“I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.” - Captain Woodrow Call, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I have no idea how to write about books. I’ve certainly spent a lot of hours reading book reviews, and the technique, if there is such a thing, doesn’t really seem to offer any kind of a template. The thinkers doing the criticisms bring their biases to the writing, which is what they are supposed to deliver, I reckon. Great book reviews are almost as wonderful as great books. They are an art form and require fine linguistic and analytical skills, as well as great literary breadth and depth in the canon of English literature.
I’ve spent much of my time on another type of criticism, and this is, demonstrably, of lousy politicians. We have many of those in Texas, and I am certain I could make it a full-time job, though I’d probably need institutionalization after less than a year. There would be no way to keep up and the recurrent absurdities would almost certainly result in my madness. Just consider, as one example, the governor’s and the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid to help the poor get health care.
Texas taxpayers are sending in their money to provide the federal dollars, which, instead, go to other states. One estimate is $22 billion dollars over the past five years went to provide health care for taxpayers that don’t live in Texas. Completely illogical when the money could be sent back here to deliver insurance to the 5.2 million residents who have none. It would also keep rural hospitals from closing, and twenty-six of them already shuttered in the past eight years. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the nation with 18.2 percent lacking health care coverage.
The above are among the many items that baffle me about this mythical place. If any further proof of the ignorance and political nonsense of Texas is required it has been delivered lately by Rep. Jared Patterson, a mind-numbingly mindless Republican from Frisco, who runs with a gang of book banners, who live on the edge of becoming book burners. He has proposed legislation to control books that are introduced to public school libraries in a state that already bans more books than any other in the union, according to PEN America. The number, before even the Cro-Magnon man Patterson sketched out his book bill, was 1,648. Texas continues to be number one in all the wrong things. You will also be unsurprised by the fact that most of the books on that list have content related to LGBTQ issues and people of color. He calls his legislation the READER Act, (Removing Explicit and Adult Designated Educational Resources), though he gives no indication he has opened many books.
Sexual orientation and gender issues do not exist in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurty, which Patterson had the temerity to suggest might need to be banned. His literary expertise on this epic novel is based upon the fact that he hasn’t read it, which, in politics, is kind of a standard approach. His complete lack of knowledge about the narrative has guided him to think it needs to be kept from Texas schoolchildren, even though the story of the great cattle drives is central to the state’s history and the frontier ethic of hard work and independence. Patterson seems to have heard there are prostitutes and scenes of sexual assault in the book, though his conscience was assuaged by a fellow Republican who downloaded the novel and searched for the words, “vagina,” and “sex,” and found none. This further establishes the genius of McMurtry because he was able to write a bestselling novel without using either of those terms.
What seems more likely is that Patterson may have watched the television series of “Lonesome Dove” and noticed there was a heroic black man, who was independent, dependable, smart, and free, and that characterization might have taken Patterson to a place of discomfort. Before McMurtry popularized the story of the black cowboy, there was little known about the significance of their involvement in the settlement of the West and their role on the cattle drives that defined an iconic early Texas. A central character of the novel, Joshua Deets, was based upon a real African American cowboy named Bose Ikard. A slave freed by the Civil War, Ikard rode with Texas legends Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, the cattlemen who blazed a trail to move longhorns from the wilds of South Texas to the stock markets in New Mexico and Colorado and all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Loving died early from a bullet wound during an attack by the Comanche but Goodnight lived a long and profitable life, eventually creating a massive cattle ranch and settling much of what is now Palo Duro Canyon State Park. When he was pushing cattle, however, he was eternally dependent on Bose Ikard, who came to work for him after Loving’s death. Ikard’s character as a cowboy and a friend was honored by Goodnight who once said that he trusted Ikard, “Farther than any living man. He was my detective, banker, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country I was in.”
Eventually, Ikard wanted to buy a place and settle in Colorado, but Goodnight convinced him to make Parker County his home because there were so few blacks in the Rocky Mountain region. When he bought a farm near Weatherford, Ikard ended up in running battles with Quanah Parker, the famed Comanche Warrior who led the last battles to stop white settlements in the West. The cowboy later married a woman known to history only by her first name, Angelina, and they had fifteen children. He died in Austin in 1929 and when he was later buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Goodnight bought a granite stone for Ikard’s grave site and had it inscribed to his friend.
“Bose Ikard served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.”
McMurtry paraphrased Goodnight’s sentiments for the TV series “Lonesome Dove,” when he had Tommie Lee Jones' character, Woodrow Call, carve a wooden marker that says essentially the same thing, and place the epitaph over the grave of Joshua Deets, a black cowboy based on Ikard and played by Danny Glover. In the novel and the TV series, Deets died on the trail, killed by a Comanche, who thought the cowboy was trying to harm an Indian baby. (See the clip below.)
Jared Patterson, of course, is just trying to protect the children, too. Like many of his conservative consorts, he is convinced we can keep the young from learning about the world by prohibiting their access to certain books. He has already proposed keeping children under the age of eighteen from getting on social media, which is completely counterintuitive to the governor’s present push for a construct he calls “parental rights.” If the Texas Republicans believe so strongly in giving complete authority to parents on what books end up in school libraries or using vouchers to choose their child’s school, then they ought to trust parents to know when their girl or boy is ready and responsible on social media. There is not sufficient time, however, to go into the contraindications in all the GOP goofiness and gutter polishing.
Patterson put his ignorance on display by admitting we might have to ban a book he hadn’t even read. I’m sure he missed the irony of a guy who doesn’t read sponsoring the READER act. I am less certain the people who elected individuals like Patterson realize what they are doing. Books outlast fools; they always have survived. They are time machines that take young and older minds to fantastic places. I remember when I was in high school that there was a great controversy surrounding the reading of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” and students picked up on teachers debating whether to allow the book into English literature classes. Eventually, even though the narrative contained talk of casual sex and prostitution, and the main character, Holden Caulfield uses religious slurs, the book was finally introduced to students. Administrators were a bit behind the local culture, however, because most of us had purchased “Catcher” months earlier and read it in one sitting.
Patterson and his fellow backward peckerwoods are trying the same approach and it will fail just as miserably. Passing laws to regulate libraries and set up people to rate content for sexuality or whether a book is appropriate, is a waste of time and money. Trust the people who have already been hired and have spent their careers putting the right books in front of students from kindergarten through graduation. Librarians know what they are doing. They read, unlike Jared Patterson, and they attended university to get degrees that proved they knew how to be librarians. It is wrong to put them in awkward positions of accountability where they now must fear the wrath of a parent who thinks there is more going on than meets the eye when the text says, “See Dick run. See Jane run. Run, Dick, run. Run, Jane, run.” Where are they running to, anyway, off to the woods to play doctor?
If students are kept from reading books that have sexual content until after they graduate, they will miss most of the classics of literature. Learning how people feel and think in the real world will come as a bit of a shock. If a masterwork of American literature like “Lonesome Dove” can be endangered by book-banning fools, no writing is safe. What happens when the Texas conservatives who are put in charge of screening books discover that “The Diary of Anne Frank” includes pages where she talks about her period and prostitution and even her own labia? We can’t have young women learning about their own labia, dammit!
I’ve read “Lonesome Dove” more than a few times, and every now and again, I pick up “Catcher in the Rye.” In high school, I was in the popular play based on “The Diary of Anne Frank” and I read her writings and wondered how she remained so composed and thoughtful as she waited for the horrible outside world to close in and find her. If every scene were removed from those manuscripts based on whether it offended the sensibilities of clowns like Jared Patterson, they wouldn’t have been worth picking up to read, nor would they have had cultural value. A parent who walks into their child’s bedroom and sees their son or daughter holding a book in their hands like McMurtry’s or Salinger’s or Frank’s is a very lucky parent. And any state representative who lives in Texas and hasn’t read “Lonesome Dove,” has no understanding of the culture and has no business making decisions about what our young ought to read.
Or to quote Gus McRae when frustrated with Captain Woodrow Call, “Y’God, Woodrow.”