From bestselling historian and long-time Texan H. W. Brands, a richly textured history of one of the most fascinating and colorful eras in U.S. history-the Texas Revolution and the forging of a new America.
Nicely told as it is, this story could have been written 50 years ago. What's frustrating in this telling is that none of the advances in perspective that would make the work attractive to a general and mixed audience today are to be found in it. Brands's book is macho, tub-thumping, narrative Texas history at itsold-fashioned best. But that's no longer good enough. Published at the same time, William C. Davis's Lone Star Rising (Forecasts, Nov. 3) has ideas, argument and a point of view. It keeps Mexicans, Mexican-Texans and Anglo-Texans front and center. Brands (The First American, The Age of Gold), on the other hand, lets chronicle substitute for history and breathlessness for style. The tale of the hard-won struggle for Texan independence from Mexico has inherent dramatic power. In addition to Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, other actors, like William Travis, Jim Bowie and Noah Smithwick, some little known, could excite any movie producer. It's hard to think that the story could be better told-but what's lacking is a theme or perspective, some new way, like Davis's, to relate the story. And was "the victory of Texans the victory for America" when the spread of slavery was one of its consequences This anachronistic work may prove popular in the Lone Star State. Davis's better work, however, is where the larger, more pertinent history lies. Agent, James Hornfischer. (On sale Feb. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2003
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Excerpt from Lone Star Nation by H.W. Brands
The Promised Land
The land was enough to excite any man's lust, and perhaps emotions more deadly. Geology and climate had shaped the region of Texas between the Gulf of Mexico and the Balcones Escarpment almost as if they had human settlement in mind. Like most of the North American continent, this land formed beneath the sea, from sediment drifting down through tepid waters inhabited by prehistoric crustaceans and bony fish. The bones and shells mixed with mud to form the chalky limestone that would characterize much of Texas when it surfaced. Eventually the sea bottom rose, as it did all across proto-North America, but where in other parts of the continent the rising was rapid and disruptive, producing the jagged highlands of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, in Texas it was measured and calm. A handful of minor volcanoes spread lava across the landscape, but for the most part the emergence involved little more than a gentle tilting of the seafloor, with the northwest rising slightly more than the southeast.
The placid nature of this process, and its undramatic outcome, had two important results. First, it left Texas with no dominant river--nothing like the Mississippi or the Ohio or even the Delaware or the Hudson. Instead, Texas had (and has) several more or less equal rivers, all relatively small, running roughly parallel from northwest to southeast. In the age before motorized land travel, rivers were the key to crossing continents; with no large rivers, Texas held the key to nothing besides itself. To find Texas, one had to be looking for it; consequently Texas remained off the beaten track for many decades after neighboring regions were explored and settled.
Second, the gentle gradient and modest flow of the Texas rivers meant that their valleys retained most of what their waters eroded. Unlike such large, powerful rivers as the Missouri, which transports its silt hundreds of miles before depositing it in the delta of the Mississippi, the slow, small rivers of Texas drop their burden along their own banks, in bottomlands of wonderful fertility. In the early nineteenth century, when farming formed the mainstay of the American economy (and the economies of nearly every other country), fertile land was money in the bank; it was the pride of the present and the hope of the future; it was what separated the haves from the have-nots; it was what made democracy possible and America different from Europe. Many immigrants to Texas came from Tennessee, where the stony ridges and thin soil tested the patience of even the Jobs among the plowmen; at first feel of the deep black earth along the Brazos and Colorado and Guadalupe, these liberated toilers fell in love.
Love wasn't what drew the Austin family to Texas. Moses Austin and his son Stephen responded to emotions more mercenary. Neither was a husbandman; they came not to plant but to extract. Yet they were happy to exploit the land lust of their contemporaries--indeed, their plans depended on such passion.
In another respect, though, Moses Austin was typical of the Americans who settled Texas in the 1820s and 1830s, even archetypal. Failure in the States drove many to this border province of Mexico, and no one's failure was more spectacular than Moses'.