Monday, April 27, 2009

Deep in the heart of Texas

There are some areas of the country I find particularly interesting. Most I can attribute to a personal connection (VA, NC, CA), because of what happens there (LA, NYC) or some combination (DC). Others are just so peculiar that they make for fascinating reading. These tend to be on the geographical fringe; places like Alaska, Maine and Texas. Bryan Burroughs (co-author of Barbarians at the Gate) tackles some of the key creators of the modern Texas in the Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.

This book is a fun, but serious, read. It covers four families, the Hunts, the Cullens, the Murchisons and the lonely Sid Richardson. None of these names were terribly familiar to me, although I had a vague sense that Hunt=money at some point. Through luck, smarts and willingness to take risks continually, they built independent Texas oil fortunes in the 20s and 30s. Through their extravagant living, they created the idea of the insanely rich Texas oil tycoon and the culture of conspicuous consumption that lives on in Texas. Some of them were at least partially responsible for the rise of the Radical Right in 40s and 50s, although others were behind the rise of the greatest liberal of the second half of the 20th century, LBJ.

The stories follow a familiar pattern, but they are no less enthralling for it. Young penniless man takes a number of risks (including bigamy in one case) and then hits the jackpot. Newly rich man throws around his weight, gets burned by it and then lives to see his family decline as the scions make huge mistakes or battle viciously amongst themselves. Burroughs keeps the narrative moving quickly and his sympathetic look at these peculiar characters and their strange histories makes for good reading. It isn't just these families that make an appearance. We see a number of lesser (financial) lights, including the Bush family, who have oil to thank for their success.

In the conclusion, Burroughs notes that the time of the oil man has passed and the new Texas is a more cosmopolitan place, that doesn't have much time for poorly educated big hat oil men. It would be interesting. The place where you might find them still is China. In cities like Shanghai, the culture of mass consumption and sudden wealth is taking off. It will be interesting to see how they try to impact the power structure as the Texans did.


Citizen Reader said...

Very interesting post, Tripp--and have you seen this?

Tee hee! Don't let Oklahoma hit you in the ass on the way out!

Tripp said...

Man that one must be popular because I can't seem to load it. Those secesh talkin fools are annoying though.

Citizen Reader said...

Oh, that's a bummer. I agree with the video, though--if they want to secede so badly, let them. "Sure, we'd miss parts of Austin, but for the most part..."

Tripp said...

And what about Amarillo, home of the 72 oz steak that is free if you eat all of it? That has to count for something CR.

Citizen Reader said...

Okay, parts of Austin and the steakhouse in Amarillo. Although, the production and consumption of 72 oz steaks can't be real good for methane levels in the atmosphere.

(And I love steak. But 72 ounces? God, just thinking about it makes me want to throw up.)

Tripp said...

Oh I was just teasing. That place scares me. A 72 oz cut can't be all that great.