When Texas Female Authors Go Awry

When Texas Female Authors Go Awry

Texans love their state, that’s for sure. This is a proud place, by its heritage, its culture, and the people’s love of the land. Especially in the vast expanses of West Texas, the folks who settled it were a gritty bunch, and still are today. So what happens with a Texas female author disparages an entire area?

It doesn’t go well. Which is a bit of an understatement!

In 1925, Harper and Brothers published a novel called The Wind, set outside of Sweetwater, Texas.  And, they published it anonymously, as a marketing ploy. But although reviews in newspapers outside the South were favorable (one likening it to the sweeping tragedy of Russian novels), those from Texas flew into a rage.

R. C. Crane, a Sweetwater lawyer and president of the West Texas Historical Society called it “a deliberate effort, by disregard and exaggeration and distortion of facts, to deliver a slam on West Texas in the making.”

Some thought it was written by, horrors!, a Yankee, in order to perpetrate anti-Texas propaganda. There were even unconfirmed stories of public book burnings. As Texas Monthly said at the time, “It was . . . roundly ‘cussed’ by West Texans . . .”

In short, the state’s people were pissed.

In 1926, the author’s name was revealed as novelist, scholar, and folklorist Dorothy Scarborough. A Native Texan who spent years of her childhood living in Sweetwater. She was held in high esteem. So the criticism did die down. Some.

I first heard of this book decades ago while taking a class in Folklore at Texas A&M, under Dr. Sylvia Ann Grider, who wrote the foreword to this edition. I thought I knew something about Texas Letters back then, and was somewhat shocked to learn of this book.

And of course my question was, what caused all the uproar?

Plenty, I’ll tell you!

Set in the devastating drought the area faced in 1886-87, which wiped out the burgeoning cattle boom. The book helped to if not destroy, to at least put a chink in the whole myth of Texas and the romance of the cowboy.

It was not a pretty time.

Enter into this vast land of sand storms and drought and unrelenting wind. A young woman from Virginia, left destitute and sent to her only living relative—a cousin and hard-scrabble cattle rancher—for shelter.

This is no Edna Ferber’s Giant, where a similar young Eastern girl moves to the West Texas plains. In that book, from a well-to-do family, Leslie marries the larger-than-life Bick Benedict, and moves into the big house, on sections upon sections of land. But she always had a place to go back to.

Funny thing though—the press didn’t treat Ferber’s book much better.  The Houston Press suggested she should be lynched!

The two well-known and thought-of Texas female authors were acquaintances, although the two books were published twenty years apart.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Letty, our poor, frail, nervous waif sent from the fertile hills and valleys of Virginia, is deposited into a shack, where the wind and the sand rage through the cracks in the walls, coating everything—always—with dust. And she has no home to go back to.

It wasn’t, however, the sand or the bleak barren landscape, or the lack of people to visit (mirroring the lack of food and water), which did Letty in.

But rather, as the book begins, “The wind was the cause of it all.”

Especially when the demon norther rides in.

As the book proclaims, “So the norther was a wild stallion that raced over the plains, mighty in power, cruel in spirit, more to be feared than man. One could hear his terrible neighings in the night, and fancy one saw him sweeping over the plains with his imperious mane flying backward and his fiery hoofs ready to trample one down.”

And this from page 2-3!

So we know from the get-go things do not bode well for sensitive Letty. Just as we know from the first moments on the train, chugging her every so inexorably toward her destination as massive water flowing irrevocably to Niagara Falls, that we’re headed toward a beastly descent.

And, we also know she’s not the most stable of sorts to begin.

What could possibly go wrong?

We have a front-row seat as Letty slowly goes mad. Indeed, the descent is so meticulously done, it starts in the beginning and almost every line thereafter continues the drip, drip of her sanity being siphoned away.

“The wind was angry that she had read its thoughts so clearly, for it had risen to a gale now, and shouted round the house. It called to her to come out if she dared. It defied her, challenged her, mocked her.”

The story draws to a conclusion that is at once as horrifying as it is perfect for the character. Though you didn’t see it coming, it all just fits.

Unless you’ve experienced this wind, you can’t imagine the sweep of it, relentless across unending treeless prairies as it whips the sand into icicles that cut through your skin like searing sandpaper. In certain seasons, it blows without ceasing.

But it’s the loneliness that underlies it that is the true demon in the wind.

I’ve spent some time in West Texas, my mom growing up on a farm there outside of Ballinger. So we went to visit relatives a lot. My grandparents farmed vast acres (at least to me!) of cotton, the fields stretching out forever and a day.

And when the wind blew, as it often did, ripping the orange clay from the ground and flinging it headlong through the air, that cruel spirit that robbed women of their pretty skin and bright eyes, it being far harder on them than on men, made one shiver at its fury.

What I remember most though was the haunting loneliness between the roar of the gales.

My mom didn’t see it that way. Lol. She was from hardy stock, raised on the West Texas land. She did tell me stories of the great Dust Bowl, of Mamaw sweeping heaps of sand out of the house every morning, which came through every available crack (and in my young mind, probably made more cracks on its own). And of Mamaw putting wet rags over the children’s faces at night to keep the sand from their lungs, and hopefully stave off the dust pneumonia (which took many a child during that time).

But she also told of how they thought they were rich during the Depression, because they grew their own food. There are benefits to being raised on a farm.

And being of such sturdy stock helped propel her to college, and then to nursing school. Back in a time when most women had no career, she became head charge nurse on the pediatric unit at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.

I believe a land makes its people. And, that folks are different from diverse areas. West Texas folks are tough as nails, generous to a fault, sturdy as hell, and somewhat unforgiving of weakness (as is Cora, Letty’s cousin’s wife, in the book).

The land makes them so. My mother was the strongest person I’ve ever met. She bore the deepest of human sorrows. Brought her to her knees, but she stood again. And faced life as it came.

Sensitive, frail, Easterner Letty wasn’t made of such robust stock, and had little to draw from in order to face that demon wind.

But ahh, what an amazing piece of literature as she gets swallowed whole by her madness.

This is a wonderful book, written by a Texas female author at the top of her game, and despite (or perhaps in addition to) all the hoopla, it deserves its place in the cannon of Texas Letters.

If you want to know what it was really like in the late 1800s in West Texas, past the romance and myth, beneath the hopes and dreams that drove people westward, The Wind will carry you through. Ride along as:

“Again the curtains of sand were rolled up from the plains to the sky, wavering, shifting, their gigantic folds writhing with hideous suggestion.

“What horrors did those curtains hide?”

And since it’s been the Dog Days here in Texas, our August giveaway includes lots of dog stuff to help beat the heat! That and wine glasses and wine t-shirt, signed books and bluebonnet soap. Come join us!



This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I think I could feel the awful dry harsh wind.
    I lived in Abilene as s teenager and it was pretty barren as compared to the lush German landscape we had lived in previously.
    Air Force Brat.
    Can not imagine how really horrible the dust bowl was but I kinda felt like I just experienced some of the passage in history.
    Thank you.

    1. Can’t you just feel it, Pam! I think I’m pretty attached to my human comforts. Lol

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