Three white Stetson hats: the joy of limitation

Tom Mix

Let’s face it: we are not culturally conditioned to look kindly upon constraints. Every day bombards us with messages urging us to maximize our enjoyments, super-size our servings, and prolong our erections. Limitations, we’re told, are for losers.

I, on the other hand, believe firmly that sometimes, under certain circumstances, constraints can actually foster, rather than curtail, creativity; ingenuity can flourish in unexpected ways, in all sorts of compromised settings. I absorbed this lesson during my time as a “county writer” for the Texas State Historical Association’s New Handbook of Texas, beginning in the mid-1980s, during which I suspect I learned at least as much about the craft of writing as I did as an undergraduate English major or in grad school.

As a county writer, my job entailed researching and writing all the entries associated with a given county for a massive revision of the original Handbook of Texas, a historical encyclopedia/biographical dictionary originally published in two volumes in 1952 under the aegis of Walter Prescott Webb, with a supplemental third volume appearing in 1976. The greatly expanded New Handbook, published in six volumes in 1996, required a veritable army of contributors—more than 3,000 in all—some volunteers and some, like me, paid staff, to crank out the roughly 24,000 entries. (Since going online in 1999, the Handbook has grown to more than 25,000 entries.)

On the face of it, few jobs could have less to do with creative writing. Yet trying to shape an occasionally jumbled pile of historical data, hearsay, and legend into a coherent, even compelling, and above all brief (sometimes just two or three sentences) narrative was an irresistible and, I believe, inherently creative challenge, even if I didn’t always succeed; many of the entries I had to write, such as those on small watercourses or hills or towns that had dried up and blown away, were simply too short and/or uninteresting. Here, for example, in its entirety, is my entry on a stream called Town Creek:

Town Creek rises a mile north of Fredericksburg in central Gillespie County (at 30°19′ N, 98°52′ W). Intermittent in its upper reaches, the stream follows a southerly course for 3½ miles to its mouth on Barons Creek in Fredericksburg (at 30°16′ N, 98°52′ W). Rising in the hills of the Edwards Plateau, Town Creek crosses flat to rolling terrain surfaced by shallow loamy and clayey soils; vegetation consists primarily of open stands of live oak, Ashe juniper, and mesquite, and grasses.

Doesn’t exactly set the heart racing, does it? Yet every so often I would find some nugget of information that could add a little color to a highly compressed and otherwise drab recitation of facts, and I took an inordinate pride in trying to craft the most apparently unpromising entry into something that would reward the careful reader with a graceful turn of phrase or an unexpectedly poignant or amusing incident. Here are just a few, drawn from various biographical entries I wrote: After the jazz pianist Peck Kelley quit the music business due to deteriorating eyesight, “he reportedly spent hours practicing at home on a stringless, silent piano so as not to disturb his neighbors.” German immigrant Johann Klingelhoefer “was elected chief justice of Gillespie County in 1850 but had to give up the office when his opponent, Mormon leader Lyman Wight, pointed out that Klingelhoefer was not yet an American citizen.” The West Texas rancher and congressman Claude Hudspeth, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, once referred to the president of our neighbor to the south as “that spineless cactus of Mexico.”

If I had to pick one favorite among the hundreds of entries I wrote, though, it might be the one on actor Tom Mix. Mix probably didn’t belong in the Handbook of Texas at all; despite his claims to have been born on a ranch on the Rio Grande and to have served as a Texas Ranger and with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the battle of San Juan Hill, he was in fact an army deserter from Pennsylvania. He was the most celebrated Western silent-movie star in early Hollywood, but he was virtually forgotten with the advent of talkies. After almost a thousand words, my entry on him ends as follows:

Mix died on October 12, 1940, when his Cord automobile overturned on a highway near Florence, Arizona; he was driving to California to discuss a return to the movies. His principal baggage reportedly consisted of three snow-white Stetson hats.

I couldn’t say with certainty that the story of the white Stetsons was true, but it was simply too good to pass up, and it provided a perfect way to punctuate the downward trajectory of Mix’s life. In this entry, and in many others, I was merely following the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), though I tried always to leave myself a little wiggle room—hence the use of “reportedly” in the excerpt above. (I was also a big fan of “apparently,” “presumably,” “allegedly,” and similar conditional constructions.)

This is all a pretty high-falutin’ way of talking about what was on some level hackwork, but I think that even the humblest piece of writing can benefit from, and manifest, a careful devotion to craft. As George Orwell, a particular literary hero for the simplicity and clarity of his writing, once said, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” (That would have made a pretty good motto for us county writers, right down to the emphasis on the surface of the earth; we probably had to write more entries on physical features—creeks and mountains and such—than any other type.)

We’re never more creative or more fully human than when we acknowledge and work within our limitations, be they imposed externally or internally. Our aspirations can be infinite, but actual achievement usually requires a pragmatic acceptance of the finite. And, of course, a judicious use of conditionals.

What we’re reading
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Martin: Vincent Virga, Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations

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8 Responses to Three white Stetson hats: the joy of limitation

  1. spike gillespie says:

    Really great thoughts, M
    Haiku also has limits
    A challenge I love

    I should probably leave it at the faux-haiku above (where’s the season?) but I heard a legend once that I will deliver here as fact. Once upon a time a study was conducted on two groups of very young children. They were put in identical classrooms. Group A was given no rules. Group B was given a short list of structural rules. Observers noted that Group A had a hard time getting anything done because they spent all their time trying to establish order whereas Group B, understanding their parameters, managed to accomplish more because they understood (in a good way) their limits and didn’t have to waste time figuring them out. I heard this as a sermon nearly 20 years ago and surely I have not retold it exactly as I heard it, but hopefully the gist of it comes through. The lesson resonated for me because, ssh, don’t tell anyone, but there are some limits I really enjoy, as knowing my limits offers quite a bit of freedom in some instances.

  2. Joybells says:

    I find any writing that includes geographical coordinates (at 30°19′ N, 98°52′ W) to be thrilling. But that’s probably because I’m a big weirdo. Still, such numbers are their own kind of testimony for our inherent drive to create order.

    Also, I kept misreading “county writer” as “country writer.” Either title is charming to me, as is this entire post. Great to hear your lovely voice again, my dear friend. xoxoxo

  3. Joel Barna says:

    About twelve years ago, I worked for several years on the West Texas chapter for a planned Texas architectural guide (to be published by the august but penniless Society of Architectural Historians). My chapter basically covered everything in a triangle bounded by El Paso, San Angelo, and Del Rio—a large area, but with only a fraction of the buildings to write about that other contributors were tackling in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other population centers.

    Again and again, in the research I could do at my desk instead of driving around, I found myself quoting from, citing, or just turning for guidance to the New Handbook of Texas and in particular to entries written by Martin Kohout. It was primarily from him that I learned about West Texas’s history and physiography (all those creeks, bluffs, and playas), which made all the difference in cataloging the buildings. So, years later, when I first met him, I was delighted to find that he was indeed the very person I had come to rely on—for me it was like meeting a studious old friend.

    There hasn’t been enough funding to get the architectural guide to Texas published. But I am glad to have this opportunity to offer my thanks and admiration for the New Handbook of Texas, for its army of “county writers” and other contributors, and for Martin in particular.

    I am a little dubious about the factuality of the story about Tom Mix’s three Stetson hats, however. Not to make a direct comparison, but I am reminded of a scene in His Girl Friday, in which editor Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant) is telling the person doing the page layout: “No, no, never mind the Chinese earthquake, for heaven’s sake…. Look, I don’t care if there’s a million dead…. No, no, junk the Polish Corridor…. Take all those Miss America pictures off page six…. Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page…. No, no, leave the rooster story alone—that’s human interest.”

    • Martin says:

      Jeez, thanks, Joel. Can you see me blushing online? All I can say is that if you were relying that heavily on my Handbook entries, you were in worse trouble than I thought.

  4. Richard Ribb says:

    For most of my life I insisted on seeing myself as, and living as though I were, a free-range chicken (rooster?). A no-limits kind of guy. I came to realize that I needed a maypole, to switch metaphors, however much I may twirl against the flow or many ribbons I carried. After all, I love calaveras, and what are they if not essential structures?

  5. Bob Ayres says:

    Great post, Martin. I was just reading excerpts from the Handbook for an account I’m writing of the fire on our ranch in the Davis Mountains last year.

    Any chance you wrote the entries for Pecos County? For instance, the ones about Iraan and how it got its name? Or Alley Oop, its most famous resident (creator of the Gasoline Alley strip)? Or the park named after him? Did you take those photos of the giant animals from the strip that are in the playground for the kids of Iraan to play on and are also the town’s predominant claim to fame? (Oh, and the Yates Field, a billion barrels and still pumping! And the boy with two graves—did you write that one, too?) I’d tell you what I was doing in Iraan, but you’ll have to wait for the essay….


    • Martin says:

      Thanks, Bob; I look forward to reading your account of the fire. And while I did write a bunch of the entries for El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Reeves counties, I didn’t, alas, write the ones for Pecos County. By the way, I think you’re conflating Alley Oop, the creation of Iraan’s own V. T. Hamlin, with Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King of the Chicago Tribune.

  6. Peg O'Brien says:

    Thank you, Martin.

    A phrase I often recite (“respect your limitations and watch your abilities grow”) tends to fall on deaf ears here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, where people are often seen hopping around on wounded legs eager to get back to bagging peaks or biking 100-milers. But those who adhere to this adage are surprised and delighted at the leap their capacity for happiness takes.

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