Review

Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas

by James L. Haley



Certainly a trained writer could write an interesting history of
any one of our 50 states. Each of them has a story to tell --- but
for sheer wildness and weirdness it would be hard to surpass the
history of Texas. Perhaps only a Texan could do it justice.

James L. Haley is a Texas native, a respected historian with six or
seven books on Texas subjects already on the shelves, and a lively
writer. He also brings a definite personal point of view to his
task. In PASSIONATE NATION you can always tell the good guys from
the bad guys. Haley also has a gift for deft one-liner
characterization that brings even minor players in his crowded
historical saga to life for the reader.

The state's character, in Haley's view, has been formed by
violence, gunplay and bloodshed, by cattle, cotton and oil, by bold
exploration, racial and religious intolerance, political feuding
and frontier adventurousness. Texas has been suspicious of
immigrants who did not share its conservative values, wary of
dictation from far-off Washington D.C. and delighted these days to
find its vigorous extroverted ethos taking over the whole United
States. In that respect it is, Haley contends, the new
California.

Haley paces his narrative well, avoiding the common error of
skimping on early history in order to get quickly to recent times
more likely to be of interest to his readers. He is thorough in
recounting the deeds of early adventurers like Coronado, Narvaez,
LaSalle and Da Gama, and the Civil War does not come along until
halfway through his text. His account of the state's decade as an
independent republic (1836-1845) is especially delicious, verging
several times on high comedy as the colorful figures of that era
get themselves into strange and wonderful predicaments over trifles
(e.g., the Presidential inaugural ball of 1844, held in a room
above a saloon, during which one young lady had to be rescued when
she nearly fell through the sagging floor into the bar
below).

Haley also devotes long mid-book stretches to the Indian wars that
convulsed Texas for many years. These complex affairs may not much
interest modern readers, but they are important to the story of how
modern Texas evolved and they clearly demonstrate the state's love
affair with guns and indiscriminate butchery of those who stand in
the way of "civilization."

Two of the state's greatest historical figures, Sam Houston and
Stephen Austin, emerge as fully-rounded figures in Haley's story.
Austin was a thoughtful, fair-minded statesman who never really fit
the Texas mold; Houston was a heavy drinker whose backing for the
idea of joining the Republic of Texas to the United States was
later balanced by staunch Union sympathies in a state that
enthusiastically joined the Confederacy when civil war finally
erupted after annexation.

The book has one major fault, for which Haley may not be
responsible: It is, if anything, too Texas-centric. This
fascinating history should surely be of interest to Americans
everywhere, but there is not a single map in it, and the reader
with only a general idea of Texas geography will find himself lost
among those vast plains and the numerous rivers that define both
Texas history and cultural identity. Even the author's promotional
tour is restricted to Texas cities --- surely a missed
opportunity.

Haley sees today's Texas as a natural outgrowth of its violent
past, with such matters as Anglo-Hispanic racial tensions and the
future of the oil industry very much in play. He forecasts that
before long Hispanics will regain their former status as the
state's majority racial group, but makes no prediction on how this
will be dealt with by the power structure. Haley has been outspoken
and judgmental throughout the book, branding those of whom he
disapproves "oafs" and "asses," but on this intriguing question he
can only muse that Texans "have never done well with
pluralism."

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 14, 2011

Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas
by James L. Haley

  • Publication Date: April 11, 2006
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 0684862913
  • ISBN-13: 9780684862910