A Question of Precision

by Philip Parotti

            Ruby was born in Tucoola.  Tucoola.  Potter got it wrong.  If you intend to read Potter, you need to know a few things.

            Potter has a big name; I don't deny it.  In some ways, he has about the biggest name of any professor in his university, but to my way of thinking, his work is uneven.  His book on J. Frank Dobie is excellent, quite the best thing I've ever read about Dobie, and it is certainly Potter's best work.  He wrote that book at the start of his career, went slow, and did it right.  His monographs on Katherine Anne Porter and Walter Prescott Webb are also very good, but twice in the Webb piece, he took intellectual leaps that the evidence wouldn't support, and Cynthia Tole took him soundly to task in the pages of Trinity Review.  I think his books on Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin are weak.  Potter is not a historian.  My guess has always been that both were the unfortunate residue of a career climb that he'd tried to make too fast.  The monograph he wrote about O. Henry showed marked improvement, but judging from the style, I'd guess that he wrote it at about the same time as he wrote the Dobie book and held it back as something that he could bring forward in the event that his stock declined.  And that's what he did.  After the Houston and Austin books, his reputation needed a boost, and the monograph gave it to him.  Had Potter rested on his laurels at that particular moment, he might have stayed ahead of the game, but unfortunately, he didn't.  Instead, he dashed off this new monograph on Ruby, and it is shot through with mistakes starting with that first sentence about Ruby's birth.  In fact, Ruby Nash Burks was born in Tucoola, not Waxahachie, and in the Nash Boarding House which was owned by her maternal grandmother.  She was not born in the Burks Hotel.

            And then Potter made things worse.  Not only did Ruby fail to be born in Waxahachie, she did not grow up in Waxahachie, she did not go to school in Waxahachie, and she did not marry in Waxahachie.  Potter rushed into print much too soon after Ruby died and didn't stop to check his facts.  Each of the people that he mentions in his opening paragraph—Filmore Yates, Marietta Bascomb, Sue Ann Lane, I. J. Tidwell—all four of them were born and raised in Tucoola, and three of them are buried there.  I've seen the graves.

            Calling Potter's work on Ruby shoddy scholarship is the kindest way I can put it.  Considering the immense salary Potter is drawing, readers had a right to expect more from him.  And when one stops to consider his disservice to Miss Ruby . . .  well, you can see for yourself why I'm annoyed.

            What happened, I think, is that Potter copied details—times, dates, names, and places—from a wildly inaccurate article in a long defunct Beaumont newspaper.  I have a copy of the clipping that I think he used, but because it was snipped from the center of an inside page, I didn't know the paper's name until it showed up in Potter's bibliography.  In late 1932, right after Ruby published Ezekiel Wade and the Devil, Pop and Ruby were living in Daisetta.  Pop was  roughnecking on a rig somewhere around Beaumont; Ruby was writing and substitute teaching in Diasetta, and when Ezekiel Wade suddenly became a best seller, and when Pasadena made the mistake of banning the book, the editor of that little newspaper must have sent out a reporter.  Whether the reporter was a rummy or a cub, a very young cub, is beside the point.  The eight column inches he produced were credulous, without being ironic, and hopelessly inaccurate.  And that is the article which says that Ruby was born, raised, educated, and married in Waxahachie.  How Potter got onto the column, I'm sure I don't know, but he faithfully reproduced all of its “facts” in his opening paragraph and never seems to have questioned them.

            Ruby, you will understand, had seen the newspaper article when it first came out, and she had done her best to make the paper rescind it.  By the time I knew her, she was able to laugh about it, and that's one of the things that makes Potter look so foolish.

            “Honey, I tried to get them to retract it,” Ruby would say, her green eyes flashing with amusement, “and they just up and went bankrupt.  Now you just watch.  When I'm dead and gone, some jackass is going to find that article, take it for truth, and claim that I was born in Waxahachie.  Why Honey, I'd never even driven through Waxahachie when that article came out.”

            No one that I know ever called Ruby prophetic, but in foreseeing Potter's error, she seems downright Promethian.  Still, given the newspaper article, Potter's unforgivable error is at least understandable, but how we are to understand the origins of his other mistakes and inaccuracies is anyone's guess.  Pop, for example, was born in Lake Jackson, not in Freeport, and when he married her, Ruby was sixteen, not eighteen as Potter contends.  And according to Ruby and based upon what I know of Pop's character—and remember, he was still alive when I came to teach here—Pop was anything but the “roughneck” that Potter has made him out to be.  In truth, Pop was a sweetheart and the unfailing foundation upon which Ruby built her career.  It was Pop who encouraged Ruby to finish high school, Pop who put her through four years of college, and Pop who urged her to write Ezekiel Wade and the Devil, not to mention three additional novels, seven stage plays, two movie scripts, and a raft of short stories.  Roughnecking may have been Pop's line of work, but it was never a description of his character.  Potter also says that Pop drank; he did . . .  coffee.  Pop didn't object to drinking, and Ruby used to go through a fifth of bourbon a week, particularly when she was writing—but Pop didn't drink.  He didn't like the taste of booze, not even beer.  Potter's contention that Pop was unreliable as a result of his drinking is nothing short of libel.  To hear Ruby tell it, she and Pop were on the road for twelve years, moving from boom town to boom town, following the rigs, and Pop never missed a paycheck.  And a part of that time came during the Depression.  If that's being unreliable, we might dine on sheep's wool.

            Now, if that isn't enough to discredit Potter's work on Ruby, consider what he said about their children.  Clyde was their first born, not Joe Don; Potter mixed the boys up.  And on the subject of Iola Fay, Potter is all but mute.  He gave Iola Fay one sentence: “On March 9, 1937, Pop and Ruby Burks formally adopted Iola Fay, age three years.”  I don't want to sound hypercritical, but when Potter published Ruby Nash Burks: Lone Star Achievement, we have to believe that he intended it pass for literary biography.  How, then, could he avoid developing Ruby's relationship with her daughter?  Iola Fay proved to be a hellcat from the start, and both Ruby and Pop deserved better.  Iola Fay ran away twice before I came here and at least once after I arrived, and each time, Pop went off and found her, but the last time, after she set fire to the house, the authorities stepped in and committed her to Rusk.  When she came out—and that must have been about 1963, she simply disappeared, and neither Pop nor Ruby ever heard from her again.  Hungry Hearts is not only the best of Ruby's plays, it is her darkest, and according to Pop, Ruby grounded every scene in it on real life incidents.  Ruby wrote that play in order to reexamine her relationship with Iola Fay, and for Potter to have overlooked it or to have consciously excluded it through some misguided sense of compassion is a shortcoming.

            That brings me to what some around here have been calling Potter's slight exaggerations about Ruby's relationship with Vida Lou.  Complete misrepresentation captures the fact with perfect clarity.  I knew them both and knew them well.  Potter's appreciation of that relationship is so wrongheaded as to be malicious.

            Ruby and Vida Lou were as different as day and night.  Ruby was small, even petite.  By the time I knew her, she was already in her fifties, but she continued to be a beautiful woman,  and wherever she passed, men turned to take a second look.  With copper hair that shone and large green eyes, she presented a striking combination, and she knew how to dress.  All told, she seemed a polar opposite to Vida Lou.

            Dr. Spruce, Vida Lou Spruce towered like a mountain and came equipped with plenty of thickly rouged fat and greasy black hair.  Her eyes peeped out like dots from the midst of a porcine face, but she had a voice as as shrill as an air raid siren and a tongue sharper than a razor, and in a committee fight, she could be deadly.  As I recall, she had degrees from Smith, Vanderbilt, and SMU, and according to her students she conducted Faulkner seminars that were remarkably brilliant.  She scared the hell out of her students, of course; she scared the hell out of me the first time I met her, but she had a soft spot for her friends, and Ruby headed her list.  The feeling was mutual.  They were the best of friends, and when Potter calls them the bitterest of enemies, he doesn't know what he is talking about.

            He took his impression, I believe, from what we in the department referred to as their “theatrical hissies.”  Frequently, the two of them indulged themselves in a form of word play that I can only think of as unique, utterly individual to the two of them, and not infrequently, they would do it in public, without warning, in order to entertain their friends or drive away strangers that one or the other found tiresome.  In doing so, they unnerved the uninitiated and left everyone within earshot either laughing or aghast.

            In October of 1964, for example, I drove Ruby, Vida Lou, and little miss Ellen Spires over to San Antonio for an American literature convention.  The conference headquarters happened to be located on the second floor of the old Gunter Hotel, and after Ruby, Miss Ellen, and I had signed in, we drifted to the book exhibits while we waited for Vida Lou to come down from her room.  At one point, I remember looking up in time to see a slickly dressed publisher's agent come out from behind his table and swing into action.  I think Ruby's hair had attracted him, and within a matter of seconds, I could see that he’d irritated her.  The man wasn't trying to interest her in a textbook; he wanted to make her a proposition.  Under normal circumstances, Ruby would have allowed him about a minute, put him in his place, and moved away, but in this instance, Vida Lou suddenly appeared, spotted Ruby under siege, smiled once to herself, and made a beeline for the display table, coming up behind Ruby's back.  Once there, Vida Lou sniffed the air, and then, using the most ostentatious West Texas accent she could dredge up from her Van Horn childhood, she cut loose.

            “My God!  Ah think Ah smell a Snopes!  Is that a Snopes Ah smell?  Honey, ain't you the daughta of Mink Snopes?”

            Ruby didn't even wait for her to finish.  “Is that a cat?” she hissed, touching the wrist of the woman standing next to her.  “Is that a cat I hear?”

            The woman, a timid and altogether maidenly professor from some religious college in Oklahoma, backed away in horror, and when she did, Ruby turned her back on the publisher's agent and looked Vida Lou right in the eye.

            “What you smell, my dear,” Ruby said acidly, “is that rat you have draped around your shoulders.  There can be no mink about it!”

            “No.  No Honey,” said Vida Lou in slow, patronizing tones, “Ah do smell a Snopes.  Ah really do.  Are you'all from East Texas by any chance?”

            With that, the little maiden lady turned and fled, and in the second that followed, one could have heard a pin drop.

            “What seems clear to me,” Ruby said in a voice suddenly become languid, “is that your family tree has no fork.”

            Amidst the onlookers, little gasps of disbelief punctuated the silence.

            “Your Mothah,” Vida Lou said smoothly, “must have have been the kind of woman that kept a spit cup on the edge of her ironing board.”

            “Sho now,” said Ruby, “I'll just bet your uncle is also your brother-in-law.”

            The publisher's agent swallowed hard.

            “East Texas hussy,” snapped Vida Lou, looking majestically down her nose.

            “Panhandle strumpet” said Ruby, flipping her hair defiantly.

            “Authoress!” each spat contemptuously.  And in the next second, feigning horrified shock and revulsion, each spun on her heel and strode from the room in opposite directions, leaving onlookers with their mouths hanging open.

            Duane Dexter, the Twain scholar from OSU, had the good sense to applaud, but everyone else, including one or two notables who should have seen through the joke, seemed to be taken in, and that was neither the first time nor the last when Ruby and Vida Lou staged one of their “theatrical presentations.”

            Potter, I would guess, either saw one of those performances and was taken in by it or heard reports of one or more similar exchanges and accepted them at face value.  I would have thought that the outrageous nature of the insults would have tipped him off or, at least, that he would have interviewed people who knew the pair well enough to have let him in on the truth.  In this instance, for example, not twenty minutes after this particular hissie fit, all four of us—Ruby, Vida Lou, Miss Ellen, and me—were seated in a booth at Shilo's drinking good German beer and eating knockwurst.

            “Vida, Honey, you were simply immense,” Ruby said, tears of laughter running from her eyes.  “Mink Snope's daughter, indeed!”

            “Ha,” said Vida Lou, jabbing her fork into a piece of sausage, “I just wish you could have seen his face, Honey.  What a fag!”

            “He did seem quite upset,” giggled Miss Ellen, tucking into her sauerkraut.

            The truth is that Ruby Nash Burks and Vida Lou Spruce were, for all of their differences, more like sisters than any two sisters I can remember knowing.  So  the whole nature of their relationship escaped Potter completely.

            What Potter did next, I think, involved looking around for something to explain what he believed to be their abject hatred for one another and then lighted upon the thing that would be most convenient for his thesis: their work.  He assumed the twin beasts of envy and arrogance with the clear result that he has done a lasting disservice to both women, as women and as writers.

            In my view, Vida Lou Spruce demonstrated the penetration of a sound scholar.  Her articles on Go Down, Moses and The Mansion are first rate.  Had she continued to write on Faulkner, I think her career might have been assured, but in 1969, she turned all of her attention to what we are now calling Texana and never looked back.  As a result, Texas arts and letters are richer by nine good books and a long list of articles.  Her two books on Sibley's Civil War campaign in New Mexico Territory are not only original and useful but particularly well written. To my thinking, however, West Texas Frontier is the best thing she ever wrote.  Vida Lou understood research, and while hers was not a creative talent, her style proved right for the work she completed.  “Ruby is the Texas artist,” Vida Lou used to say.  “Me?  Why I'm just a hack, Honey, but I sure have fun.”

            Potter was wrong: between Ruby Nash Burks and Vida Lou Spruce, one couldn't find an ounce of envy, professional jealousy, or arrogant puffery.  Ruby was Vida Lou's most avid reader, and as far as Ruby was concerned, Vida Lou had few peers.  “She isn't Dobie,” Ruby once wrote, “and she isn't Webb.  She is Vida Lou Spruce, and she's darn good.”  Ruby said that in one of the Dallas newspapers, and that, too, is an article missing from Potter's bibliography.  Ruby and Vida Lou were fast friends and thick until the day they died.  Jason Potter simply disregarded some very obvious facts there.

            Ruby's buried in Tucoola, of course.  After Pop died and after Ruby retired, she did move to Waxahachie in order to live near Clyde, but when she died, Clyde and Joe Don buried her in Tucoola beside Pop.  I know; I attended her funeral.  Whatever gave Potter the notion that she is buried in Waxahachie, I can't imagine.  So that is just one more mistake that is screaming to be set right.

            Understand, then, that when a doctoral candidate comes to me and asks me to direct his dissertation, I usually say “Fine; upon which major figure do you wish to write: Twain, Melville, James, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Eliot?”  But in your case, I'm willing to make an exception.  Ruby Nash Burks may be a second level American author, but a solid study of her work and her person would be of immense value to American literature and Texas letters.  With regard to the biographical portion of the work, simply find out the facts and let them speak for themselves.  I feel certain that at least three publishers will want to bring a good study into print, and when one does, you can sit back and wait for Potter to respond.  A good book on Ruby will make your career.

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