Philipp Meyer Explores Bloody Origin Of Texas In 'The Son'

Jul 7, 2013
Originally published on July 5, 2013 10:15 am

Phllipp Meyer‘s epic new novel “The Son“ details the blood-soaked evolution of Texas.

Spanning two hundred years, it tells the story, in often brutal detail, of the McCulloughs, who first settled in the state in the early 1800s.

Patriarch Eli McCullough is kidnapped by Comanches in a brutal attack, later, his sons fall upon their Mexican neighbors with equal ferocity.

As Meyer tells Here & Now, he was interested in exploring American creation myths, both the John Wayne, heroic settler myth and the “Dances with Wolves” noble savage myth. In order to do so, he did extensive research, reading hundreds of books as well as hunting both deer and buffalo with a bow and arrow.

Chapter One

Colonel Eli McCullough

Taken from a 1936 WPA Recording

It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it. I am not dying a Christian though my scalp is intact and if there is an eternal hunting ground, that is where I am headed. That or the river Styx. My opinion at this moment is my life has been far too short: the good I could do if given another year on my feet. Instead I am strapped to this bed, fouling myself like an infant.

Should the Creator see fit to give me strength I will make my way to the waters that run through the pasture. The Nueces River at its eastern bend. I have always preferred the Devil’s. In my dreams I have reached it three times and it is known that Alexander the Great, on his last night of mortal life, crawled from his palace and tried to slip into the Euphrates, knowing that if his body disappeared, his people would assume he had ascended to heaven as a god. His wife stopped him at the water’s edge. She dragged him home to die mortal. And people ask why I did not remarry.

Should my son appear, I would prefer not to suffer his smile of victory. Seed of my destruction. I know what he did and I suspect he has long graced the banks of the river Jordan, as Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanches, gave the boy scant chance to reach fifty. In return for this information I gave to Quanah and his warriors a young bull buffalo, a prime animal to be slain the old way with lances, on my pastures that had once been their hunting grounds. One of Quanah’s companions was a venerable Arapahoe chief and as we sat partaking of the bull’s warm liver in the ancient manner, dipped in the animal’s own bile, he gave me a silver band he had personally removed from the finger of George Armstrong Custer. The ring is marked “7th Cav.” It bears a deep scar from a lance, and, having no suitable heir, I will take it to the river with me.

Most will be familiar with the date of my birth. The Declaration of Independence that bore the Republic of Texas out of Mexican tyranny was ratified March 2, 1836, in a humble shack at the edge of the Brazos. Half the signatories were malarial; the other half had come to Texas to escape a hangman’s noose. I was the first male child of this new republic.

The Spanish had been in Texas hundreds of years but nothing had come of it. Since Columbus they had been conquering all the natives that stood in their way and while I have never met an Aztec, they must have been a pack of mincing choirboys. The Lipan Apaches stopped the old conquistadores in their tracks. Then came the Comanche. The earth had seen nothing like them since the Mongols; they drove the Apaches into the sea, destroyed the Spanish Army, turned Mexico into a slave market. I once saw Comanches herding villagers along the Pecos, hundreds at a time, no different from the way you’d drive cattle.

Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move west of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.


-  -  -  -  -


In 1832 my father arrived in Matagorda, common in those days if you viewed the risk of death by firing squad or a scalping by the Comanches as God’s way of telling you there were great rewards to be had. By then the Mexican government, nervous about the growing Anglo horde within its borders, had banned American immigration into Texas.

And still it was better than the Old States, where unless you were son of a plantation owner, there was nothing to be had but the gleanings. Let the records show that the better classes, the Austins and Houstons, were all content to remain citizens of Mexico so long as they could keep their land. Their descendants have waged wars of propaganda to clear their names and have them declared Founders of Texas. In truth it was only the men like my father, who had nothing, who pushed Texas into war.

Like every able-bodied Scotsman, he did his part in the rout at San Jacinto and after the war worked as a blacksmith, gunsmith, and surveyor. He was tall and easy to talk to. He had a straight back and hard hands and people felt safe around him, which proved, for most of them, to be an illusion.

-  -  -  -  -


My father was not religious and I attribute my heathen ways to him. Still, he was the sort of man who felt the breath of the pale rider close on his neck. He did not believe in time to waste. We first lived at Bastrop, raising corn, sorghum, and hogs, clearing land until the new settlers came in, those who waited until the Indian dangers had passed, then arrived with their lawyers to challenge the deeds and titles of those who had civilized the country and vanquished the red man. These first Texans had purchased their holdings with the original human currency and most could neither read nor write. By the age of ten I had dug four graves. The faintest sound of galloping hooves would wake the entire family, and by the time the news arrived—some neighbor cut up like a Thanksgiving shoat—my father had checked his loads and then he and the messenger would disappear into the night. The brave die young: that is the Comanche saying, but it was true of the first Anglos as well.

During the ten years Texas stood alone as a nation, the government was desperate for settlers, especially those with money. And through some invisible telegraph the message went back to the Old States—this area is safe now. In 1844 the first stranger arrived at our gate: a barbershop shingle, store-bought clothes, a lady-broke sorrel. He asked for grain as his horse would founder on grass. A horse that could not eat grass—I had never heard of such a thing.

Two months later, the Smithwicks’ title was challenged and then the Hornsbys and MacLeods were bought out at a pittance. By then there were more lawyers in Texas, per capita, than any other place on the continent and within a few years all the original settlers had lost their land and been driven west again, back into Indian country. The gentler classes who had stolen the land were already plotting a war to protect their blacks; the South would be cursed but Texas, a child of the West, would emerge unscathed.

In the meantime a campaign was launched against my mother, a Castilian of the old line, dark skinned but finely featured, it was claimed by the new settlers that she was octoroon. The plantation gentleman took pride in his eye for such things.

By 1846 we had moved past the line of settlement, to my father’s headright on the Pedernales. It was Comanche hunting grounds. The trees had never heard an ax, and the land and all the animals who lived upon it were fat and slick. Grass up to the chest, the soil deep and black in the bottoms, and even the steepest hillsides overrun with wildflowers. It was not the dry rocky place it is today.

Wild Spanish cattle were easily acquired with a rope—within a year we had a hundred head. Hogs and mustang horses were also for the taking. There were deer, turkey, bear, squirrel, the occasional buffalo, turtles and fish from the river, ducks, plums and mustang grapes, bee trees and persimmons—the country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today. The only problem was keeping your scalp attached.

Excerpted from “The Son,” by Philipp Meyer. Copyright (c) Ecco; First Edition edition (May 28, 2013).


  • Philipp Meyer, “The Son” author
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Well, we have been reminded this week, with the anniversary of Gettysburg and the Fourth of July, that the country's roots are soaked in blood. And now a gripping new summer read looks at the blood-soaked evolution of one state. "The Son," S-O-N, tells the story of Texas over 200 years through seven generations of the McCullough family.

Eli, the patriarch, lives to see his family become cattle barons, then oil magnates. But his memories go back to the 1800s, when as a 13-year-old, his frontier family was attacked by Comanches.

PHILIPP MEYER: (Reading) It was said in the newspapers that mothers in the frontier saved their last bullets for their own children so their children would not be taken by the heathens, but you did not hear of anyone actually doing it. In fact, it was the opposite. We all knew I was of prime age. The Indians would want me alive.

My brother and sister might have been slightly old, but my sister was pretty and my brother looked younger than he really was. My mother, on the other hand, was nearly 40. She knew exactly what they would do to her. The door flung open, and two men tackled her. A third man stood behind them in the doorway, squinting into the darkness of the house.

YOUNG: What follows is horrific, Eli kidnapped by the Comanches after watching his family be raped and killed. It's John Ford's "The Searchers" but with excruciating detail. And then, decades later, Eli and his sons attack a Mexican neighbor with almost equal ferocity. "The Son" is being called the new great American novel, and Philipp Meyer joins us in the studio with more. Welcome, and what a read.

MEYER: Thanks, Robin.

YOUNG: You know, I mentioned "The Searchers." That film, which also had a brutal Indian attack and a kidnapping, it left a lot to the imagination. You don't. You go into detail of this torture. Why did you choose that?

MEYER: I think it's quite important for us as Americans to understand the kind of legacy of violence that we come from. This is not to glorify it, and it's not to hold it up as something that we should continue. I think the frontier was basically a combat zone. This is something that even in a movie like "The Searchers" is seen as coming as a surprise to settlers. You know, the Native Americans ride out, you know, of the darkness and attack the good white family. This is the mythology that we grow up on.

The fact is, all those families knew they were moving into the equivalent of, you know, sort of the worst neighborhood in the world. They were moving to a place in which they knew they were taking the land of other people, even if they didn't think of those other people as being fully human. They knew that they were moving to a place where they were going to maybe kill and maybe have to fight for their lives.

YOUNG: It's violence that keeps circling and circling. The Comanches are as vicious as they are because, as some of them explain to Eli when he is taken captive and becomes one of them, this torture was done to me, and this was done to my family. And then he later reproduces it with his family against Mexicans, and it just keeps cycling.

MEYER: Absolutely. And, you know, the Native Americans were fighting for their existence, tribe by tribe, band by band. As we moved west, they were driven further west or killed. And it's important to point out this is not something that's not unique to North America. This is something that, you know, torture and this ritualized violence, you know, this is the Spanish Inquisition. This is much of World War I and II. This is Pol Pot in Cambodia. I mean, this is something that repeats itself throughout history.

YOUNG: And as you read today this book of history in Texas, you're thinking of Syria and Sunni-Shia and Rwanda. I mean, it really goes right to there. But we mentioned Eli. We meet him in the 1800s, and then later in the book he becomes this cantankerous elder patriarch. And we meet other people, his granddaughter, his son. What do each of those represent?

MEYER: The book follows about seven generations of this one family, but we really focus on three characters. Eli is the first. The second is his son Peter, who is in many ways the polar opposite. He has a very strict moral compass, which Eli does not. He's very passive. And the third character is Jean Ann McCullough, who is the great-granddaughter of Eli. And of all these seven generations, she's the one who's most like him. She becomes the matriarch of the family. She saves the family from bankruptcy and then kind of takes the family into the modern age and becomes a sort of oil baron.

YOUNG: Where did this story come from?

MEYER: I was interested in exploring our American creation myths - on the one had this sort of John Wayne idea that we as Anglos came to this unpopulated wilderness and, you know, if we're poor, it didn't matter where we came from. You could move west, settle land, work hard and make a new name for yourself.

The competing mythology is sort of best summed up in, say, the movie "Dances with Wolves." In the John Wayne mythology, it's the white folks who are good and the Indians who are bad. In the sort of "Dances with Wolves" mythology, the sort of counter-mythology, it's the Indians or the Native Americans who are good and noble and basically peaceful and the white folks that are bad. And the truth is people are basically just people.

One side certainly did lose. I mean, one side lost everything. But that's not to say that in terms of the - when you apply sort of philosophical or moral calculus they actually came out looking better.

YOUNG: Yeah, the New York Times references Kevin Costner in their glowing review of the book, and they say if he'd played Eli McCullough, he would have been shown going fully native and learning a heartwarming life lesson about aboriginal values that would have stayed with him during his dreary years back among his own race.

But instead, he becomes - they don't say this, I do - that he becomes like a little creep...


YOUNG: You know, who decides that all that matters is, if I want something, I take it. The person I'm taking it from took it from someone else, and someone's going to take it from me someday. The Texas the McCulloughs make - or more accurately steal - is one where theft is whitewashed into ownership.

MEYER: Absolutely. And in some way, if we're honest, this is actually the history of the settlement of North American since Europeans arrived. There was not a single inch of North America that was unclaimed when we landed here. This is not to say that many of the North American tribes were not doing the same thing to each other.

I think when cultures and societies gain power, they tend to get acquisitive. When you look at the history of Texas, you have the Apache coming in. By 1650, they've wiped out almost all the other Native American tribes in Texas. A hundred years later, the Comanche have come in and wiped out the Apache and done the same thing to them. And then the Anglos come in and take the land from the Comanche. Hopefully, we've lost the violence.

YOUNG: Philipp Meyer, speaking about his sweeping new novel set in Texas, "The Son." He's being praised for the accurate details of Indian and frontier life. Let's take a break, and when we come back we want to ask about the research for the book.


YOUNG: It's Here and Now, and we're speaking with Philipp Meyer. His new novel "The Son" follows seven generations of Texans as they settle the frontier, fight and live with Indians and Mexicans. They were the brutal bandit wars in the early 1900s, Mexican rebels vowing to wipe out the Anglos along the border, rustling cattle as they came and went.

In Philipp's novel, the McCullough family retaliates against peaceful Mexicans in response. The family eventually replaces cattle with oil fields. The book was born when Philipp asked, why do oil barons swagger like cowboys. And he was pulled back into their past - and literally pulled into it. Philipp, talk about how you came to the details of Indian life and language. How do you know Indians used the F-word?

MEYER: The problem with looking at printed word and looking at literature as guidance for how people spoke in the old days are the obscenity laws, you know, that sort of went away in the '30s and in the '60s. We do know that the Comanche, and people on the frontier, and sailors made fairly vulgar jokes. The problem is you weren't - you literally were not allowed to print those things until really the 1960s.

So having Comanches and settlers curse was my best guess at the way people actually spoke in those days. In terms of getting into the skin of the character, I mean, Eudora Welty famously said that, you know, your job is to actually physically inhabit a person, whether they're a saint or a mass murderer. Your job is to get inside their mind, to get inside their skin and become that person. And that's what you do, you know, when you're writing.

YOUNG: Well, you did. Do I understand you got a crossbow, you went hunting?

MEYER: I got, yeah, a regular bow, and I killed a couple deer with a bow and arrow and skinned them and ate all the meat and butchered them. And I went to a buffalo ranch and killed a few buffalo. You know, these buffalo were headed for Whole Foods, essentially. And...

YOUNG: Wait a minute. Had you ever done this before? Was this a part of your trying to get inside these characters?

MEYER: No absolutely. I'd sort of done it a few times but never with the seriousness - I'd never done - not to this level. And I took a class on animal tracking, learned how to identify native plants, went around eating the sort of native plants of Texas and learned how to start a fire with - you know, two sticks, basically, or three sticks, which was very, very hard. It took me a week. I did it once and then realized it would take me a year to master it.

YOUNG: What do you think it gave you?

MEYER: It gave me the confidence to write about this stuff. And I probably read 350 books, but...

YOUNG: Wait, stop there. What were some of the books?

MEYER: Well, Frederick Law Olmsted, for instance, has an amazing book. In 1855, he rides a horse across Texas with some friends. He published a very long book about this, this is before he designed Central Park.

YOUNG: And places here in Boston.

MEYER: Yeah, absolutely. It gave me a sense of what the landscape looked like. Texas has dried up completely in about 100, 120 years, as a result of intense cattle ranching and irrigation. Texas in 1850 was basically a short-grass and tall-grass prairie.

YOUNG: Yeah, so you had to know that in a scene where your Comanche were going from one place to another, you'd only see the upper half of them.

MEYER: Yeah, absolutely. And so, you know, I slept outside and walked and hunted pretty much every place in Texas that the book takes place. And, you know, if I saw a plant I didn't know I'd take a picture and look it up, and how is the light falling in this place. But after taking those notes, I had to sort of figure out what is the time period that the characters are coming through here. Are we talking 1850? Because it'll look like this. 1900, it looks a different way. 1950, it looks much more like the way it looks now.

So the whole time I'm sort of taking these notes, I had to be very careful at applying the correct historical lens.

YOUNG: Quite something. And the language, what does the word "dauncy" mean? It comes up...

MEYER: Sad or crying. Yes, there's a book of 1850s slang, Bartlett's "Book of American Slang," which, you know, is out of copyright now. So I got this, printed it out, and at night I would study about slang from that time. And it says this is from the West. This is from St. Louis. This is from California. So those are all real words. I didn't actually invent them, but yeah.

YOUNG: I keep coming back to the detail about, you know, starvation or what it's like to be riding naked for hours when you're a captive. Oh yes, you're going to be covered with sores. Or what it's like to be burned at the stake. Somebody spread out on the ground, and fires were made by his hands and his feet, and slowly the fires were increased. I mean, just what somebody looks like when they're blown apart by a gun. You don't spare us.

But I'm thinking you're living with that, too. How did you live with that?

MEYER: It was fairly unpleasant, and those were all taken from real life. And it certainly takes a mental toll. When I'm writing those kinds of scenes, I just have to be alone. I mean, I actually turn the lights off, or I'll sit under my desk and write. It's almost like being an actor. I think you have to physically prepare yourself to write the part.

YOUNG: What are you hearing from people in Texas?

MEYER: People seem to like the book. I had one lady who is from an old family. She came to a reading. And she said, oh, you've gotten all the details right. We had a sort of brief disagreement about the context for what was called the bandit wars. This is the middle of the Mexican Revolution. Mexico was incredibly unstable. It was basically split into three parts.

And that violence bled across the border quite a lot. And there was a good amount of cattle rustling going on. People would come across the river, take cattle and head back south. And there were quite a high number of sort of targeted killings and random killings also on both sides, but the toll on Mexican-Americans was much higher, you know, by a factor of maybe 100.

This lady, who was quite sweet, said, you know, my great-grandfather was ambushed by Mexican bandits numerous times and was nearly killed, was in many gunfights. And so for her, the emotional truth of her family members being in grave danger was much more important than the sort of historical body count on both sides, which is quite lopsided.

There were Anglos killed, but there were many, many more Mexican-Americans killed. And this is something that Texans prefer to forget.

YOUNG: But she also said to you that hey, you got it pretty much right.

MEYER: Exactly, yeah, yeah.

YOUNG: You know, what I'd love as we leave, there's another section that maybe you could read for us. This is where Jean, who is the granddaughter of Eli, who starts us off, he's captured by Indians and then returns to the white world. And now Jean is an old woman. And she's reflecting on JFK's assassination. Would you read that for us?

MEYER: (Reading) As for JFK, it had not surprised her. The year he died, there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians. The land was thirsty, something primitive still in it. On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom, and while Jesus was walking to Calvary, the Mogollon people were bashing each other with stone axes.

(Reading) When the Spanish came, there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudos. But whether they had wiped out the Mogollons or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apaches, who in turn were wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanches, who were finally wiped out by the Americans.

(Reading) A man, a life, it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans and had themselves been destroyed by the Muslims, who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.

YOUNG: Author Philipp Meyer, reading from his new book "The Son: A Novel." Thank you so much.

MEYER: Thanks, Robin.

YOUNG: And Jeremy, I really mean it, a terrific read. I can't recommend it enough. And I would love to hear from our listeners in Texas, if they're in the middle of it. What do they think? Let us know.


And they should stay tuned because in a little bit we're going to be talking Texas again. I'm going to be speaking with an aficionado of barbecue about the best barbecue in Texas.

YOUNG: Uh oh, it's going to be a throwdown, I can tell. So we'll have that, as well. Latest news is next, though, Here and Now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.