Review by Christopher Dow
The mystique of Texas in unmistakable.
In fact, when you get right down to it, some countries aren’t as interesting as Texas. Maybe that’s because Texas has it all—martyrdom and triumph, colorful characters and rugged pioneers, huge cities and ghost towns, admirable deeds and shady dealings—all of it happening across a vast and incredibly varied terrain. Oh, have I mentioned cowboys, deadly gunfights, lost mines and sunken treasure, political shenanigans, feuds, rodeos, natural and man-made disasters, and multiple revolutions?
No matter, because Steven A. Jent does that quite well in A Browser’s Book of Texas History (Republic of Texas Press, 2000). This collection of verbal snapshots may not be the final word in Texas chronicles, but it certainly is definitive in its own way, delighting in the pivotal exploits, fateful extremes, and savory tidbits that make Texas history so entertaining. Jent’s inviting and fun style is perfect for this sort of anecdotal history. He knows when and where the punch lines should go to highlight the state’s humors and ironies, and he hits just the right tone when tragedy calls for it.
Jent’s history begins with the earliest explorers to set foot in Texas and runs well into the 1990s, but the book is not arranged by historical sequence. Instead, it starts with January 1 and finishes on December 31, and each date features one or more entries describing Texas events or people significant to that day. This is no-brainer browsing at its best—you start at the beginning and go to the end. In between, you’ll find a captivating mishmash of Texas history, with the modern alongside the Wild West, rousing adventure next to disaster, and the sublime hand in hand with the ridiculous. Peopling these events are gunfighters, soldiers, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, musicians, inventors, and a few oddballs. The collection is not exhaustive, though, so while Scott Joplin makes an appearance, Janis Joplin doesn’t.
Writing Texas history this way allows Jent to highlight various categories of Texas people and their achievements. For example, it’s amazing how many “firsts” there have been in Texas. The 21-story Milam Building in San Antonio was the first air-conditioned office building in the U.S. The first oil well gusher was Spindletop, near Beaumont. Army Airplane Number 1 accomplished America’s first military air flight on March 2, 1910, at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. KUHT, Channel 8 in Houston, was the first noncommercial TV station in the nation. And Denton Cooley performed the first artificial heart transplant at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston on April 4, 1969.
The list goes on, and if it turns out to be the longest list of firsts there is, that would only be appropriate because size has always been important to Texas. Upstart Alaska may have usurped the title of biggest state in the union, but Texas still boasts the tallest monument (San Jacinto Monument) and the largest capitol dome in the U.S.
Texas has made its mark with quality as well as quantity, and a lot of that comes from its fair share of famous people. There have been heroes (Chester W. Nimitz, Audie Murphy), musicians (Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly), and athletes (Jack Johnson, Babe Didrikson), just to name a few. Sure, Texas has had its share of outlaws (John Wesley Hardin, Sam Bass, Clyde Barrow), but it also has that stalwart champion of good, Popeye, who was created in Elzie Crisler Segar’s Thimble Theater comic strip, published in the Victoria Advocate.
That may seem like an unusual crowd, but Texans often have been quite good at concocting strange brews. Consumers thought Gail Borden’s “meat biscuits” were disgusting, but the entrepreneur hit gold with Borden’s Condensed Milk. Waco pharmacist Charles C. Alderton kicked off the bottled soft drink industry with Dr Pepper. And Ferris obstetrician Robert Ernest House, looking for a sedative, discovered scopolamine hydrobromide, more commonly known as truth serum.
So, whether you want the real truth about Texas or just need a few nifty stories to tell your friends, pick up Jent’s book and open it to any page. It’s one of the liveliest looks at Texas assembled in one place—the Texas State Fair excepted—and you can make it last a whole year.
For those of us who can’t get enough of Texas trivia, Jent also has compiled A Browser’s Book of Texas Quotations (Republic of Texas Press, 2001), a collection of about 700 noteworthy quotations from or about Texas.
This review originally was published in the winter 2002 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.