Mr. Texas

Don Graham doffs his hat to J. Frank Dobie.

From 1929, when he published A Vaquero of the Brush Country, until his death in 1964, J. Frank Dobie was the top gun in Texas letters. During his career he built up the Texas Folklore Society, accumulated a personal “range library” of eight thousand books, helped found the Texas Institute of Letters, and authored columns in Texas newspapers for 25 years. Prolific, popular, and much quoted, Dobie churned out books about the state that won him a wide following and earned him the nickname Mr. Texas. He wrote about cowboys, Longhorns, mustangs, rattlesnakes, gold seekers, Englishmen, and in his best book, himself. Some Part of Myself , edited by his widow and published three years after his death, was the closest Dobie came to writing an autobiography.

Consisting of essays that are more or less related, Some Part of Myself brought together material written from 1931 onward. It provides valuable insight into Dobie’s background, though a tell-all was out of the question. In a self-epitaph Dobie wrote that wasn’t discovered until after his death, he commented: “Because of deference to the well-mannered he failed to expose most of what he knew, enjoyed and hated.”

Born in Live Oak County in 1888, Dobie grew up in a ranching culture governed by respect for the word. His father read the Bible to the children; his mother read them Ivanhoe. In 1906 he enrolled at Southwestern University in Georgetown, where he fell in love with English Romantic poetry, declaiming Wordsworth on the banks of the San Gabriel River. Following the advice of the school’s president, Dobie began to read a book a week, a practice he kept up until he died.

In 1920, taking a break from teaching freshman composition at UT-Austin, Dobie returned to the world of his upbringing, becoming the manager of the Olmos Ranch in La Salle County. There he received his calling. Listening to the vaqueros talk over campfires at night, he “seemed to be seeing a great painting of something I’d known all my life,” the stories of the Texas land. Dobie returned to the university with a new sense of purpose, plunged into the activities of the Texas Folklore Society, and began to publish articles and books by the score. In the chapter “How My Life Took Its Turn” Dobie lays down in stately style a lasting rationale for the study of regional culture: “The mesquite is, objectively, as good and as beautiful as the Grecian acanthus.”

Today many of Dobie’s books remain in print, numerous schools bear his name, and the course he created at UT, “Life and Literature of the Southwest”—which I now teach—remains popular. And in Austin’s famed Zilker Park, a statue of Dobie with his friends Roy Bedichek and Walter P. Webb commemorates Dobie’s love of friendship, nature, and literature, a lasting reminder of a man whose reputation continues to influence Texas letters.

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