Author Stephen Harrigan Adds ‘Big Wonderful Thing’ to Literature on Texas History

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Clay Smith, Literary Director of the San Antonio Book Festival, talks to author Stephen Harrigan.

Pee-wee was right!

Texas author Stephen Harrigan said the purpose of his new book Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas was not to bust myths, but he openly revealed the opposite of a long-held fiction to an audience of 130 gathered on the lawn of the Alamo gardens Tuesday evening.

Costumed comic Pee-wee Herman famously discovered that the Alamo has no basement in his 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but Harrigan told the crowd that the venerated site actually does have a basement – albeit in the gift shop.

Harrigan, an Oklahoma native and longtime Texan, visited San Antonio to promote the new 925-page narrative history on his adopted home state as a guest of the Get Lit literary series organized by the San Antonio Book Festival (SABF).

While many outside Texas and San Antonio know the mythical story of the Alamo through popular culture, fewer might grasp the actual complexities of the formative battle that seared the former Franciscan colonial mission into collective memory, and the 16,000-year era of human habitation of the region that eventually came to be called Texas.

“Any reasonable historian would want to write about the history that happened before the myth began,” Harrigan said prior to his conversation with Clay Smith, SABF literary director.

“But there’d be no call for a Texas history, if it hadn’t been for that myth,” which makes the state special and interesting, Harrigan said. During the public talk, he emphasized that “the mythology is part of the history,” and the two are inexorably intertwined.

Some scholars believe William Barret Travis actually delivered his “Victory or death,” line-in-the-sand speech to the doomed throng that would become known as the Alamo defenders, while others – Harrigan included – think they intended to survive.

Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan

But Texas is a big state with a long history, and Big Wonderful Thing is about much more than the Alamo. The title of Harrigan’s volume derives from painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s observations as Texas art teacher in the Panhandle area. Comparing the vastness she observed to oceans and the grandeur of mountains, she wrote to a friend, “Tonight I walked into the sunset to mail some letters – the whole sky – and there is so much of it out here – was just blazing.”

While O’Keeffe’s Texas history has been chronicled in detail elsewhere, less well-known is that of German sculptor Elisabet Ney, who settled in Waller County in 1872. Considered tempestuous in her time, Ney once wrote that “my life has been a protest against the subjection to which women were doomed from their birth.”

And after learning of lynchings near her hometown of Palestine, Jessie Daniel Ames became an activist not only for women’s suffrage and civil rights, but founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. Anti-segregationist Heman Sweatt became the first black enrollee at the formerly segregated University of Texas School of Law, after a four-year legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

Harrigan’s deeply-researched book is rife with rich passages on such lesser-known figures, as well as all the standards of Texas history: Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ann Richards, the Bushes, and Rick Perry, alongside darker and troubled figures including Cabeza de Vaca, Lee Harvey Oswald, Bonnie and Clyde, and Janis Joplin.

In considering the range of who and what made Texas what it is today, his work is not a revisionist history, but “a clear history,” Harrigan said, which takes all available facts into consideration.

Still, “Texas history is personal to Texans. Everybody has their own, if not version of it, their own vision of it,” he said.

Harrigan’s own personal Texas history began as a 5-year-old transplant from Oklahoma. His family moved to Abilene, and on visits to their grandparents back home, he said people would look at him and his tall brother and remark, “Boy, they should do grow ’em tall back there in Texas. And so I knew immediately that there was this attitude about Texas being bigger and grander in everything.”

Even then, he understood that “Texas was different than Oklahoma, was more overpowering, and wanted to be more overpowering, as a place.”

Even after writing a comprehensive volume of Texas history, Harrigan assures that more stories remain to be written, by himself and others. “Texas never stops being interesting,” he said.

Big Wonderful Thing is available from the University of Texas Press for $35 in hardcover. An excerpt is available on the Texas Monthly website.

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