The Big Conversation
T.R. Fehrenbach, author of the book "now widely regarded as the canonical version of our state’s singular history," died Sunday in San Antonio.
He was 88. The book is Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, and the description quoted above came from Michael Ennis' 2006 reconsideration of that book's primacy in telling the narrative history of the state for Texas Monthly.
In the obituary published in the San Antonio Express-News — where Fehrenbach wrote a column for nearly three decades — his appeal was summed up this way:
"Admirers of his writing style said he often used the lessons of the past to guide his analysis of current events. His most famous work, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, has been called the most widely read history of the state.
"The book, praised for its attention to detail and narrative style, opens with a descriptive declaration that hints at his writing prowess: 'In the beginning, before any people, was the land: an immense region 265,000 square miles in area rising out of the warm muck of the green Gulf of Mexico, running for countless leagues of rich coastal prairies, forests and savannahs.'"
Since the book's publication in 1968, though, it has been criticized as well for championing a strain of Texas exceptionalism developed earlier by Walter Prescott Webb and J. Frank Dobie. As the appreciation in the Austin American-Statesman described it, "Some academicians have recently challenged its assumptions and conclusions, specifically aspects of what Fehrenbach viewed as Anglo-Celtic triumphalism."
Still, author Stephen Harrigan told the Statesman that Lone Star is the “classic Texas history. People still read it and think of it as the go-to source for learning about Texas. For sheer narrative power Fehrenbach set the standard everyone has to reckon with.”
If anything, the fact that Fehrenbach's now 45-year-old history is still the subject of fierce discussion says a lot about the staying power of his work.
"To move forward, we’ll have to accept that our history, however sacred and deeply embedded in our culture (most of us drink the Kool-Aid in seventh-grade Texas history), really isn’t inerrant scripture after all; our perspective on the past changes with time, cultural and political maturity, and new information," Ennis concluded in his 2006 column. "Gibbon, for all his brilliance, wasn’t the last word on the fall of Rome, and it’s a good sign of our continued ascendance that Fehrenbach’s literary classic is no longer the last word on the rise of Texas."
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Quote to Note: "I think it would be a fool’s errand to try to compete with Lone Star. That kind of music can only be composed by one person.” — The Gates of the Alamo author Stephen Harrigan, explaining his decision not to re-read T.R. Fehrenbach's classic Texas history while preparing to write his own history of the state. Fehrenbach died on Sunday.
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