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Molly Ivins March 8


AUSTIN — When in the course of human events life calls upon one to span a civilization or two, I personally side with Lewis Carroll's White Queen, who observed to Alice: "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Which (no antecedent necessary) will be perfectly clear to you when I explain the rather eccentric course of my recent reading. Two books in splendid contrapuntal harmony are Peter Gay's "Pleasure Wars, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud" and Hermione Lee's superb new biography, "Virginia Woolf" — especially recommended for all who long since concluded that they don't want to hear another word about Bloomsbury.

Into this remarkably helpful duo on how we got from there to here — Victorian to modern — falls one of the oddest health books ever written, by my old friend Gary "Jap" Cartwright, who may best be described as postmodern before his time. It is also possible that he has segued into a semi-Victorian flashback or that he made the same journey that Woolf did, just with a seriously different accent.

Jap Cartwright is one of the hardest-drinking, hardest-living writers Texas ever produced, and I've known a few. As the guy in the movie said, "It's not the years, it's the mileage," and Cartwright's odometer passed 500,000 a couple of decades ago. That he is alive today is because he finally learned how to live, and it only took a major heart attack, quintuple bypass, pacemaker, etc. (First, as the old joke goes, hit the mule upside the head with a 2-by-4.)

A rather grumpy introduction to Jap's book, "Heart Wise Guy," by former Gov. Ann Richards — "Be aware that all the rest of us have a different version" — is not so much wrong as beside the point. I wasn't there for half of what Cartwright describes, and I had too many beers to remember the rest of it clearly. I figure his version is close enough for anyone who ran in those circles at that time. It reminds me of a story that Dave Richards tells about the time he ran into Jerry Jeff Walker, who was fretting about the fact that he'd somehow just sort of mislaid about 10 years of his life. Cartwright seems to have lost the same decade.

Jap and his pal Bud Shrake, arguably the finer writer of the two (although, when it comes to individual lines, I maintain that Cartwright's description of a startled citizen — "It was as though he had opened the refrigerator door and found Fidel Castro inside" — remains premier), were the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of Texas writers.

And if you want to set this in context, keep in mind that they were up against Blackie Sherrod and Dan Jenkins just for starters. To give you another measure of just how seriously they misbehaved, it can be argued that Dennis Hopper didn't know how to get into trouble until he ran into those two.

What struck me as Virginia Woolf-esque (putting Cartwright and Woolf into the same sentence may be the most astonishing example of multiculturalism I have ever achieved — but hey, Texans start with a serious cultural deficit, and as Earl Long once said of ethics in politics, "You got to use whatever you can get your hands on!") is how serious Cartwright was about writing. How serious they all were, those provincial sportswriters who all came from Nowhere, Texas.

Woolf, you see, came from a real culture — stifling, sexist and bigoted though it was. Three or four generations of writers stood behind her, along with a huge interconnected network of haut-bourgeois families devoted to Higher Things. The culture of Texas remains like the soil of the Hill Country: a thin layer spread over hard caliche rock. Woolf's daddy (although they didn't call them "daddy" in Victorian England) may have been too cheap to pay for her education, but he had a library with which she could educate herself. Just to read the list of authors Woolf devoured in her teens is to have an intellectual inferiority complex. I can barely identify Hakluyt, much less have I read him.

What interests me most about Victorian culture as described in these books is how wildly it varies from the smug assumptions made by the neo-Victorians of our time. Bill Bennett and all the public scolds who carry on endlessly about "values" apparently missed the entire point of modernism, however loosely you define it. (You knew I was going to get political eventually, right?)

As Peter Gay points out, Victorianism was never that simple to begin with, but if you want to call a spade a bloody shovel, bigotry, repression and hypocrisy were an awfully large part of it. We can scarcely listen to a political ad for dog catcher these days without hearing the word "values," always with the implication of old equals good, new equals bad. This phony nostalgia, naturally checked out for salability by the pollsters, is based on an unforgivable historical illiteracy.

We used to make fun of fatuous political rhetoric, like "We must go forward into the future." Actually, it beats going forward into the past.


Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.



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