For Texas history obsessives, Stephen Harrigan’s “Big Wonderful Thing” is the publishing event of the year.
Make that the decade. No, the generation.
The last time an all-encompassing Texas history — or at least a fictionalized one — earned as much advance notice was in 1985 when James Michener’s 1,076-page doorstop of a novel “Texas” hit bookstores with an advance printing of 750,000 copies.
Before that, in 1968, T.R. Fehrenbach’s brawny “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans” transfixed readers with its mythic brand of historical storytelling. Despite what Fehrenbach left out of the book, “Lone Star” has remained the most popular Texas history for more than 50 years. It went through 24 reprintings.
Make way, then, for Harrigan’s “Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas,” which comes out Oct. 1. Weighing in at 829 pages — plus notes, bibliography and index — it is a distinct improvement on “Lone Star” and far superior to Michener’s late-career tome.
Harrigan does not go back to the cooling of Earth's surface, as Michener liked to do in his epics, but his narrative includes compelling stories, aided by empathic sensibilities, going back to the first human habitation in the region and encompassing the speedily changing Texas of today.
Because it is so well told and because it embraces so much of the state's charms and contradictions, "Big Wonderful Thing" is likely to define popular Texas history for the general reader for at least a generation to come.
Harrigan uses his skill as a journalist (Texas Monthly, Esquire, National Geographic) and a historical novelist (“The Gates of the Alamo,” “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln,” "Remember Ben Clayton") to tell real stories about real people and real places in a fluid and engaging manner.
Compared to Fehrenbach, Harrigan has the advantage of a half-century of additional Texas history to tell and, just as importantly, a half-century of additional historical inquiry into the state’s past, including Randolph “Mike” Campbell’s breakthrough “Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State,” which nimbly gathered together the strands of history omitted by many previous storytellers but unearthed by diligent researchers.
Because of advances in the field — more research into events, ideas and people that did not make it into school textbooks — Harrigan can share some of the darker chapters from our past with a clear eye. Although he does not stint on battles and leaders, he includes a great deal more about the experiences of women, people of color and ordinary people whose stories might not be so ordinary.
Harrigan specifically rejects the term “revisionist” — in part because he is not an academic historian with a thesis to push — but “Big Wonderful Thing” is staggeringly more inclusive than “Lone Star,” and just as entertaining.
“I happen to be a writer who has written a book of history,” Harrigan says. “I don't think of myself as a historian, but rather as somebody who has told a story.”
On the road
"'Big Wonderful Thing' is history at its best — comprehensive, deeply informed, pleasurable and filled with surprise and delight," says bestselling author Lawrence Wright, also a friend of Harrigan's. "It is at once a gift to the people of Texas and an unflinching explanation to the world at large of America's most controversial state. The book itself is truly a big wonderful thing."
“Big Wonderful Thing” — the title comes from a letter about Texas written by Georgia O’Keeffe when she was a young artist teaching in the Panhandle — is also a personal history. Harrigan often matches historical anecdotes with memories of his own past and travels that he made around the state before and after he took on this gargantuan project. (Full disclosure: My husband, Kip Keller, copy edited the book for UT Press.)
Born in Oklahoma City, reared in Abilene and Corpus Christi, Harrigan attended St. Edward’s University and then the University of Texas before launching his professional writing career in 1973. He has become one of the state’s most respected writers, and he belongs to a group of Austin literary friends that has included Pulitzer Prize winner Wright, who wrote the bestseller “God Save Texas,” novelist Elizabeth Crook, who wrote the critically acclaimed "The Which Way Tree," and the late “Lonesome Dove” screenwriter Bill Wittliff.
Harrigan gave the primary eulogies for Wittliff during a private ceremony at the Texas State Cemetery and, on Sept. 8, during a public tribute at the Paramount Theatre.
For 20 years, Harrigan taught at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, and he has received lifetime achievement awards from the Texas Book Festival and the Texas Institute of Letters. Earlier this year in a ceremony at the Long Center, he was presented with the Texas Medal of Arts Award.
The current project started in the mind of David Hamrick, director of the University of Texas Press. In 2013, UT announced the “Texas Bookshelf,” an ambitious publishing project that would include more than a dozen books on the state’s culture and history, an enterprise supported by a group of major university donors.
“Big Wonderful Thing” is the first volume on the Texas Bookshelf.
“He had an idea that Texas needed a new soup-to-nuts history,” Harrigan says of Hamrick. “He came to me and asked if I would be interested. I was in the middle of a novel at the time. And I was also intimidated by the thought of writing the whole history of Texas. That's not something that occurred to me on my own. I said no. He circled back. By that time, the idea had gotten under my skin a bit. I had written about a lot of Texas history, and like anyone my age, I had lived through a lot of Texas history. So it didn't seem like such a stretch.”
As Harrigan explains in his book, he avoided rereading Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star.”
“I didn't want to pick up his style,” he says. “It would be very easy to do. He’s a very intoxicating writer.”
And while Harrigan read widely, he also hit the road, saw things and talked to people.
“I realized early on that I wanted to report this book,” he says. “I wanted to use the skills that I've developed as a journalist to tell the story of Texas, to make it more accessible and conversational. I can't imagine really engaging with a subject without seeing it or holding it in your hand. The important thing was to develop an intimate relationship with the people and the landscapes and the stories that had cascaded by for 500 years.”
Some of those places he had already experienced with awe as a reporter and writer, such as an old cabin in East Texas with a blackboard from 1844 that shows a steamboat schedule, or physical traces of the Camino Real de los Tejas, Spain’s braided trail from the Rio Grande to the Sabine and beyond.
“Standing there, looking at a depression in the ground that looks like a drainage ditch that used to be the main highway in Texas,” Harrigan says.
Or the pictographs in West Texas that date back more than 10,000 years and remind him of the famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France.
“I’m thinking, ‘I cannot believe this is here,’” he says. “I might as well have been in Lascaux. They are old and mysterious enough. There were these moments of trying to break through and understand who these people were. There’s nothing in the world more exciting to me.”
It comes together
As for the existing published record — and one could fill several libraries with books about Texas — Harrigan worked in concentric circles. Campbell’s history and other surveys provided the road maps. Then Harrigan worked his way through the diaries and letters of early Texans, such as “J.C. Clopper’s Journal and Book of Memoranda for 1828: Province of Texas,” which gave him insights into both Texas and the people who were experiencing it at this time.
Harrigan kept an eye out for the errant detail, such as the case of Lloyd Fayling in 1900.
“He was standing at the Pagoda bathhouse when the great storm hit Galveston,” Harrigan says. “He was so worried about his bathing suit. It’s like a disaster movie: He’s racing across the pier trying to grab his bathing suit. We know some 8,000 people were killed, but you find these little stories that put it into context.”
Some of Harrigan's accounts of ordinary people are shocking. He reports in detail about a lynching — one of several recounted in the book — that included gruesome public torture of Henry Smith in the East Texas town of Paris in 1893.
"'For God's sake,' a local minister — a black man, like some of the others in the crowd — called out when he saw what was about to happen. 'Send the children home.' But he was met with a chorus of angry parental voices shouting, 'Let them learn a lesson.' 'I love children,' the minister later told a newspaper, 'but as I looked about the little faces distorted with passion and the bloodshot eyes of the cruel parents who held them high in their arms, I thanked God I have none of my own.'"
Just about every page of “Big Wonderful Thing” deviates from the idea that history should be a grand procession of celebrated events. I've been reading Texas history religiously for more than 50 years, and I learned something new on virtually every page.
“I was determined to play to my strengths,” Harrigan says. “So the book is novelistic and journalistic. I felt what I had to offer was my ability to place the reader there, to make the people vivid and interesting. It was never going to be a thesis-driven book.”
And yet Harrigan was equally determined to include many things — lynchings, crimes, massacres, ethnic cleansing — that have been left out of some standard texts. He also listens to voices from the past that have not been widely heard.
“It wasn't difficult to find those voices,” Harrigan says. “People had written about them. But it was a question for me of not just recognizing that they existed, but telling their stories with the same excitement that you told of Sam Houston or Davy Crockett. I didn't go into this with a revisionist agenda. I went in looking for the fun parts.”
Which can mean in some cases the misdeeds of famous outlaws, the unmasking of corrupt officials or the triumphs that grow out of tragedies.
“I hate say it, but the dark stuff is also fun to write,” he says. “There are truly horrible things in Texas history, as there are in history in general. The state has a past to be proud of and a past that we might be hesitant to look at in all its barbarity.”
Packaging the book
Readers who encounter the volume for the first time might be startled by the unconventional title and stark book jacket.
“All the obvious titles were taken,” Harrigan says. “‘Texas.’ ‘Lone Star.’ Every line of ‘Texas, Our Texas.’ I knew I wanted something that sounded different, that was more inviting, that might catch the reader off guard and engage their curiosity. So I was looking through songs, poems, letters and phrases that might me make me want to pick up the book, and I came across this in Georgia O'Keeffe: ‘I couldn’t believe Texas was real ... the same big wonderful thing that oceans and highest mountains are.’”
The phrase sticks in the mind. Planners at UT press seized on it. Some of Harrigan’s literary friends, however, thought it was too unconventional.
“There was an intervention,” he says with a laugh. “Yet I didn’t want it to sound like a textbook or a gigantic history. I wanted it to sound friendly. I also liked that it came from a woman, one who didn’t live in Texas long, but Texas had a profound effect on her.”
Then came the similarly unusual jacket design, which includes no images, just type: golden orange and white on slate gray.
“Dave Hamrick didn't want any stars or oil wells,” Harrigan says. “No cowboys, nothing cliché. Creative director Erin Mayes did a wonderful job of integrating the ‘Big Wonderful Thing’ into the Georgia O'Keeffe quote so you know where it comes from.”
It took Harrigan six years to complete the project. He started writing long before he thought he was ready.
“If you wait until you feel authorized to write it, you will never begin,” he says. “Every paragraph you write helps you discern the shape of the next one.”
If it was time to write about the Caddo people of East Texas, say, he headed out to the Caddo Mounds by car.
“It’s really hard to write to about something until you’ve seen it,” he says. “Once you have seen it, you can’t stop writing. It’s exciting. Writing early inoculates me against certain excuses not to write. The more you research, the more you are looking at things that have already been written about.”
Harrigan is braced for responses from readers who think that some long-held Texas myths are too sacred to question. His unblinking accounts of the first 100 or so years of the Texas Rangers, for instance, will likely elicit howls of protest from their admirers, while those who might appreciate his careful attention to previously marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, might think he does not go far enough.
“People crave the real stories,” Harrigan says. “They are proud of the myth, but they want to know what really happened at the same time.”