What is Texas Literature?

The question is sometimes asked, What is Texas literature? Is there one? And the answer is sometimes that Texas literature is more of a national literature than anything else – perhaps given that Texas has three of the 9 or 10 largest US cities and its vast countryside and great ethnic and class diversity and other factors. Among other Texas surprises, I suppose, there’s a book coming out on an “Asian underground railroad” that once ran through El Paso, Texas.

Similarly the notion of “American” literature may be thought of as one main variety of world literature, given the underlying urbanization, countryside sprawl, given the military, economic and cultural power and range, given the USA’s great diversity, given its many extremes, of poverty and wealth not least.

It has also been claimed at least that the US is the only “first” world country to share a border with a “third” world country — and that nearly 2,000 miles long. And of course much of that border happens to be the Texas border.

Great historic economic and/or political developments are occurring in Latin America and China, also the Middle East, which is rather closely tied to Houston, the city that the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes calls the Arab capital of the US due to its involvement in oil.

Apparently the last Democratic candidate for US president to receive a majority of white male votes was Texas native Lyndon Johnson, perhaps because Texas is seen to be so typically (or stereotypically?) “American” — despite (or because of?) Texas being in many ways as much a borderland or international land as any state in the US.

Of course much of what one can say along these lines for Texas, one can say for California as well — and I suppose for New York and Florida too — and also to an extent because of their port cities, the states of Washington, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois. And other US states have their own keys to national and international signature.

Or look at the literature (novels, say) that have come out of the cities of Cairo, Paris, London, Mexico City, Istanbul, etc… It may be that it takes the USA or a sizeable US state, perhaps like it took a “Russia” as nation or state during the Victorian age, or today a big diverse country like Nigeria or India, to produce literature that can meet or surpass the great works that come out of the great cities of the world. Of course the US has its great city or cities also, New York City at least. Wherever people from all walks of life come together, perhaps that is where great literature may be found most (if far from the only distinct and distinctive literature) whether that be a city, a state/province, a nation state, a continent or hemisphere, or some (other) nexus of the world.

Perhaps essential literature is defined by great public crises too the world over — climate change, weapons of mass destruction, militarism, economic conquest, poverty, disease. Victor Hugo said that a person is known by (his or her) toil and struggles, which is a start at least. And if humanity may be known by the key interrelationships and connections between people of toil and struggle, from the least well off to the most well off, rather than necessarily by place or any other mode of being — and since such human essence can be located and rooted in “America” or any place else in the world, or across the world, then I think the notion of novels and literature as having some sort of quintessential definition by states and nation states and even vast continents begins to not occupy too much of central importance in thinking about the state of literature for much of the world. What artificial chopped off notions of life are concepts like the Americas, or Africa, or Asia, or Europe (or for that matter notions like men or women) especially in a world of instantaneous communication, and near immediate transportation? Lots of ways of thinking about literature are interesting and vital. What happens to seem most interesting and vital to me to think about in this regard is what are the great novels of liberty or equality or justice — such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. That this wonderfully expansive and incisive novel happens to be rooted in France and Europe — especially when reading it today — seems almost inconsequential. This novel is extraordinarily panoramic and intimate, clinical and polemic, realistic and idealistic, a marvel of time tested insight and drama. But is it “French” and how? To me the answer is largely, I don’t know and I don’t care. It would be interesting to know how it might be understood as French. But what is most interesting and vital is that the work is a powerful great novel of any realm, idiom, domain.

Of course much can be learned from thinking about literature in terms of nation or group too. Some cultures and subcultures say people are known by who and what they “belong” to…. But if one were to consider a great novel from the Americas with a great novel from Europe like Les Miserables, it seems to me that the notions of “Americas” and “Europe” would take a back seat to far more universal concepts and underlying principles of human society, and of course humanity itself, our common humanity so often disfigured by forcefully imposed borders and other deforming constructs of power and/or ideology.

Isn’t there some broader common “country” of humanity we can see building? Its reach extending far beyond the borders of states and continents that is more generative of great literature — and healthful life — now moreso than ever? Can we not see some of the essential elements of that literature (and such life) and that it does some of its best work in transforming or vaporizing many of the often limited or deformed notions of state and region? It’s possible even that when one looks to the hallmarks of particular locales one is going to primarily be struck by limits and flaws, within which creative principles operate. And that when one looks to the universe of literature one may necessarily recognize first the creative principles, and note secondarily the limits and flaws. This latter approach to understanding seems that it would be most useful for creators, whereas the former approach may be one that many creators most commonly fall into, with usually limiting and deforming implications for creation — a sort of fanatic (and typically unconscious) devotion to limits that must not be crossed, realms bounded, modes circumscribed.

It’s an interesting, curious exercise to look at the idea of an American novel and no little bit instructive. But for writers/creators, it’s a relatively backwards or stunted or otherwise limited way to think about creating and novels in general. The typical US novel today bears as primary marking the main priorities of the highly ideological US publishing industry. That alone should be enough to stir authors to look across time and country for inspiration and insight about what sorts of novels “Americans” might produce, for which — being more accomplished, meaningful, and/or useful — they might be more appreciative and for which they might find more appreciation. If that means writing and publishing internationally or independently so be it. Writing and working to transcend, transform, transfigure the publishing industry and other bastions of restrictive power and ideology – therein lies the future of literature, and life, and not in the US alone.

As for “Texas” literature, of course it may be understood in a lot of ways, and not least as literature that alters, expands, or intensifies views and understandings of Texas. Obviously the same goes for “American” and “world” or “global” literature, literatures of all variety.

See also: Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature


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