When I heard the rumor that the University of Texas regents were thinking of selling J. Frank Dobie’s storied Paisano Ranch to developers, I assumed that this was another example of the sort of anti-intellectual lunacy that Dobie spent much of his life fighting. Dobie, the great folklorist and writer who came to be known as Mr. Texas, bought the 254-acre ranch in the Hill Country southwest of Austin in 1959, just five years before he died. It was more a retreat than a ranch, a place where he and his two famous companions, historian Walter Prescott Webb and naturalist Roy Bedichek, could sit back, drink whiskey, and talk life and literature.
Though events ultimately pushed him in that direction, Dobie was never a flaming liberal, and he had an uneasy relationship to intellectual life in general. He was a confirmed conservative, a nineteenth-century man at heart, his philosophy forged by tales of cattle drives, open ranges, and cowboy culture. In the twenties, when he was a junior faculty member at UT-Austin with no doctorate, he proposed teaching a class on the literature of the Southwest, only to be informed curtly that there was no such thing. His famous reply was that there was plenty of life in the Southwest and so he’d just teach that. Life and Literature of the Southwest became one of the most popular courses at the university and helped make Dobie a beloved figure. Partly because of this class, and a companion bibliography Dobie wrote, the skepticism voiced by his colleagues about Southwestern literature was put to rest.
After Dobie died, some of his supporters purchased Paisano and gave the ranch to UT, to be used as a place where writers who were from Texas or who wrote about Texas could live and write for long, uninterrupted residencies. Since its inception in 1967, the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, under the supervision of UT and the Texas Institute of Letters, has brought 81 writers and artists to the ranch. It’s difficult to quantify the fellowship’s value to our state, but its recipients have produced about 150 books and countless poems, articles, journals, and works of art. In 1972 I was one of those lucky people, and I confess to being fiercely protective of this magical place. Knowing how much anger Dobie’s politics provoked from his higher-ups at UT and reactionaries around the state, I started to wonder if the current bunch of regents might have been looking for an excuse to make Paisano disappear entirely.
Luckily, I was guilty of an overreaction. Paisano is safe, for now. But reading Steven L. Davis’s new biography, J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind, reminded me why I was given to such suspicions in the first place. Dobie and Webb have been vilified by current generations as racists, and to a degree they were. Dobie’s attitude toward Mexican Americans was condescending and paternalistic. His prose glorified brave Anglo settlers while dismissing Mexicans who resisted Anglo domination as “bandits” and praising those who accepted submission as “good Mexicans.” Parts of Webb’s book on the Texas Rangers rattle with jingoism and are horribly slanderous to Mexicans. Nonetheless, without dismissing their flaws, it must be said that in the political climate of Texas in the early twentieth century, both men were relatively progressive. And crucially, as Davis’s book makes clear, Dobie shed many of his inherited prejudices over time. By the forties, he was calling on UT to integrate.
It’s chilling to remember how rabidly conservative Texas was in the forties. Anti-
intellectuals roamed the countryside like packs of lizard people. Senator W. Lee O’Daniel took to the airwaves to compare Franklin Roosevelt’s liberalism to Adolf Hitler’s fascism, and this was during the war. Regents appointed by Governor Coke Stevenson and O’Daniel before him were convinced that UT had fallen into the claws of “liberalism” and took it as their duty to clean house. UT president Homer Rainey, who resisted them at every turn, became their whipping boy. They wanted to stop teaching social work, on the grounds that it promoted socialism. They proposed loyalty tests for faculty. Banning travel to academic conferences in parts of the country where “Bolsheviki” ideas were tolerated was just one of their brighter ideas.
When the regents took it upon themselves to fire four untenured economics instructors for “subversive activities”—they had made public statements in support of FDR’s Fair Labor Standards Act—Dobie decided that he’d had enough. He was by then a Texas icon. Since 1914 he’d been a fixture on the UT campus, and with the publication of Coronado’s Children, in 1930, he had become the state’s most popular writer. He wasn’t the first nationally recognized writer from Texas; Katherine Anne Porter and O. Henry had previously carved out careers, but only after leaving the state. Dobie was the first to prove that a writer could stay down here and still make a living. And a difference.
“More than any other factor, these attacks on academic freedom caused Dobie to reassess his deeply held, almost instinctive political beliefs,” writes Davis, the assistant curator at the Southwestern Writers Collection, at Texas State University—San Marcos. “He realized that the greatest threat to individual freedom was no longer the government—it was right-wing business interests. With this insight the fifty-three-year-old Dobie became a political liberal.”
Along with Bedichek and others, Dobie circulated a petition asking the regents to rehire the four instructors. The regents not only ignored the petition, they upped the ante. “They summoned several members of the English faculty to explain why suggested reading lists included U.S.A. by John Dos Passos,” Davis notes. “Regents condemned the book as ‘thinly disguised Communist propaganda [that] repeatedly showed vile contempt for the flag, the church, and the nation’s most sacred institutions.’ ” When Rainey again resisted them, the regents fired him.
Outraged, Dobie publicly labeled the regents “native fascists” and wrote a column for the Dallas Morning News that was so inflammatory the editors refused to publish it. The firing of Homer Rainey