Big Wonderful Thing
The biographical sketches create a great impression of Texas as a spectacular place populated over the years by people who in general never knew how to be dull.
Randolph “Mike” Campbell
The great character actor Harry Carey had a brief but memorable role in Howard Hawks’s 1948 classic Red River. As Mr. Melville, the Abilene, Kanas cattle buyer, he greets Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) at the end of the trail, herding Tom Dunson’s (John Wayne) cattle. After he and Garth shake hands on a head-price, and with the prospects of an evening of hooping and hollering in town, Mr. Melville tells Garth: “There’s three times in a man’s life when he has a right to yell at the moon: when he marries, when his children are born, and when he finishes a job he had to be crazy to start.”
I don’t know whether or not Stephen Harrigan yelled at the moon when he finished his mammoth one volume history of Texas, but he had every reason to because he had to be crazy to start such an undertaking—and he knew it to. In the Acknowledgments he writes,
When David Hamrick , the director of the University of Texas Press, asked me if I might be interested in writing a history of Texas, my first thought was that maybe he should ask a historian instead. It was a project that seem too large, too crucial, to entrust to a novelist and magazine writer, whose limited formal education in history included a D in a college course on the Roman Empire. So I said no to Dave, but then I said yes.
I glad he did.
Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas is a narrative retelling of the stories that make up Texas. Written in a journalistic style but with a novelist’s touch, Harrigan strength is as a storyteller, which is good since the story of Texas is a colossal story to tell. The end result is more than 925 pages—so many pages I advise anyone reading this big book not to do so in bed, it’s sure to crack your nose if dropped.
Harrigan’s history is wide-ranging, beginning with Texas’ prehistory and ending with the first decades of the twenty-first century. Of course there are the typical heroes one has to include in a history of Texas: Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and David Crockett. But there are lesser lights, but no less important in weaving the tapestry of our national and state story: Cabeza de Vaca, Maria de Jesús de Agreda—“The Lady in Blue”—Pa and Ma Ferguson, Herman Swett, and Emma Tenayuca.
He writes with wit and insight into the revolution against Mexico and the near decade as an independent republic, annexation and the Civil War, cattle drives and oil booms, as well as politics and politicians. All that is expected. What’s not (though refreshing even to this ever loving Texas native) is that Harrigan doesn’t shy away from kicking over a few rocks to see what might come scurrying out. Obviously, there are the quintessential villains like Santa Anna and Poncho Villa and Bonnie and Clyde, but he also writes about the two former Confederate soldiers who murdered the freedwoman Lucy Grimmes, the Texas Rangers who brutalized the sediciosos along the border, the townsmen of Paris who lynched Henry Smith, and the murderer Charles Whitman who in 1966 gunned down students and citizens from his perch in the tower at the University to Texas.
The title of Harrigan’s book comes from the pen of Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter of the southwest who is famously associated with New Mexico. For a time she taught at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M) in Canyon. “It’s absurd the way I love this country,” she wrote. “I couldn’t believe Texas was real . . . the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”
For Harrigan himself, a non-born Texas, but one who got here as fast as he could—or as fast his parents could get him here—he writes beautifully about the Lone Star State, our history, and what it means to be a Texan. He says in the Epilogue,
People viewing Texas from the outside have always recognized that there is something different about it, not just in its expanse but in its attitude also, in its annoying, ineradicable mythic presumption. But it’s hard to live here and not feel, just a little, that presumption stirring inside you. So many kinds of people have fought over the geography of Texas for so long, and competed for their place in its ever-changing culture, that there is a kind of harmony of conflict, a hard-earned conviction that the word “Texan” belongs to you as righteously as it does to anyone else.
The famed cattleman and trailblazer Charles Goodnight, though writing about cowboys on the trail, could have every Texan in mind, including Stephen Harrigan, when he wrote: “We were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of darers.” Harrigan dared to attempt an audacious task—and pulled it off. If he didn’t yell at the moon when he put down his pen, I did when I turned the last page and put down the book, not because Big Wonderful Thing is a badly written book but because it is a big wonderful history of Texas.