The epic sweep of Texas history has inspired classic novels by many of our greatest writers, and the Wittliff Collections showcases the best of this work in its new exhibition, Literary Frontiers: Historical Fiction & the Creative Imagination.
Texas writers have illuminated the human stories at the heart of legends and myths, from the trail driving cowboys in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove to the Indian wars in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World. The genre also includes the iconic Texas battles for independence in novels by Stephen Harrigan and Elizabeth Crook to stories of the 1900 Galveston hurricane by Ann Weisgarber and Joe R. Lansdale.
“The best historical fiction puts readers inside the minds of people making history,” says Wittliff Collections Southwestern Literature Curator Steve Davis. “These writers have breathed imaginative life into people of the past and made their times come alive for us.”
Literary Frontiers presents hand-written manuscripts, vintage maps, rare photographs, and artifacts such as the hunting watch owned by Paulette Jiles’ grandfather, which inspired the watch carried by her character Captain Jefferson Kidd in News of the World. The exhibition also includes artwork such as the original oil painting used as the cover art for the first edition of Lonesome Dove.
“You can trace the arc of the creative process in this exhibition,” Davis says. “You can see the authors’ original inspiration — and many of these novels were inspired by real-life people. You can also examine the authors’ research, their manuscript drafts showing their struggles to find the right vision, and then the hard work and perseverance that created these classic books.”
Davis points to David Marion Wilkinson’s Not Between Brothers as one of the best examples of a Texas epic on display. Wilkinson’s book vividly interweaves the lives of Anglos, Mexicanos, and American Indians in Texas from 1821 until the eve of the Civil War. “You get such a rich sense of the daily life, not to mention the grand adventures these people had — along with the terrible hardships they suffered and the heartbreaks they endured.”
Historical novels are best-known for focusing on clashes of empire and other pivotal events, but Davis says that the genre is incredibly diverse. “One way to present historical fiction is through the lens of family history, as you see in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo, which traces several generations of a family with stories dating back to the Mexican Revolution. Then you have a writer like Stephen Harrigan, whose topics cover everything from the fall of the Alamo to the young Abraham Lincoln to an artist working in early 20th century Texas.”
Women’s stories are at the center of many of the works featured in Literary Frontiers. “Women have largely been written out of official histories,” Davis says, “and novelists have been finding and rescuing their stories for generations.” He cites Jovita González’s Caballero: A Historical Novel, written in the 1930s but not published until 1996. “Caballero is set during the U.S.-Mexico War and it is an eye-opening look at the lives of women in the ranchero culture of the time. It’s now considered a classic work of Texas literature.”
More recent novels focusing on strong-willed, independent-minded women include Ann Weisgarber’s The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, which tells of an African American homesteader in the Badlands of South Dakota in the early 1900s. Others are two novels that won Spur awards from the Western Writers Association: Judy Alter’s Mattie, based on a real-life woman doctor in frontier Nebraska, and Elizabeth Crook’s The Night Journal, which focuses on a young woman working as a Harvey Girl in New Mexico in the 1890s.
Racial injustice is another theme that can be found in historical fiction, such as in Joe R. Lansdale’s Edgar-winning novel, The Bottoms, which uncovers the murder of an African American woman in East Texas during the Great Depression.
“The theme of racial injustice in Texas also reminds us that these stories aren’t always told through novels,” Davis says. “One of the new archives we have at the Wittliff is from playwright Celeste Bedford Walker. Her play Camp Logan is also featured in this exhibition.”
Camp Logan is the moving account of career African American soldiers stationed in Houston during World War I who were subjected to brutal racism, and then were court-martialed and executed following a riot in the city.
“The Washington Post described Camp Logan as “a textbook example of how to simultaneously entertain and educate an audience,” Davis says. “I think that praise really underscores what so many of the writers featured in this exhibition have accomplished.”
Literary Frontiers also gives visitors a chance to explore excellent books that deserve more attention, Davis says. “We have Robert Flynn’s North to Yesterday, a satirical trail drive novel published in 1967 that substantially influenced Larry McMurtry’s later Lonesome Dove. We’re also showing Jan Reid’s Comanche Sundown, which won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Novel in 2011 and gets us as close to the spirit of famed Comanche chief Quanah Parker as any book has ever done.”
Authors featured in Literary Frontiers include Judy Alter, Sarah Bird, Mark Busby, Sandra Cisneros, Elizabeth Crook, Robert Flynn, Jovita González, Stephen Harrigan, Elmer Kelton, Elithe Hamilton Kirkland, Paulette Jiles, Joe R. Lansdale, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Jan Reid, Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Ann Weisgarber, David Marion Wilkinson, Bill Wittliff, and more. The exhibition was curated by Steve Davis.
The exhibition will be accompanied by two major events. On Sunday, September 23 novelists Elizabeth Crook, Stephen Harrigan, and Ann Weisgarber will join Davis for a conversation at the Wittliff. In November the Wittliff will present a program with Celeste Bedford Walker to highlight Camp Logan. Check the Wittliff’s website for further details.
Literary Frontiers: Historical Fiction & the Creative Imagination will be on view from August 1 through December 14, 2018.