New History Book Delves Into The Roots Of Texan Identity

Texas Monthly writer Stephen Harrigan tackles centuries of Texas history in his 900-page “Big Wonderful Thing.”

By Michael MarksSeptember 24, 2019 12:20 pm, ,

Texans are steeped in state history and lore from an early age. The education often starts in the classroom, but continues beyond it for the rest of their lives, through memorials and even special state holidays. Author Stephen Harrigan tried to capture that history in a new, comprehensive book about the Lone Star State, “Big Wonderful Thing.”

Harrigan, a writer for Texas Monthly, says the 900-page account was inspired by his own experience of Texan identity. 

“We’ve all participated in Texas history,” Harrigan says. “It felt like, ultimately, [it was] something I not just wanted to do but kind of had to do.”

He says he wanted to explore the way Texans maintain a cohesive sense of identity despite all of the conflict that’s happened in the state over the years. In fact, he says it’s the state’s history of conflict that has brought people together.

“It was an enormously contested place. I think that kind of anneals people in a way, brings them together in a common sense of identity,” Harrigan says.

In the book, he also recounts stories that helped perpetuate a mythology about Texas. In one example, a 17th century Spanish nun, Sister María de Jesús de Ágreda, who had never left her convent in Spain, claimed she had traveled to Texas through supernatural forces. That story brought attention to the territory, and was an inspiration to missionaries working in that part of the Spanish Empire

Texas has also left lasting impressions on famous Americans, Harrigan says. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe said she couldn’t believe Texas was real.

“[It’s] the same big wonderful thing that the oceans and the highest mountains are,” O’Keeffe said. 

That quote became inspiration for the title of Harrigan’s book.

And Harrigan isn’t trying to claim that Texas is somehow superior to other states. But he does want to convey why it’s special

“We’re not claiming that Texas is the biggest, [most] wonderful thing that ever existed,” he says. “But I think you have to acknowledge the impact that Texas had.”

Texas will also play an important role in America’s future, Harrigan says. That’s, in part, because of the state’s increasing diversity. It’s a sign of the times. 

“I think the direction points towards, of course, increasing multiculturalism, increasing diffused identity, or a sense of what a Texan is,” Harrigan says. “But at the same time, I don’t see Texas becoming less of a thing. I think it points the way, in a lot of ways, for the rest of the country.”

And many of today’s social issues have roots in Texas. From the abortion debate to mass shootings to immigration, Harrigan says Texas is a microcosm for the major issues the nation, as a whole, is facing.   

“All of these contentious issues all seem to sort of come from the petri dish that is Texas,” Harrigan says. 


Written by Libby Cohen.