H.W. Brands's Lone Star Nation: How a Ragged Army of Volunteers Won the Battle for Texas Independence--and Changed America
is not a complete history, but offers a compelling portrait of the key personalities in the war for Texas's independence from Mexico. Brands frames his narrative with two events: Moses Austin's 1820 proposal for an American colony in Texas and Sam Houston's removal in 1861 as governor. Along the way, Lone Star Nation
is punctuated by textbook moments, from the battle of the Alamo to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The strength of Brands's account lies in his tendency towards biography and his talent for rendering dramatic anecdotes. Professor of American History at Texas A&M and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Brands has an attraction to powerful American personalities, as demonstrated by his biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin (T.R. and The First American, respectively). The history of Texas is rife with legendary frontiersmen, and David Crockett, Sam Houston, and James Bowie add color to the narrative built around Stephen Austin, Santa Anna, and a succession of American presidents with expansionist ambitions. When he arrives at the pivotal moments in Texas lore, Brands is apt to follow a singular individual rather than give a broad, battlefield account.
"For better or for worse, Texas was very much like America," Brands declares near the end of his study, reflecting on the abuse of indigenous peoples and the greed of those declaring "Manifest Destiny." He continues: "sooner or later ... democracy corrected its worst mistakes." Despite this sanguine conclusion, Brands omits a balancing account of Indian claims to Texas. The Comanches, "natural anarchists" according to Brands, are sketched in a few short pages, and no Native American shares a voice in the text (partially to be excused for a lack of primary sources). Brands argues, "If the Texans were guilty of theft, the people from whom they sprang were much guiltier." Perhaps true, but Brands's highly readable tale of Texas heroes would be even stronger with a tempering account of the victims of the thievery. --Patrick OKelley
From Publishers Weekly
Nicely told as it is, this story could have been written 50 years ago. What's frustrating in this telling is that none of the advances in perspective that would make the work attractive to a general and mixed audience today are to be found in it. Brands's book is macho, tub-thumping, narrative Texas history at its old-fashioned best. But that's no longer good enough. Published at the same time, William C. Davis's Lone Star Rising has ideas, argument and a point of view. It keeps Mexicans, Mexican-Texans and Anglo-Texans front and center. Brands (The First American, The Age of Gold), on the other hand, lets chronicle substitute for history and breathlessness for style. The tale of the hard-won struggle for Texan independence from Mexico has inherent dramatic power. In addition to Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, other actors, like William Travis, Jim Bowie and Noah Smithwick, some little known, could excite any movie producer. It's hard to think that the story could be better told-but what's lacking is a theme or perspective, some new way, like Davis's, to relate the story. And was "the victory of Texans the victory for America" when the spread of slavery was one of its consequences? This anachronistic work may prove popular in the Lone Star State. Davis's better work, however, is where the larger, more pertinent history lies.
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