Recap of the Texas History Forum, “Historiography: Texas History Detectives”
Last Saturday, May 22, the DRT Library held its twenty-third Texas History Forum. Entitled “Historiography: Texas History Detectives,” the program featured three speakers who explored various aspects of the history of Texas history.
Dr. Light T. Cummins, a professor of history at Austin College and the State Historian of Texas, explored historiography in general; the differences between and intersections of myth, memory, and history; and broad contours in the history of Texas historical writing. Henderson Yoakum‘s two-volume History of Texas from Its First Settlement in 1685 to Its Annexation to the United States in 1846 (1855) was the first major history of Texas. In focusing on Anglo Americans in Texas, this work set the tone of early histories about the state. In the early 1900s, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) emerged as the center for Texas history scholarship. By mid-century, however, a fundamental reorientation in histories about Texas reflected changes occurring in the state and in the historical discipline. UT’s preeminence was diminished as scholars at other universities began writing about Texas history. Moreover, the New Social History that resulted in large part from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s expanded the boundaries of historical investigation to include ordinary people; the histories of women and various racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups; and human activity beyond military, political, and economic pursuits. This paradigm shift meant that historians writing about Texas history broadened their focus beyond the experiences of Anglo Americans.
Dr. Cummins observed that contemporary public memory does not always match current historical writing about Texas and that it is difficult to reconcile the traditional monolithic, Anglo view of Texas history still held by some people with the New Social History. Moreover, asserted Dr. Cummins, there is a disconnect between modern Texas historiography and public memory. Whereas earlier historiography supported the public memory narrative, current historiography questions it, a situation those who defend public memory find disconcerting.
Dr. Gregg Cantrell, a professor of history at Texas Christian University, discussed the work of historian-biographers through the case study of his work Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas. He began by examining the two primary types of biographies. On one hand is biography as history. In these works, the story of an individual, usually a famous person, is used as a vehicle for exploring a broader historical context. Consequently, these works focus on the public life of the subject and pay little attention to his or her private life. Eugene C. Barker’s The Life of Stephen F. Austin (1925) is the only other biography of Austin besides Dr. Cantrell’s work and is “a classic of this genre.” The other type of biography is what Dr. Cantrell called the “whole enchilada” approach. Here, the author works to describe the public and private life of the subject and to capture his/her complexity with special attention to his/her motivations, personality, and character. Dr. Cantrell’s biography of Austin fits within this second category. He asserted that, like historians, biographers are detectives. However, because biographers work to solve the ultimate riddle – the inner-workings of the human heart and mind – they face additional challenges in understanding their subject. Within this framework, Dr. Cantrell described how he used extant evidence to formulate educated guesses about Stephen F. Austin’s relationship with his father, Moses, and his cousin, Mary Austin Holley.
Presenting the final lecture of this year’s Forum, Dr. James E. Crisp, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, touched on some of the topics explored in his works Sleuthing the Alamo and How Did Davy Die? And Why Do We Care So Much? Dr. Crisp stated that people who lived in the past leave only evidence that is highly problematic, fragmentary, full of distortions and perhaps lies, self-contradictory, and incomplete. Looking for clues about the past, stated Dr. Crisp, does not lead to other historians’ work but leads to primary sources held in archives or private collections as well as scientific or archaeological evidence. When scholars dig into these materials, he asserted, “the story changes”; this is why, by definition, all historians are revisionist scholars. Using these ideas as a foundation, Dr. Crisp analyzed some of the problems presented by Sam Houston’s speech to volunteer soldiers near Refugio in January 1836; the diary of José Enrique de la Peña; and George M. Dolson’s letter, published in the (Detroit) Democratic Free Press on September 7, 1836.
Thank you to all of our speakers for their compelling and thought-provoking talks!