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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Alex Sweet and His Siftings

by Clay Coppedge
Clay Coppedge columns & bio
In terms of popularity and a reputation for being a real Texas wise guy, Alex Sweet could be called the Kinky Friedman of his day. Sweet’s day was roughly the last half of the 19th Century, a time when Texas was by all accounts wild and wooly. To Sweet, it was also funny.

Maybe if he had lived and worked from New York instead of Texas he would be alluded to today in the same paragraph as Ring Lardner, James Thurber or even Mark Twain. As it is, Sweet is usually a footnote in the annals of Texas literature. He is scarcely mentioned at all in the wider context of American literature or humor.

That is the wider world’s loss because Alex Sweet, while acutely aware that Texas had a reputation to live up to, described the “typical” Texan, a blue norther, the vexations of a red ant sting, the high comedy of stagecoach robberies and the “official” accounts of Indian battles in ways that maintained the legend while at the same time turning it upside down and shaking it.

Alexander Edwin Sweet was born in 1840 and grew up in San Antonio. He more or less drifted journalism, starting out at the San Antonio Express in 1869 and moving on to Galveston. He turned out sardonic musings on events of the day, which included everything from ongoing squabbles with Mexico to picnics and church socials.

Sweet moved to Austin in 1881 and with partner John Amory Knox began publishing an eight-page weekly humor magazine called Texas Siftings. The magazine’s success was quick and enduring, quickly reaching a circulation of more than 50,000 and expanding to three times that number by the late 1880s. The New York Post hailed Sweet as “second to no living writer in freshness, originality, sparkling wit and refined humor.”

That Sweet’s work endures at all can be largely attributed to Virginia Eisenhour, who edited the best of Sweet’s work and compiled it in the 1986 University of Texas Press book Alex Sweet’s Texas: The Lighter Side of Lone Star History. The collection contains 63 of Sweet’s “siftings” which tell us, if nothing else, that early day Texas was not always so grim as we might imagine. Newspapers of the day carried “personal” ads, as they do today, and Sweet parodied what he saw with his own list of eligible bachelors, including Col. Horace B. Yammer who is “very regular in his habits – he is always drunk before 10 o’clock in the morning.”

Like the best humorists, Sweet was observant and quick to pounce when official accounts of the days’ news didn’t add up. He noticed that one group of Mescalero Apaches seemed to be getting themselves killed and captured over and over again, which fascinated him. This luckless band of Mescaleros was part of a group of 81 captured by a Colonel Ortiz, whose soldiers’ killed five Mescaleros who tried to escape. Like a bad groundhog day, the Mescaleros, according to news accounts out of Mexico, seemed to wake up every day to a new round of capture and murder.

“By the time the Indians reach the City of Mexico they (the Mexicans) will have taken prisoner, if this bad luck is kept up, 879,483, 214, 812 Mescaleros out of the 81 that started out.

“If the five Indians that have been killed four times in traveling 50 miles continue to resist arrest they will have to leave a graveyard, for there will have fallen in the conflict 1,897, 658 Indians out of the original five who were shot by Col. Ortiz only two months ago. This is a dreadful mortality.”

In a piece titled “That Typical Texan,” written in the 1870s, he notes that people in the North had in their minds a fixed image of the typical Texan.

“The typical Texan is a large-sized Jabberwock, a hairy kind of gorilla, who is supposed to reside on a horse…He is expected to carry four of five revolvers on his belt, as if he were a sort of perambulating gunrack…The only time the typical Texan is supposed to be peaceable is after he has killed all his friends, and can find no fresh materials to practice on.”

At the same time, Sweet pointed out that stage coach robberies in West Texas had become so common that passengers “complained to the stage companies if they came through unmolested.”

Sweet’s point was that many of the robberies would not have occurred if even one of the passengers were a typical Texan. He wrote: “The typical Texan acted more in accordance with the New Testament, where it requires the plundered party, who has been robbed of his coat, to pull off his pants, and tender them to the needy highwayman.”

If you ever find yourself strolling the campus of Incarnate Word College in San Antonio or visiting Brackenridge Park, you’re walking the same ground that Sweet did when he was a boy. His father, James R. Sweet, bought 24-acres of prime real estate in present day Alamo Heights in 1852.

The property contained the springs that fed the San Antonio River and supplied the city with drinking water. The springs, which don’t flow anymore except during heavy and prolonged rains, are located in Brackenridge Park. James Sweet sold the land to Isabella H. Brackenridge, mother of George W. Brackenridge, in 1869. Much of rest of the old Sweet Estate is now part of the Incarnate Word Campus.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 26, 2009 Column

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