October 02, 2017

Roger D. Hodge

A personal and sweeping history of the Lone Star State
Interview by
We talk to Roger D. Hodge about his history of Texas and his personal connections to the Lone Star State, Texas Blood.
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In Roger D. Hodge's sweeping new book, Texas Blood, he mines the Lone Star state’s borderlands and ranching past for its incredible history and his own family’s generations-deep connection to Texas. We asked Hodge about his ambivalent feelings for his homestate, Cormac McCarthy, his family’s past and his thoughts on Texas’ future.

It’s clear from the book that you’re fascinated by Texas, but you also have a sharp-eyed view of its complications and imperfections. What do you think is most inaccurate about the conventional Texas mythology?
I suppose the biggest misconception is that Texans are all appalling Know-Nothings like Rick Perry and George W. Bush. Back home, those yahoos are what my grandmother used to call “all hat and no cattle.” Texas is a vibrant multi-cultural society, but you’d hardly know it from most of what you read and see in the media. How Texas came to be dominated by its most retrograde and backward elements is a fascinating story. The yahoos eventually triumphed in Texas, but the story didn’t have to end up that way.

The one thing everyone knows about Texas is the Battle of the Alamo, but most of Texas history occurred before the Alamo, before the Anglo colonists arrived; it was the history of the native peoples who lived there over the course of 14,000 years, some of whom left huge, magnificent cosmological murals in rock shelters along the Pecos River before they moved on as the climate changed and water disappeared. When the Spanish arrived, they found hundreds of different native groups, speaking a dizzying array of languages. Even during the historical period, all the way up to the American Civil War, the dominant power in Texas was not the Spanish or the Mexicans or the Anglo Texans; it was the Comanches.

You note that this book started years ago as a magazine essay. How did it evolve into a full book? How long did it take and what kind of research did you do?
The idea for this book grew inside me over the course of many years. I had long been fascinated by the history of the borderlands, by the stories of smugglers and outlaws and Indian fighting that I had heard growing up. I was curious about my family’s place in that history, but I was never able to find out much about the generations that came before my grandparents. I read all the big Texas histories but found them too broad and unsatisfying. So I always had a vague plan to write a long essay that would scratch that itch. In 2006 I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men that in some ways became the germ of Texas Blood. But at that point, the post-9/11 militarization of the border was just getting started. The Secure Fence Act was passed that year, and it was only later, after I had left Harper’s, that I began my reporting on border surveillance.

The book combines historical narrative with family memoir and reportage, so I had a number of different research strategies. First there was the border reporting, which mostly played out in many long road trips, crisscrossing the state, talking to people, going on ride-alongs with the Border Patrol, chatting up military contractors at security conferences, camping out with archaeologists studying rock art, and so on. I have stacks of notebooks, gigabytes of audio and thousands of photographs from that reporting.

At the same time, I was doing the library research. I spent untold hours reading primary sources and testimonies. Gradually it dawned on me that everything I was reading was an account of a journey through Texas: Cabeza de Vaca inaugurated the genre in the 1530s with his narrative of walking barefoot and naked across Texas and northern Mexico. Then came the expedition reports of entradas by Spanish soldiers, seeking to establish a colony in the north; the accounts of early Texans, the mountain men, trappers and scalpers; the prairie tourists and journalists; and the overland diaries of cattlemen and emigrant families and forty-niners on the road to the goldfields of California.

The family research was particularly challenging, because my ancestors didn’t leave much writing behind. But a couple of my relatives had spent years working out the family genealogy and they were extremely generous in sharing their findings. I built on that foundation and tried to fill in some important blanks with research at the Texas Land Office and in the Texas Archives. What was striking to me was how restless they were, moving in one generation from East Tennessee to Missouri to Texas, up and down the western border with the Comanches, out to California and back, then finally settling down along the Mexican border. I hit the road and traced their movements, reading as I went the accounts of others who traveled similar paths at more or less the same time, trying to see the world through the eyes of those I came to think of as my family’s fellow-travelers

Part of the book is in effect a literary essay on the works of Cormac McCarthy, whose writing you obviously admire. You say that his critics sometimes fail to understand his insight into the Texas borderland. As a border native, what do you think he gets right?
All the Pretty Horses was published in 1992, not long after I arrived in New York, and that book was a revelation for me because he had captured the peculiar voice and character of my home with such uncanny accuracy. I immediately read Blood Meridian and all the Tennessee novels, and then, as they appeared, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Those books became a source of comfort for me in my exile from the landscape of West Texas. When No Country for Old Men appeared and I realized that McCarthy had set the opening scene, in which Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a cartel shootout, on my family’s ranch, I knew it was time, at long last, to write about these books that I’d been inhabiting for so long as a surrogate for my lost Texas landscape.

When I was writing the Harper’s essay I realized that the overlap between my family’s history and McCarthy’s fiction was more extensive than I had realized. My great-great-great-grandparents Perry and Welmett Wilson had followed the Southern Road to California in the 1850s, at roughly the same time as the events described in Blood Meridian, in which a band of American scalpers go marauding through far West Texas, northern Mexico and the Arizona territories. The climax of the novel occurs in Yuma, Arizona, and Welmett Wilson perished in the desert near there. McCarthy’s primary source for that novel, an extraordinary illuminated manuscript by a member of the Glanton gang entitled My Confession, became an important source for me as I retraced my ancestors’ journey along the Southern Road.

The book is a blend of genres and subjects, but the framework is your own family history of Texas ranchers, which began when Perry Wilson left Missouri in the mid-19th century. What did you learn about your ancestors that most surprised you? And what mysteries remain?

Almost everything about my ancestors’ lives remains mysterious. The Wilsons were working people who lived in hard places. They didn’t leave writings or paintings. Beyond the direct experience of my grandmother’s generation, all I really had was property records and a few tales that came down through my family. Everything else: their hopes and fears and ambitions, their jealousies and petty rivalries, their agonies of birth and death—all of that had to be imagined. But I’m not a novelist. As a nonfiction writer, I submit to the discipline of fact, so I found fellow travellers, eloquent contemporary witnesses who trod the same paths. They helped me see the world my ancestors saw.

I found Perry to be a particularly intriguing character. Like many Americans at the time, he was incredibly peripatetic, ranging from Missouri to California to Texas, then finally to Arizona, often on extremely dangerous journeys. What do you think drove him and others like him?
That’s one of the book’s central questions. Almost every character in the book is a wanderer of one kind or another: cattlemen, Indian hunters, Indians, conquistadors, missionaries, speculators, emigrants, scalpers—all of them were constantly moving, seeking their fortune, seeking adventure, looking for a healthy climate or just a some shelter from the storm of history. What caused Perry to travel back and forth to California, to carry his young wife down the Texas Road through Indian County, and then to load up the wagons again and head out to California? I can’t say for certain, but I think I glimpsed a possible answer.

As you trace your family’s migration, you travel at one point with a distant relative named John, who was an avid family historian and collector but is now suffering from dementia. How did you approach writing about that experience?
John Stambaugh, who died not long ago, was one of kindest, most generous people I met in my travels, and he couldn’t remember what was happening from one moment to another. He had forgotten almost everything he had learned about our family history, but he desperately wanted to share what he had formerly known. Every now and then bolts of insight would burst forth, as when he saw a barn he had played in as a child. But he wasn’t pathetic or desperate. He was very happy. So I didn’t overthink my approach to writing about him. I just described what we experienced together and told the truth. I hope readers see that portrait as something tender, but also funny, because John was very funny.

In the chapter “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” you look closely at current border surveillance, through your travels and interviews with agents. What’s your assessment of what the U.S. is doing there?
Well, right now everyone wants to talk about Trump’s preposterous Wall. In some respects Trump’s Wall is a political fantasy, an empty campaign promise he’s determined to keep despite the fact that it’s an operational absurdity, a ludicrous and impossible object. On the other hand, the Wall is already in existence, and I don’t really mean the 700-odd miles of existing fencing. Those 18-foot-high fences and walls are not a barrier anyway. No, the Wall is not meant to keep people out, it’s meant to divide those of us who are already here. On one side of the wall are those, like Trump, who want to “make America white again,” who talk about how the “complexion” of America is changing, who want to send all the brown-skinned people who speak Spanish or Arabic or any other language but English back where they came from. On the other side are those who embrace cultural, gender and religious diversity and see it as a source of beauty and strength. Trump’s Wall already divides every community in this country.

When it comes to the border itself, the Wall doesn’t demarcate the international boundary so much as it defines an invisible barrier roughly 100 miles inland, trapping many thousands of undocumented people in what can be seen as the world’s longest prison. People are being walled into their own homes. In Texas, under Trump, any trivial encounter with law enforcement can now trigger deportation. People are being pulled over for minor traffic violations and taken into custody by the Border Patrol. Trump’s Wall is already doing its awful work, separating families, leaving U.S. citizen children alone without anyone to care for them after their parents are deported.

With the rise of mass biometric collection, people will soon be walking around with the Wall inside their own bodies.

The border zone has long been a laboratory for mass surveillance, and under Trump that process of experimentation is intensifying. I write in the book that the border is gradually expanding to fill the entire country.

I loved the section of the book where you visit with the Mexican Americans who tend to the shrine of Mount Cristo Rey near El Paso. Why did you include that episode?
Mount Cristo Rey is a magical place. It sits directly on the border, where the Rio Grande flows out of the southern Rockies and collides with its geopolitical destiny as an international boundary. Nowhere else in my travels did I feel so powerfully the full weight of the borderlands’ history. There, on the banks of the Rio Grande, a unique community called Smeltertown took shape in the shadow of the Guggenheims’ ASARCO smelter. Mexican immigrants settled there and devoted themselves to the company, which repaid them with heavy metal poisoning and death. The village was condemned and the people scattered. Yet the Smeltertown diaspora continues to maintain the shrine of Mount Cristo Rey, the shining cross on the mountain, envisioned as a “fortress against communism” but cherished as a site of tender devotion. Every October, tens of thousands of people perform the pilgrimage of Mount Cristo Rey, some without shoes, walking the long perilous hanging road to the peak, which looms over one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Ciudad Juarez. At the time, that little stretch of border was wide open. In that place, all the historical and political contradictions—and the extravagant weirdness—of the border country is on full display.

Aside from McCarthy, what books, either fiction or nonfiction, would you recommend to non-Texans to get a better understanding of the state?
The single best book on Texas was written by a young journalist named Frederick Law Olmsted, who later achieved fame as a landscape architect. Olmsted’s path along the western margins of Euro-American settlement—through what we’d now call Central Texas—eerily matches the peregrinations of my great-great-great-grandfather Perry Wilson, so I devote ample space to his observations. The book is a masterpiece of cultural criticism and political economy.

The book ends with an examination of the wonderful Pecos River-style ancient rock art that is abundant in the region where your family ranch land is located. Why did that seem like an appropriate finish?
The ranching culture that once nurtured my family and our neighbours is largely gone, swept away by economic policies and global forces that are relentlessly hostile to small-scale agriculture and, in fact, to sustainable communities of any kind. That particular world lasted but a few generations. Pockets survive here and there, mostly as a “lifestyle,” but real ranching has probably vanished for good in the harsh landscape of my birth. In that same place, however, another civilization thrived for thousands of years and left magnificent and enduring monuments to its struggles that will remain long after our metal implements have rusted and crumbled into dust. The Pecos River People painted the story of their world on the walls of limestone shelters along the Devils River and the Pecos. One of the defining characteristics of their belief system, we now know, was the idea that the rain, the source of all life for them, depended utterly on their actions. If they failed to perform their rituals, to care for the source of all life, the world would die. I am humbled by the profundity of that vision, and its glaring contrast with our own.

Read an excerpt of Texas Blood, published in The Oxford American

(Author photo by Deborah Hodge.)

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Texas Blood

Texas Blood

By Roger D. Hodge
ISBN 9780307961402

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