Every iconic magazine has a central story to tell — a time and a place when it couldn’t have existed otherwise and which it still draws on even as it has moved on. Playboy and the sexual revolution. National Geographic and the late-Victorian urge toward empire and exploration. Rolling Stone and the baby boomer rise of rock ‘n’ roll.
Over the years, Texas Monthly‘s basic story has always been how a dirt-poor, insular, segregated state of ranches and farms, a state with a far more resonant mythic presence than similar states around it, has been turning into a big-city, big-money, oil-and-art-and-microchip, multi-cultural anywheresville that clings to its favorite, cinematic self-images.
So the magazine’s current themed issue (“Welcome to Big City, Texas!”) devoted to the state’s urban centers actually just foregrounds what every issue has detailed in some form, among the violent crime features, the listings for upscale barbecue joints and the photo essays on beautifully barren, Big Bend landscapes. Increasingly, the problem for the magazine has been balancing fawning Tex-celebrity profiles (if it can find one whose face on the cover will help sell copies) with any photogenic remnant of authentic cowboy life it can locate amid our cancerous freeways and suburbs.
Actually, in his essay, former editor Greg Curtis declares that Texas’ rural past does remain with us. It’s that “strain of country obstinacy and willful unenlightenment” he sees in a state government bent on dismantling our educational system and the vast array of social programs that have helped poor Texans become less desperate. (Unfortunately, a quibble: Curtis misplaces the ‘mother ship’ of Half-Price Books on Lovers Lane when it’s on Northwest Highway.)
One of the smart things editor Jake Silverstein did was get Larry McMurtry to revisit his essential collection of Texas essays from 1968, In a Narrow Grave. For decades, when people I knew moved here, I’d hunt down a copy and give it to them as a welcome-to-Texas gift, the best, single-volume introduction to the state (before Lonesome Dove made McMurtry permanently well-known, the book was often out of print).
In particular, in McMurtry’s rumination in this issue — “Horseman, Goodbye” — he revisits his Narrow Grave essay, “A Handful of Roses.” It offered a drive-by tour of the state’s cities — with what often are still-accurate snapshots/potshots. Austin is the favorite Texas town of non-Texans, he wrote, because it is the least Texas town — a line I thought was spot-on even when I lived there.
But it’s his old essay’s central thesis that McMurtry says remains indisputable: “Texas in the sixties still thought of itself as a frontier; its cities and their residents were not yet maturely urban. … My point, much reiterated, was that Texans in the main were not yet able to handle the pressures of urban life.”
But now, forty years on:
Many of its citizens have shaken off the frontier ethic and become mature urbanites. In response to this change, most of the cities have gone to the trouble to provide their better-informed residents some of the trappings of high culture. There are several excellent museums and an opera house or two. In addition, these cities have produced a number of locally grown artists who are good in various spheres. This is not a small thing.
We’re not just hicks with money now, though there are still quite a few hicks, some of whom have money.
Over on FrontBurner, Glenn Hunter quotes McMurtry calling Dallas ‘second-rate’ — because that’s the kind of remark that’ll irritate readers into firing off comments and increasing page views.
But a little context is in order. McMurtry, as he says at the start of his essay, always loved Houston — it’s where he set what he feels is his best novel, Terms of Endearment. It’s where he spent 17 years as student, professor and bookseller: “I still think of Rice University as my intellectual home.”
Dallas, he could always do without — as “A Handful of Roses” makes clear, more than forty years ago: “Wealth, violence and poverty are common throughout Texas, and why the combination should be scarier in Dallas than elsewhere I don’t know. But it is: no place in Texas is quite so tense and so tight. Violence in Houston is extremely common, but there it lies close to the surface … Dallas is a city of underground men: the violence there lies deeper, and is under greater pressure.”
You might not agree, but no one should be surprised at what he writes now.
But perhaps the smartest thing Silverstein did was get novelist Ben Fountain to write about his experiences as a naive, fresh-to-the-city, young lawyer caught up in the money-grabbing blizzard that was Dallas in our heady, savings-and-loan swindle days — and which, Fountain argues, became the felonious ‘new normal’ for our national economy. Fountain’s story is striking — even at this distance in time, to see how hand-over-fist eager the mentality was, how eager the city’s J. R. Ewing mentality was. It ends with his session answering questions from an FBI agent. Welcome to the big city.
Most of the essays about the state’s different mega-centers pair off between boosterism and iconoclasm (Cecilia Balli, for instance, takes Austin to task for its self-infatuation as sophisticated and liberal, blind to its own longstanding, civic segregation.) But no city gets quite the treatment that Dallas does — with the one-two punch of Fountain’s look-back-in-sorrow-and-anger along with Skip Hollandsworth and Jason Sheeler’s report from the Rachofsky House and the 2012 Two x Two for AIDS and Art party. Together, we get Dallas at its international-art-glitziest and its most cynically cutthroat. Houston? Well, John Nova Lomax argues that the city should be the state capital.
For its part, Fort Worth receives an earnest recap of its origins from Sterry Butcher (with yet again, the worry of whither the old, supposedly noble frontier life?), plus Michael Ennis’ history of how the Kimbell positively ignited Texas’ culture and art-collecting. It also set off a battle of designer-name museums between Fort Worth and Dallas. Which brings up the tendency for both essays (and Bud Kennedy’s sidebar on the designation “Dallas-Fort Worth”) to sink into that “me, too!” attitude of the put-upon kid brother, trying to outdo his bigger sibling. It doesn’t help Fort Worth’s civic self-image or its great, distinctive merits when much of this stance can be summed up as “We’re not Dallas!”
Perhaps ironically, though — or perhaps fittingly — this February issue’s single, most potent illustration of How Far Texas Has Come does not appear in any article. Nor is it located in any specific Texas city. It’s an ad for a retail website, a product line called Suddenly Fem, which judging from its site appears to be headquartered in Pennsylvania. The ad appears on p. 170 with an image of bosomy models (left). I spotted it mostly because Sterry Butcher’s visit to the cutting-horse championship at the Will Rogers Coliseum took me to the page and kept me there long enough to notice something different.
Suddenly Fem claims to be “the #1 U.S. Fashion Line for Crossdressing Gentlemen.”
Welcome, 21st Century Texas. It’s not that crossdressing men didn’t exist here forty years ago. It just says something that an ad for them can fill two-thirds of a page in Texas Monthly, probably for the first time.
And Suddenly Fem’s clothing line doesn’t feature a single cowgirl boot. Yes, I checked.
Photo of Dallas skyline outfront from Shutterstock