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Matthew Gertken on "State of Minds"

Cover of "State of Minds": Man wearing abstract hat

Don Graham

State of Minds: Texas Culture & Its Discontents

University of Texas Press, 2011
183 pages

Reviewed by Matthew Gertken

Don Graham’s State of Minds: Texas Culture & Its Discontents is a slim, magnetic collection of essays written over the past decade reviewing books and film made in or about the Lone Star state. At the outset of this review, I find myself, like Graham, assuring the reader that the book speaks to an audience defined not by state pride but by interest in American culture. I am not from Texas, and I can say fairly that Graham has written a book about Texas that is not just for Texans.

State of Minds compiles essays published in the Texas Monthly from 1999-2009, with short (sometimes too short) updates at the end. Graham’s columns have become a mainstay in these pages, as he gives voice to that large but self-effacing tribe of people born or living in Texas who prize arts and letters but prefer works that draw inspiration from their immediate surroundings over those from distant (and supposedly more sophisticated) environs. Promising to speak of Texas discontents, Graham has preempted the parochialism of readers who would consign the book to the inferno without reading it on account of its presumed parochialism. Such doubtful readers should skip to essays on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005), Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), and Graham’s original interviews with actor Jeff Bridges, director Peter Bogdanovich, and others from the cast and crew of The Last Picture Show (1971).

Graham, a professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, has become something of a legend for carrying the torch of a tradition beginning with J. Frank Dobie, who taught and wrote about Texas culture at a time before the phrase had attained the high status of “curious oxymoron,” so generously applied to it by critics today. Pugnaciously opposed to academic fads and jargon, Graham’s writing style is transparent, punchy, and rough around the edges. Similar to that of his icon Dobie (who also strove against the cloistered thinking of the academic community), his tone consists of a base of straight talk peppered with allusions to literary classics and occasional bursts of unexpected levity (“I thought The Catcher in the Rye was just about the best non-baseball novel I’d ever read,” or “I’d say that nobody wrote about dating livestock better than Larry.”)

Graham’s essays contain elements of memoir, covering decades of living and writing in the state and out of it, revealing Graham’s own literary strengths. He recounts growing up in a small town literally not on the map, in the long forgotten cotton-picking part of the state, attending a one-room schoolhouse, and scrounging for good reads in a world without libraries, bookshops, or the Internet. He enriches his reviews with vignettes and anecdotes about personal encounters (sometimes feuds) over the years with writers and filmmakers. His primary fieldwork and personal experiences bring both greater credibility to his judgments and greater humanity to his subjects than is usual among academic writers with their preferred clinical coldness and distance.

Yet like a true scholar, Graham uncovers several gems among the troves in the state’s underappreciated research libraries. He shares surprising discoveries about McCarthy’s early drafts of No Country for Old Men from McCarthy’s papers at the Alkek Library at Texas State University, and about Larry McMurtry’s 1962 award acceptance speech at the Texas Institute of Letters, a speech not yet printed that offers insights into McMurtry’s early influences, iconoclasm, and the literary atmosphere in Texas at the time of his emergence. (He also cites McMurtry’s drafts of Horseman, Pass By [1961], lodged in the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center.)

Coincidentally, the time period in which Graham wrote these essays overlaps with the presidency of George W. Bush, a time when Texans seemed to rule the world. The focus on quality literature and film provides a fitting counterpoint to the credulous mainstream narratives and acrimonious counter-narratives about Bush and Texas during these years. The essays do not engage in the thriving idiocy of twenty-first century American partisanship. Poignantly, Graham reflects on the state’s painful period of recuperation after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, and he recounts the improbable story of how the smash soap opera Dallas (1978-1991) provided much-needed catharsis for a city scarred and shamed by national tragedy.

Graham is irascible when it comes to political correctness. He confronts problems like racism head on, writing with admirable candor about a Rosa Parks-esque episode he witnessed in 1958, in which an old white man berated a black woman for sitting at the front of the bus: “I was humiliated by my failure to challenge the old racist. The memory burns in my mind all these years later.” Elsewhere he provides a thoroughly researched and nuanced analysis of violence and racism on the Texas- Mexico border that provoked far right-wing criticism when originally published.

Politics are inescapable, but they are also not what State of Minds is about. Graham’s reviews show that Texas has survived Kennedy’s assassination, as well as Johnson’s and Bush’s wars, and it will go on to survive future tragedies and bad leadership. Graham prefers to talk about books and movies, and the core of his book consists of several pieces of solid literary criticism. To begin, Graham has an ear for language. He remembers reading a comic book on Texas history as a child and coming across the line, “THE GOVERNOR WAXED EXCEEDINGLY WROTHFUL.” Graham adds, “Now that’s language.” As a mature critic, this concern for quality of language continues. Exposing the absurd names that Annie Proulx gives her Texan characters, he calls Proulx “Fanny Proustnot” and “Nannie Pootluck.” More substantially, he observes that she has “serious trouble” imitating the speech of the American West. Readers may not share Graham’s general distaste for Proulx, but he would not be a real critic if he did not take her to task for lazy and inaccurate imitations of regional dialect.

Graham does best when discussing writers whose personalities have a fiercely independent streak. His kinship with Dobie is not merely institutional but personal and stylistic. He admires the Jeffersonian “agrarian ideal” of George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941), and he compares Patricia Highsmith to Jonathan Swift and classifies her with Katherine Anne Porter and Gertrude Beasley as women writers whose talents and personalities were “too big” for Texas. With an adept biographer’s eye, he focuses on writer John

Graves’s setbacks and failures, and he empathizes with his avoidance of a meeting with the much-fawned-over Hemingway while living as an expatriate in Pamplona.

Graham may disown petty Texas chauvinisms, but in true Texas fashion he cannot quite avoid them. While probing Texan myths of exceptionalism, he accidentally perpetuates the error that it is the “biggest state in the Union.” He reviles snobby critics and editors from the east and west coasts, and even though they probably deserve it, you can see the chip on his shoulder. He dismisses Terry Southern from the ranks of major Texas writers, noting that his screenplay for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) contains “only one Texas-based character,” as if the measure of that excellent screenplay’s value lay in the quantity of Texas material.

Graham’s biggest challenge in winning over some readers is that his satirical vein, when fully indulged, is highly caustic. Nowhere does this tone create more problems than in “Dear Cormac,” a satirical letter purportedly written by an obsessed fan who is disappointed that McCarthy, his idol, has emerged from his hermitage to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.

But such faults do not diminish the book’s overall value, which lies in introducing readers to interesting texts about which they may know little or nothing. Graham laments the “erosion of local knowledge” he observes among his students, and he defends the study of regional culture. He has a pessimistic view on the future of the Texas literary tradition—surveyed in his book from John Lomax, Dobie, and Porter, to McMurtry, Graves, and McCarthy—but claims that he is not nostalgic about it. However, it is hard after reading his essays to agree with Graham that the tradition will not inspire new growth— in great part thanks to his own work preserving and promoting it. Still, his opinion is admirable when he reminds readers, “I have always loved great writing, wherever it comes from.”

Graham is a teacher, and one of the best lessons of the book is that if you find something that you firmly believe has value, you should write about it and strive against all odds to publish it. In particular, Graham shows that Lomax, Dobie, William Owens, and (incidentally) seventeenth-century author John Bunyan faced resistance to telling their tales. Americans who have forgotten that all politics is local will have no trouble forgetting that all art is regional. But Graham has written another good book to remind us of the truth.