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The Big Rich January 23, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Bryan Burrough’s latest, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, certainly lives up to its name. A work of “engineered history,” as Burrough describes it, the book details the fates of four men who, after striking oil, would in their lifetimes be among the richest men in America: Roy Cullen, H. L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Sid Richardson. The indelible mark each would leave on the oil industry, American politics and the development of Texas itself would be felt for generations.

Overall it is a fascinating account. The most interesting parts of The Big Rich are arguably those that depict the “wildcatting” days of Texas oil and the personal struggles, successes and excesses of the four oilmen who typified the new social class that would come to be known as the Big Rich. Further, par for the course for the co-author of Barbarians at the Gate, Burrough is at his best in those chapters piecing together the growing political influence of the oil industry, the latter’s connection with the rise of right-wing conservatism in America, and ultimately how national events could be interpreted as revolving around Texas.

At the same time, it is often a circuitous and uneven account, if only because it does not revolve around the Cullens, Hunts, Murchisons or Richardson in a dedicated fashion (unlike, say, how Erik Larson effectively structured Devil in the White City, which could also be described as engineered history). Hence, while it shies away from being “biography plus,” it does so with the trade-off that earlier chapters suffer in comparison to later ones. The difference between the two is that the former offer a hodgepodge of observations to paint the bigger picture of Texas oil in general, while the latter find a unifying theme in the inevitable narrative of the subsequent decline of the Big Rich.

Still, as engineered histories go, Burrough’s The Big Rich is a remarkable achievement, if not because of the research that gave life to the colorful narrative contained in its pages then because of the cogent socio-political commentary one can find by reading between the lines.

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