of percussion will tell you the rhythm of a culture. Take your own pulse. The beat of the human heart was first expressed in the Indian drum. Then there is the rhythm of the Spanish castanets – two-four time and a language to match. Consider the clapping hands and dancing feet of the pioneer or the drumming of horses’ hooves expressing the rhythm of the cowboy; the crisp command and the cadence of a drum of the United States Cavalry. Later, add the syncopated beat of the African American. And over all the beating of the sun in a rhythm all its own – throbbing, pulsing, marking every living thing with the signature of the blazing and unbearable brilliance.
The Southwest is a place where men and even the plants go armed prepared to fight for their lives – men with saber, lance, knife; plants with stickers, points, blades (Spanish Dagger, Ocotillo, Devil’s Whip, Prickly Pear); animals with fang and claw (rattlesnake, mountain lion, wolf, coyote).
- Where all cultures and races are religious in one way or another; where the litany of brown places is always supplication for rain and the colloquy of praise is ever for it.
- Where even the very rocks cry out; where trees and every manner of inanimate things speak if you will listen.
- Where the mystic and the mysterious are at every turn – haunting, spooky; where ghosts walk, beckon, are but mirages but maybe miracles.
- Where nobody and nothing, gives an inch.
- Where the food we eat defines us – chicken fried steak, chiles, grilled meats, tortillas, frijoles, pan dulce, fry bread.
- Where the clothes we wear define us – buckskin, feathers, screaming colors, silver, turquoise, leather boots and moccasins, hats from sombrero to Stetson.
- Where our speech defines us – Spanish, cowboy lingo, country drawl, slow, fast, strange sounds of native peoples.
- Where architecture defines us – Spanish arches, presidios, adobe, vigas, corbelles, carvings, patio, spacious, relaxed, roomy.
- Where the place is seen better after midnight inside an air-conditioned car.
- Where the region can be identified as the land of little rain, of slow time – poco tiempo.
- Where the horizontal perspective of open space all around and above prevails; not the vertical view of the woodlands where horizons are restricted and up and down are the only places to look.
The Southwest is a place “which has two major attractions for the writer – scenery and history—a place that constantly tests one’s grasp of language.”(Pilkington) In the words of Mabel Major, who first taught this course at TCU long ago: The Southwest is a “community of different peoples in a land somewhere very old to habitation, somewhere very new, somewhere very savage and harsh to invading man, and somewhere very friendly and mild. But everywhere man has gone in the Southwest, he has been stirred in heart to sing or dance or write or paint the thoughts, the prayers, the episodes of his life and the life of his people. Most of the literature has this significance – that it is written close to the need of the heart for song, to the need of the mind for words.” (Southwest Heritage)
Who are the heroes and heroines of the Southwest?
The heroes and the heroines of the place are also its villains; its saints also its sinners; its gods also its devils, its builders also its destroyers – depending on which culture is “yours” because all warred with and against each other and still often do religiously, politically, philosophically, even morally.
Types are all you can look for – the Native American male and female, the cowboy and later the cowgirl, the rancher but rarely the farmer, the military in the form of the white or black cavalry, the trader, the peon, the bandit, the miner, the shaman, priest, conquistador, vaquero, explorer.
What are the characteristics of Southwest literature?
Every single thing I’ve mentioned, but add to that its myths and mysticism – above all those two things.
Some works that illustrate the Southwest and its characteristics
Short stories and novels of Eugene Manlove Rhodes
The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor
The Wolf and the Buffalo by Elmer Kelton
Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
The Wonderful Country by Tom Lea
The Hands of Cantu by Tom Lea
From Hopalong to Hud, essays by C.L. Sonnichsen
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy