Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who retired to Fort Davis, Texas, with his wife after twenty years as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He received a BA in history and government from Texas Christian University in 1961 and did graduate work at New York University before returning to Texas to enter the museum field. He served as curator and director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Winedale Historical Center from 1970 to 1977; as curator of history at the Dallas Historical Society from 1977 to 1979; and as curator and deputy director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe from 1980 to 1984. He writes a weekly column about Texas called “The Rambling Boy” for the Big Bend Sentinel.
5.27.2018 Big Bend’s “Rambling Boy” Lonn Taylor answers questions about Texas and his long literary career for the perplexed (and the merely curious)
Taylor is a familiar figure in the Big Bend region and the author of an eclectic array of books, including Texas People, Texas Places; Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy; The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, and a two-volume survey of Texas furniture. Taylor, who retired to Fort Davis after nearly twenty years in Washington, D.C., knows firsthand about Marfa’s transformation from isolated West Texas town to international art and hipster haven. Lone Star Lit interviewed him via email for this week’s segment.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: So, Lonn, start by telling us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up, and how would you describe that experience?
LONN TAYLOR: My father was a highway engineer for the Federal government, so I was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is where he was stationed in 1940. If I had been born in Texas I would be a fifth-generation Texan. I grew up in the Philippine Islands, which is where Dad took us in 1946, and I finished high school and went to college in Fort Worth, which I consider my hometown, as my grandparents moved there in 1904. I was an only child and had a happy and secure childhood surrounded by books.
Did you always want to be a writer? What was your first big break as a writer?
I knew that I wanted to be a writer from grade school on, because writing always came easily for me, but I was a late starter in getting published. I fooled around in Austin for nearly ten years after graduating from college, writing speeches for politicians and sending articles to the Texas Observer and the Village Voice, but I could not concentrate long enough to get a book done. My first big break came in 1970, when I applied for a job as curator of the Winedale Historical Center in Round Top, Texas, and Miss Ima Hogg told me that part of the job was to write a book about nineteenth-century Texas furniture. I wrote the book with David Warren, who was the curator of Miss Hogg’s Bayou Bend Collection, and it was published by the University of Texas Press in 1975.
Your newest book is Marfa for the Perplexed. Where does the title come from?
I stole the title for Marfa for the Perplexed from Moses Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher who wrote a book called A Guide for the Perplexed. It seemed appropriate because of the number of perplexed people one sees on Highland Avenue every day. They came to Marfa because they read about it in the New York Times, and now that they are there they can’t figure out what the town is all about.
How long have you lived in the Fort Davis/Big Bend/Marfa area, and what brought you there?
My wife, Dedie, and I moved to Fort Davis in 2002 when we retired from our respective jobs in Washington, D.C. We were attracted by the volcanic landscape, the spaciousness, and the fact that it will never be congested in our lifetimes.
Your book features sixty essays with perspectives on Marfa. What was the impetus for the book, and how did it all come together?
The essays in my book had their beginnings in the “Rambling Boy” column that I have been writing for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and reading on KRTS Marfa Public Radio. The impetus for the book was a conversation that I had with Tim Johnson, owner of the Marfa Book Company, which is both a retail book store and a small press, a couple of years ago. I asked Tim what tourists asked for when they came into the store and he said, “A small book about Marfa, and unfortunately there isn’t one.” We looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Let’s do one.” We recruited Alpine artist Avram Dumitrescu, whose work we both admired, to illustrate each chapter, and Sterry Butcher, a Marfa resident who contributes regularly to Texas Monthly, agreed to write the foreword, and we were home free.
What insights did you gain from the essays about Marfa that you didn't know until this process started?
I did not realize how deep the scars left by a century of segregation and suspicion between Anglo and Hispanic residents were, or how hard younger members of both groups are working to heal them.
How has Marfa changed since you moved there?
Tourism has intensified enormously in Marfa over the past fifteen years. Last year 40,000 visitors toured the Chinati Foundation alone. What has not changed is the attitude of the permanent residents toward the tourists: they regard them with amused tolerance and endure them with the same stoicism that has enabled them to survive droughts, floods, and prairie fires for the past hundred and thirty years.
What’s the best thing about living in the Big Bend area today?
The best thing about living here is the people. They are polite and friendly, and they were raised to think that it is part of their job in life to make other people feel good. There is an old-fashioned civility about them that you do not find in Dallas or Houston and certainly not in Washington or New York. The next best thing is the landscape. You can see forever, and at night you can see the Milky Way.
What’s your next book project in the works?
I have a book on Texas books and writers called Turning the Pages of Texas that will be published by Texas Christian University Press next year, and then I want to finish a memoir about my childhood in the Philippines that I have been working on intermittently for fifteen years. I have to get it finished while I can still remember anything.
What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
I am currently re-reading, for the third time in thirty years, the final volumes of Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, which I think is the best English novel of the twentieth century. I am also reading Larry Wright’s God Save Texas, and just under that is Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica, recommended by my friend Robert Wells, a ninety-year old Englishman who claims to have been the youngest officer in the Indian Army when India became independent.
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About Lonn Taylor's Marfa for the Perplexed
Marfa for the Perplexed by Lonn Taylor, is a collection of 60 essays about people and places in and around Marfa, Texas. Due to the work there of the minimalist artist Donald Judd between 1972 and his death in 1994, Marfa (population 2,000), located 200 miles from the nearest commercial airport in Texas’s isolated Big Bend region, has become an international art center and, more recently, a hip tourist destination. Marfa for the Perplexed reveals that Marfa and the surrounding country has always been a place of refuge for eccentrics and individualists, many of whom you will meet in the book’s pages. It exposes the rich mix of cultures that underlies the current Marfa art scene — the real Marfa beyond the buzz.
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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.