Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity – #bookreview

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity
By Glen Sample Ely
(Texas Tech University Press, $34.95, hardback)

Many eyes are on Texas once again now that Gov. Rick Perry is running for President.

Of course, he’s now being slammed even by members of  his own party (including former officials in the George W. Bush Administration) for trying to be too much of a simplistic shoot-first, ask-questions-later Texas “cowboy” on the election trail.

So what is it about Texas and its Wild West reputation that stirs up so many arguments, passions, conceptions, misconceptions and occasional hatreds?

In Where the West Begins, Fort Worth, Texas, writer Glen Sample Ely valiantly grabs and wrestles with the electrified third rail of Texas identity: Is Texas a Southern state, or is it a Western state?

He starts with his own city, Fort Worth, which often bills itself as “Where the West Begins.” He calls Cowtown “representative of Texas as a whole,” and uses it to launch into the bigger topic of how the state’s various and varied geographical regions have contributed to its long-ongoing identity conflicts.

“Texans,” Ely cautions, “may want to consider carefully before augmenting their Lone Star lineage with either a southern or western identity, because both of these regions, like Texas, have confusing and conflicted legacies and plenty of historical baggage.”

For example, cotton, not cattle, used to be king in Texas, and one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought in Texas weeks after that conflict was officially over. Indeed, some parts of  Texas tended to be closely allied with the Confederacy and had sent cavalry units and soldiers to fight Union forces in other states. Yet other areas of the state had Union supporters mixed in — often violently — with supporters of the South. And West Texas had an “astonishingly high” level of disloyalty to the Confederacy, Ely reports, because it had long been heavily dependent on federal funds and U.S. Army forts and outposts for economic survival.

Today, many residents of West Texas identify themselves as living in the West or Southwest, not in the American South, he says. Yet many in East Texas still ally themselves with the Deep South.

Ely’s book is nicely researched and well-written, and it has a thick bibliography and notes collection.

It may possibly help you understand the enigma that is Texas a bit better. And it may possibly give you a few insights into the roots of Rick Perry’s “cowboy” mindset as his campaign gets underway and he tries to find traction with voters in 49 other states — many of whom remain openly suspicious of Texas after Lyndon Baines Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Si Dunn

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