|Special Collections Division
the University of Texas
at Arlington Libraries
Vol. XV I* No. 2 * Fall 2002
A. C. Green, 1987
I met A.C. Greene under rather strange circumstances in the fall of 1996. That year, as a rather naive graduate research assistant at the University of Texas at Arlington, where A.C. had deposited a large quantity of his personal papers, I was assigned the task of processing his papers for the University Libraryís Special Collections Division. I felt overwhelmed upon opening the door to a room where some 60 sizeable boxes of Greene material were housed. It was my duty to go through every box, read every piece of printed material, and determine the value of each artifact (including a mailbox as well as a box filled entirely with stones, bricks, and various types of nails)óin other words, I was supposed to bring order to what seemed chaos.
So for several months A.C. Greene was a mass of information that I had to decipher, that I had to understand and, if possible, reduce to the words of an archival finding aid. This was no easy task. This was a man whose very birth seemed filled with symbolic meaning. According to a Greene family tradition, when A.C. was born in Abilene in 1923, his body was so battered and blue that doctors assumed he could not live. The baby was "dumped on a stack of old newspapers." This was, of course, divine foreshadowing. A.C. would spend his life in words, as a journalist and writer. From the very beginning, A.C. was surrounded not only in words, but also in the activities and life that newspapers report.
In his book A Personal Country (1969) he speaks of himself as he narrates a grand tour of West Texas. He writes,
I am a product of the place in ways obvious and ways intricate. It has stuck to me a great deal more than just by adding a nasal drawl to everything I speak and causing my tongue to say "piller" for "pillow," or "git" for "get." It has entered my values and judgments, given me many of my moral standards, and shaped (maybe warped) my ambitions.
A.C. became more than just a reporter. He was also more than a historian. Whether as a child investigating parts of the Butterfield Trail on family outings, or as an adult living through a heart transplant, A.C. Greeneís historical narrative was personal. He wrote history, not about himself, but about the places, people, and things he personally experienced.
I worked in that room for four months, slowly discovering A.C. within his works and artifacts, before I actually met the flesh and blood man. Submerged in those treasures, I came to know his mind and his spirit. He constantly transported me into his past through intimate personal descriptions. One account from A Personal Country demonstrates his ability to combine an account of the past with his own experience. He writes,
The main bridge over the Brazos . . . was located at the forgotten town of Brazos. It was a swinging bridge, a frightful span swung from cables about three inches thick, suspended between two pairs of towers and reaching across an impressive width of river. . . . My grandmother refused to ride in a car across this devil, as she called it. She walked over, and did that only after the bridge was cleared of vehicles. As it was a rather long bridge, walking created its own traffic problem. Later, years later, a massive steel and concrete bridge was constructed over the Brazos a few miles south of the swinging one, but the first time she came to the new one she walked over it, too, just to be sure.
A traditional historian might talk about the slow progress of modern construction or engineering into West Texas, but very few would capture the feeling of it the way A.C. Greene did.
For two years I processed A.C.ís collection. By early 1998 both he and Judy had become valued friends, and I had become A.C.ís personal archivist. He and I spent countless hours in his Salado office pouring over the paper and artifacts that made up his world, his museum. As a historian myself Iíll tell you that our kind can be an ornery and stubborn bunch. A.C., however, was one of the gentlest people Iíve come across. But ask him about the validity of saving a newspaper advertisement or catalog, and he could turn into a beast. Youíve guessed it, A.C. rarely threw anything away. In his words, everything in his collection was at least valuable and at best priceless.
A few years ago, A.C. asked me to transport a storage room of his "material" from Dallas to Salado. As I loaded a U-Haul truck, I remember thinking that so much of the material seemed like junk. But for A.C. Greene the truck contained priceless "artifacts" collected over a period of seventy-five years of living, writing, and experiencing Texas. When the cargo arrived in Salado, it was a homecoming of sorts for A.C.. What truly did appear to the casual observer as old junk was transformed into historical artifactóinto a museum collection of sortsóas A.C. recounted the history of each piece. As he spoke, the historian in him emerged. It was not a historical style that would stand in modern academiaóthose "damn prissy professors" as A.C. sometimes called themóbut one that has more in common with the story telling of the ancient historians Homer or Herodotus.
For A.C. knew something that most of those prissy folks donít know; perhaps this line from A.C.ís original manuscript version of A Personal Country explains it best.
Feet before ours have walked where we walk now, and feet to come will walk upon this spot. How far back does time go and how much time survives for us to find and carry with us or send to a museum to label and display? The world is timeís museum and we are the exhibits in it, showing at once all the time there has been.
Interesting enough, this line did not make it into the final book. To hear A.C. recount a tale was to step into his museum, to understand his view of the world where he was an observer as well as a participant.
Those who knew A.C. knew him as a talker. His passion, however, was the written, not the spoken word. He said,
I try to write for an imaginary person. Like Iím talking to somebody. . . .I do so much of my writing in the first person . . . because I feel like Iím addressing someone. Iím not addressing a large group, and I donít write like I talk when I do address large groups. But there are so many things that you can do when youíre talking. You can shade your voice, you can cut your eyes. . . . I donít like to [give] talk[s] even though Iíve done . . . hundreds. . . . But when you write you have to put more of your own feelings into it because you canít wink or you canít look aside. . . .
Even though he left the reporting business in the late 1960s, he never stopped describing the world as he saw it through his own experience. He said,
I still want to be sure that if somebody reads one of my books a hundred years from now or two hundred years from now, they can understand the man that wrote the book the same way that somebody might read it today and understand the man.
He wanted to continue working to the end. In 1996 he commented, "I hope that if I have to die suddenly that it will be sitting right here at the keyboardÖbecause Iíve got all kinds of things Iíd love to finish." He wanted to exit this world the way he entered it, with words wrapped around him, reporting on life as he saw it.
A.C. said, "Historical writing is an exercise in private experience." Iím convinced that if you want to know A.C. Greene all you have to do is read his booksóenter his museum, if you will. In A.C.ís world we were all artifacts in his private museum. Some were rarer than others but the value was inherent in the way he saw other inhabitants in that museum. One admirer called A.C. "a wonderful touchstone in a world of diminishing absolutes." Throughout his life, A.C. retained the lost art of blending emotion with critical interpretation. His life is literally there for all of us to see. Although A.C. is no longer here physically, his words, his life, his museum, will continue as long as his books are being read and his personal papers are accessible to the public.
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