Fehrenbach, dean of Texas history, dies at 88


Matt Schudel (c) 2013, The Washington Post

T.R. Fehrenbach, whose monumental history of his native Texas became a classic and whose vivid writing helped reinforce the heroic mythology surrounding the rise of the Lone Star State, died Dec. 1 at a hospital in San Antonio. He was 88.

His wife, Lillian Fehrenbach, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. He had congestive heart failure.

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T.R. Fehrenbach was a veteran of two wars who later sold insurance and wrote science-fiction stories under an assumed name before he turned to writing history. He wrote about the Korean War, the Marine Corps, the United Nations, Swiss banks and Mexican history, but his reputation was built with his 1968 book “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.”

It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is widely studied in Texas schools and has shaped the public understanding of Texas for a generation.

“There have been a lot of revisionist takes on it, but there’s not another book that has pushed it aside,” James Magnuson, director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, told the San Antonio Express-News in 2010. “People have quarreled about it, but Fehrenbach is still standing. He’s the Muhammad Ali of Texas history.”

Fehrenbach followed the state’s growth from its Spanish and Mexican colonization, through its brief period of 19th-century independence, its alignment with the Confederacy, and its later emergence as an economic dynamo of oil, cattle and 10-gallon dreams.

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His book has been criticized for giving scant attention to women and to Indian, Hispanic and black minorities. Rightly or not, Fehrenbach saw modern Texas as a place largely built by white men bearing rifles and bowie knives who carved a civilization out of piney woods, mesquite, rocks and dust.

“Almost every ranch, every water hole, and every family had its record of gunshots in the night and blood under the sun,” Fehrenbach wrote. “Because of this history, the dominant Texan viewpoint was not that Texans settled Texas, but they conquered it.”

As an independent historian, Fehrenbach ignored the trends of the academy and chose to write with dramatic flair about battles, decisive action, heroes and villains.

“I don’t believe in social science or all those tables and statistics,” he told Texas Monthly magazine in 1998. “All the great historians have been great writers. But most of the new ones write small things.”

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Fehrenbach wrote instead in a grand, sweeping manner reminiscent of epic histories of the West by Francis Parkman and Bernard DeVoto. His florid style borrowed elements from the 18th-century cadences of Edward Gibbon — whose “The History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was an early inspiration — and from the King James Bible.

“In the beginning, before any people was the land,” Fehrenbach wrote in the opening lines of “Lone Star”: “an immense region 265,000 square miles in area rising out of the warm muck of the green Gulf of Mexico, running for countless leagues of rich coastal prairies, forests and savannahs; reaching out hugely 770 miles from boundary to boundary south to north and east to west, to enclose a series of magnificent, rising limestone plateaus, ending in the thin, hot air of blue-shadowed mountains.”

When an updated version of “Lone Star” was issued by Da Capo Press in 2000, Da Capo publisher John Radziewicz said, “I can think of only two books that dare to start out with the words ‘In the beginning’ — and the other book is T.R. Fehrenbach’s ‘Lone Star.’

“He was a larger-than-life figure who wrote about larger-than-life topics.”

Theodore Reed Fehrenbach Jr. was born Jan. 12, 1925, in San Benito, Texas. He grew up in Brownsville, Texas, and Los Angeles, where he graduated from Hollywood High School at age 16.

He interrupted his studies at Princeton University to serve in the Army during World War II, then returned to Princeton and graduated with honors in 1947. After farming for a few years, he served in the Korean War, then settled in San Antonio in 1954. He sold insurance for 15 years while writing for magazines on the side — including science-fiction stories.

Fehrenbach’s first books were about military history and diplomacy, including “This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness” (1963) about the Korean War. The book has been studied in courses at the U.S. Military Academy and was praised in 2007 by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as “perhaps the best book ever written on the Korean War.”

Fehrenbach was writing a novel about his family’s history in Texas when he refashioned it into a general history that became “Lone Star.”

“I never emotionally ever left Texas,” he told the Express-News in 2009, describing his lifelong fascination with his home state. “It’s a matter of identity.”

“Real Texans, native Texans, the old-line Texans,” he added, “are a subculture, which is just as valid as the Scottish subculture in the British Isles. It’s partly independence and partly just being belligerent and different.”

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, the former Lillian Breetz, of San Antonio.

After “Lone Star,” Fehrenbach published “Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico” (1973), “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” (1974) and several more books about Texas. He was a past director of the Texas Historical Commission.

For many years, Fehrenbach wrote a weekly newspaper column for the Express-News, bringing historical analysis to current events. In his final column, published in August, he noted that he tried to remember two things: “The column that received the greatest response was about my cat, George, and the finest-crafted columns usually go out in the trash on Monday morning.”