Originally Posted: April 2018 issue
The follow is a review by Andrew R. Graybill, chair of the history department and co-director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.
Lawrence Wright had his road-to-Damascus moment in 1979 in Gruene, the quaint Hill Country town halfway between San Antonio and Austin. At the time, he was living in Georgia, writing for a regional magazine and freelancing for various national publications. Although the Oklahoma-born Wright had spent his teenage years in Dallas, where his father was a bank president, he’d escaped the state’s centripetal pull once he graduated from high school, in 1965, leaving first for college in New Orleans and then accepting a teaching position at the American University in Cairo before eventually settling into a journalistic career in Atlanta.
But as he explains in God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (Knopf, April 17), he was on assignment for Lookmagazine when he wound up one evening at Gruene Hall, the legendary music venue established in 1878. He had a night many Texans would die for: “A band called Asleep at the Wheel was playing Texas swing. A young man named George Strait opened for them. Dancers were two-stepping; the boys had longnecks in the rear pockets of their jeans and the girls wore aerodynamic skirts.”
Wright felt the stirring of a new romance with the Lone Star State that evening, and within a year he had accepted a staff writing gig at Texas Monthly and moved with his wife and young son to Austin, where he has lived since. In the years that have followed, he’s become one of the nation’s most respected and versatile writers, the author of a novel, multiple screenplays, and nine works of nonfiction, including The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 (and is the subject of a current Hulu miniseries on which Wright served as an executive producer). But save for portions of a 1987 memoir, In the New World, Wright has rarely scrutinized Texas in print, reporting instead for the New Yorker—where he has been a staff writer since 1992—on domestic politics, U.S. foreign relations, and Scientology, the subject of his 2013 book, Going Clear, which incensed many adherents with its unsparing indictment of the faith and its founders. God Save Texas turns the same critical eye to his home state and seems likely to provoke a similarly passionate response.
As Wright notes, “Writers have been sizing up Texas from its earliest days, usually harshly.” For evidence, he cites, among other narratives, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 classic, A Journey Through Texas, with which Wright’s new book has some points in common. For one thing, both are journalistic accounts of meandering travels across this state, enlivened by encounters with colorful locals. (Olmsted, who won the design competition for Manhattan’s Central Park the year after he published A Journey Through Texas, was on assignment for the New-York Daily Times—which later dropped the hyphen and the “Daily.”) Each writer also had company on his travels: Olmsted was joined by his tubercular younger brother, John, while Wright’s frequent sidekick is the esteemed Austin novelist (and Texas Monthly writer-at-large) Stephen Harrigan, a close friend to whom God Save Texas is dedicated. But above all, the reporting of Olmsted and Wright, though separated by more than 160 years, leads to the same conclusion: Texas, because of its size and particularly its spirit, has a heavy hand on the national tiller. READ MORE