According to family records, ten of Great-Grandma’s
twelve sons died in the Civil War.
Thus it was that Allie Johnson Puett, the girl who became my Grandma Evetts, learned the lessons of self reliance, the duty of the defiance of illegitimate authority, the comforts of firearms, and the necessity of knowing how to shoot—wherein her ability was always a matter of proper pride to my
mother, her oldest daughter.
—J. Evetts Haley, Rough Times—Tough Fiber
The Haleys made it out to West Texas after a while, the products of Virginia and Tennessee mostly, with names that bespoke people of the border culture of what the Romans called Albion. As they migrated into what became the United States, they inhabited the uplands from Pennsylvania down to Georgia and eventually wandered, a part of them becoming the pioneers of cattle country. They were the products of a culture partly Irish, partly English and Scots and Welsh, that had experienced a thousand years of violence. They were perfectly suited not only for self-reliance, the “defiance of illegitimate authority,” and the “comforts of firearms,” but for the Permian and Midland Basins.
“At its best it is a hard and severe country,” writes J. Evetts Haley.
At its worst it is devastating; ruthless in the certain and terrible extractions of its elemental forces! It is angry and violent in its generous resort to dessicating wind and sun, to the depressing effects of drouth and dust, and to the flailing scourges of scarifying sand and choking snow that ride hard upon its reckless winds.
The family, the culture, and the land help to explain the force of nature who was James Evetts Haley—cowman, historian, republican, fearless opponent of cant and nonsense, brave defender of what was decent and beautiful, stern opponent of corruption. A Cato the Elder, living bravely out of his time.
I met him once, in Midland, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters by Hillsdale College, at the urging of Evetts’ friends (and mine) A. Hardcastle and Bill Eberhart. A. has a daughter named Haley, Bill Eberhart is her husband, and both were my students. It was a remarkable event, attended mostly by cowmen and oilmen of Southern persuasion, and hosted by a Yankee college that had put more men, proportionally, on the fields of the War Between the States than any other. One of the featured speakers at the event was Prof. M.E. Bradford, the noted agrarian and literary critic, and a great admirer of J. Evetts Haley. Mel called Evetts’ biography of Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman (1936), “magisterial” and “Plutarchian.” Much of it was later “borrowed” by Larry McMurtry for Lonesome Dove, but the history is better than the fiction. I didn’t know at the time, but learned fairly recently, that Elmer Kelton drew much inspiration for his novels from work at the Haley Library in Midland, founded by Evetts and named after his first wife, Nita. Kelton’s novel The Time It Never Rained is one of the greatest of American novels, and I cannot read it without seeing at least something of Evetts in its main character.
Why would Texas cowmen and Michigan teachers hit it off? We did, and I felt a meeting of hard-nosed principle develop between Evetts and me within minutes. It was because we were historians, dedicated to telling the stories that must be told if our Texas or our Michigan were to have anything to hang on to in this world of progressive fairy tales. Evetts took me to his file cabinets, and showed me the thousands of three-by-five cards he had written out with a fine hand, interviews and anecdotes from cowboys who would not talk to anybody but another cowboy. I sat and read them; they were very similar to the cards I had at home from archives in courthouses and on the streets of small towns in the greater New England Midwest. History is story, and story is narrative, and although there are great trends and big movements in the story of human beings, most of it is understandable only when we truly get Grandma Evetts, or several members of my own family, who tower over any political person in my lifetime.
Evetts wrote a whimsical little thing that he called Painting and Prejudice, and sent it to me with this inscription: “John, it occurred to me that you might enjoy reading this broadside of mine [which I delivered] to a critical group, and on a subject I know nothing about . . . and escaped with a whole hide.” He said, essentially, that prejudice is a better guide than reason when it comes to eating and art, and that Augustine, Shakespeare, Burke, and Chesterton are better classmates than the idiots who take Picasso into their terribly empty homes. He followed a French peasant into the caves of France and was moved almost beyond his powerful ability to describe the spiritual impact of “bison and deer, great longhorned cattle, and many neat little horses,” all painted with “the precious word—fidelity.”
Evetts does not get a mention in George Nash’s great book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. It’s mostly about free marketers, anticommunists, and traditionalists, with neoconservatives tacked on to the end of a complicated and thrilling and sometimes sad story. Haley was several of the above, but was also, at one time or another, a segregationist (his father, he admits, was from time to time a “Night Rider”) and a member of the John Birch Society. Many conservatives, by the early 1960’s, felt that the winds of change required them to get right with race and to oppose “extreme” anticommunism. When National Review excommunicated the Birchers, many “hopeless” reactionaries “loath to equate mechanical ease with progress,” like Haley, had to go with them; just as, eventually, would Mel Bradford, Joe Sobran, and Sam Francis.
Just as Evetts was being written off, he was writing what may have been the most widely read book of the century, A Texan Looks at Lyndon (1964). “This book was conceived, researched, and published,” Evetts insisted, “as a sound historical study, not as a campaign document.” He financed the whole thing, typically for him, to keep his independence and to take all the blame—or, if there was any, the praise as well. Its message was simple: Lyndon Johnson was the most corrupt man ever to seek to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One Texan from the hard country in the west called out another from the almost equally severe Hill Country; one who had made his way riding and roping and branding and writing, the other who had never had a job outside politics and who had parlayed the Johnson Treatment into millions of dollars. Evetts held press conferences and challenged anybody and everybody to refute or sue on any of his charges. Nothing came forth; as many as six million of the books circulated, and the Johnson White House simply ignored him, with the full complicity of the mainstream press.
After 1964, only his “Fragmentary Family Chronicle,” Rough Times—Tough Fiber (1976), met the standards of his Charles Goodnight and Jeff Milton: A Good Man With a Gun (1948). Rough Times reminds me of Andrew Nelson Lytle’s A Wake for the Living, written to “tell my daughters who they are.” Just as the wonderfully eccentric western New Yorker Bill Kauffman finds republican virtue in Elmer Kelton, so I found it in Evetts Haley and the friends with whom he surrounded himself. He said of his mother,
[S]he held our self-important, pious main street progressives in contempt, and paid no court or deference to the public officials she helped elect to office. The manner in which she would un-starch a stuffy official who got in her way was an object lesson in the fundamentals of freedom, and she never quit fighting one in office she did not like until retirement or death and the devil took him.
Of his brother John he wrote,
Straight as a die in all his thinking, he looked on all government subsidies and other socialistic policies as a form of theft, more loathsome and despicable than the thieves who stole our cattle, and was as dangerous as a rattlesnake for any and all who crossed his path or questioned the probity of his word and purposes.
These are men and women determined to conserve what is theirs, to fight honorably for it, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with friends who are willing to do the same.
The comparison with Cato the Elder comes to me in part because Evetts was willing to assume the role of censor, a Roman office that only fierce New Englanders and Southerners and pioneers have been able to accept. Censors “had the power to take away a horse,” says Plutarch, “or expel out of the senate anyone who lived intemperately and out of order.” Tolerance of individuality was one thing, but no Roman republican had the right to live “according to one’s appetite or fancy, without being examined or inquired into.” At the same time, one had to defend the republic, right to the maxim that Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam: “Methinks Carthage had ought utterly to be destroyed.” And again, it was the responsibility of a good man to educate his children (“Cato formed and fashioned his son to virtue”), honor the gods, treat his servants with firm respect, write treatises on agriculture and law, and marry well, so that the constitution would be left in good hands. Like Evetts, the elder Cato would have had “all philosophers cleared out of the city,” so that Romans could be left obedient to their heritage and not be “certainly destroyed when they began once to be infected with Greek literature.”
Instead, Evetts wanted to pass along the mythos that would make men and women strong and pious. When I met him he was 88, born a few years before my father and mother, and had been kicked hard by one of his friendly horses just a few days before. He was limping as he took me to lunch—big, thick steaks (he wrote, “I have never yet, as we wearily jogged toward camp, heard a ravenous cowboy say he would give a month’s wages for a dish of spinach”) and cold beer. I asked him how he turned out acceptable literature when most of his time was spent on horseback. (I had asked Russell Kirk a similar question years earlier, and Russell said, “It’s the smell of the lamp.” He had no productive land, no investments, little outside income, so he worked far into the night on his electric typewriter.) Evetts said a remarkable thing, that he was blessed with a prodigious memory, and could compose whole chapters of his books in his mind while driving from one ranch property to another, or sitting on a horse while trail dust filled his eyes and lungs. Cato could apparently do the same thing while working beside his slaves in the fields or marching along with his soldiers in Spain.
A hard life makes a hard man, and there is no use in sentimentalizing J. Evetts Haley. Like his father, and like Charlie Flagg in Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained, the only things he was afraid of were “drouth” and bankruptcy. His legacy is his land and his family and his literature, where South meets West. The last evening I spent with him and his good friend Clem Barnes, Evetts let out the most eloquent string of invectives I have ever heard, about the state of American literature, music, movies, politics, family life, and what all. Clem said, “Dammit, Evetts, if you only made yourself clear, I’d know where to stand on your opinions.”