Pen Pals

For decades the triumvirate of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb ruled Texas letters. Here’s the tale of a lifelong friendship wholly dedicated to intellectual pursuits—and the ultimate dirty joke.

March 1996By Comments

CERTAIN CITIES COME TO mind when one thinks of public statuary: Paris, Rome, Barcelona. Austin, the capital of laid-backness, home of Hippie Hollow and high-tech brio, is not one of them, but the city can claim its share of public statues, and none is more emblematic, more “Austin,” than the installation in Zilker Park, just in front of the famed Barton Springs swimming pool. Designed by noted Santa Fe sculptor Glenna Goodacre and put in place in the fall of 1994, the statue commemorates a trio of writers—J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb—who did as much as any in Austin’s history to define the city’s special qualities. In the rich synergy that developed among the three men over many decades of public life and private friendship, they became the spiritual godfathers of Austin.

Although regional aficionados of Texana remember them, and many of their books remain in print, to a large number of Texas’ 18.4 million people, their names are either unknown or known in a blurred, confused manner. The old men of the statue belong to Old Texas, and as a recent governor was fond of saying, we live in New Texas. Who are those guys? the curious must ask, the newcomers, the Californians, the outlanders who’ve earnestly pedaled their trail bikes to Zilker Park to bask in a day of spring-fed bliss before some corporate baddie upstream pollutes the purest fountain of Austiniana ever created by God or man.

Finding a student among the current generation at the University of Texas who has the faintest conception of these once-revered figures is rarer than spotting a golden-cheeked warbler at a tractor pull. In a recent section of my Life and Literature of the Southwest class (which, by the way, Dobie invented back in 1930, praise be to his ornery old white male self), I polled my 165 students to see if they knew who Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek were. About 95 percent said they hadn’t the foggiest. The shrewder ones guessed that Dobie Mall was named after Dobie, and one student who had attended Bedichek Middle School in Austin recognized the name but did not know why the school bore it. The more-detailed the identifications, the more erroneous. Said one student: “J. Frank Dobie—infamous businessman involved with UT who hated the UT Tower.” Part of that is true. Dobie wasn’t fond of the Tower. Trading on an old joke, he called it “[UT president] Battle’s last erection,” and he said it ought to be laid on its side and a porch put around it, like a ranch house. Another student had another idea about the man who in his lifetime was called Mr. Texas: “J. Frank Dobie—the man after which Dobie Mall is named. He was, I think, a Texas Ranger with some authority. He was an outspoken Racist. I learned that in a class, The History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.” The confusion of Dobie with Webb (who wrote a book called The Texas Rangers), the thorough mishmash of error, and the politically correct misinterpretation contained in this statement are sobering. Alexander Pope was right: A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A visit to the statue is a helpful introduction to these men. A plaque identifies them, and three other plaques contain passages from their works extolling the recuperative splendors of nature. The official name of the sculpture is Philosophers’ Rock, after a limestone shelf of rock that once stood along the banks of the springs. In its day, the rock was also known as Conversation Rock and, more frequently, Bedichek’s Rock or Bedi’s Rock. Close friends of the three men always associated it with Bedichek. Wilson Hudson, a University of Texas English professor and member of the Dobie-Bedichek-Webb inner circle, called it Bedichek’s Rock and in a 1967 tribute wrote, “Let Bedichek’s rock remain, unaltered in any way, unmarked by a bronze inscription.” Nature took care of this sentiment some years later by sweeping the rock away in a flood, but what nature hath wrought, the sculpture hath corrected. Situated in front of the entrance to the swimming hole, it is a large, looming presence. It depicts three old men engaged in a circle of voluble discourse. Bedichek and Dobie are wearing swimming trunks, and Webb, who did not swim, is standing alongside the rock with his trousers rolled up, like a resolute Prufrock (“I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”). The likenesses are in the eyes of the beholder. To me, the statue’s Dobie looks a bit like Babe Ruth, and Webb, with his large bald dome, like an alien from a Star Trek episode. Bedichek is closest to the mark, bearing some resemblance to an elderly John Mackovic, UT’s head football coach. The enormous feet of all three are a problem, but then I think that feet in sculpture usually are. My favorite detail in the statue is a cigarette that Webb, an inveterate smoker, is holding in his right hand. It is surprising that the Austin City Council permitted this violation of the anti-smoking ordinance. It sets such a bad example for our youth. Not far away is a playground called a “playscape.” Children bored with the playscape come down and romp on the sculpturescape, though there is a sign prohibiting romping. The tactile quality of the sculpture proves irresistible to children, who climb into the laps of Bedichek and Dobie, kindly bronze grandfathers.

The triumvirate, as they were sometimes grandly called, were intellectuals and writers who asserted the values of the life of the mind at a time when other pursuits tended to dominate the energies of a still-close-to-the-frontier society: agriculture, oil, mercantilism, football. Dobie was the most famous of the three and the most prolific writer. Besides his many years of industrious labor on behalf of the Texas Folklore Society, he published, from 1929 until his death in 1964, a continuous flow of books. Many of them dealt with critters—there was one each on Longhorns, mustangs, coyotes, and rattlesnakes—and there were books about the men who lived on the land—A Vaquero of the Brush Country and Coronado’s Children—all looking back to the past. One of his most appealing books is the posthumously published Some Part of Myself, a collection of autobiographical essays. Webb, his longtime friend and colleague at the University of Texas, was the foremost Western historian of his generation. His books include The Great Plains, The Texas Rangers, and The Great Frontier. Bedichek, the eldest of the three (Dobie and Webb were born the same year, 1888, Bedichek in 1878), was also connected with the University of Texas. For many years he headed the University Interscholastic League, which then, as now, oversaw all public school competitions, from essay writing contests to football games. Bedichek did not write his first book until he was 68, and he did so then because Dobie and Webb practically confined him to an upstairs room in the house at Webb’s Friday Mountain Ranch, southwest of Austin, and told him he couldn’t come out until he had written his book. There Bedichek composed Adventures With a Texas Naturalist, his best-known work. He went on to complete three more books before his death. With Dobie in the lead, they cornered the market on Texas literature. If they didn’t invent Texas writing, and they didn’t, they certainly left the impression that they did.

But Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb didn’t become legends simply on the basis of their writings. It was their personalities, their roles in the public and the intellectual lives of their era, that clinched their fame. Especially Dobie, for he was the darling of the press and he courted publicity with the ardor of a man running for office. Webb was the quieter, more professorial sort, though, like Dobie, he also chafed at the rituals and duties of academic life. He once wrote Bedichek about what lay ahead on a particular day: “And now it’s eight o’clock and I’ve got to read a goddamned Ph.D. thesis and go to town and hold a seminar and sit on a goddamned faculty club council. It makes me want to stretch sheet iron.” Bedi, humorous, philosophical, and gentle, was the glue that cemented the threesome’s lifelong professional and private friendships.

In the public arena all three were outspoken in defense of civilized values. Dobie garnered headlines with his iconoclastic views and actions. Webb wrote of him, “Dobie is by nature a maverick, and has always been so.” Bedichek called him “a sort of gadfly.” It appears that Dobie delighted in living up to the labels. His cantankerousness ranged from grandstanding to serious fulminating against follies he observed in political and public life. He could also, and often did, take on serious subjects. Football, for example, a matter of high, almost religious import to most Texans, was a topic about which Dobie had decidedly against-the-grain thoughts. Hearing of a coach who led his football team in prayer before every game, Dobie wrote: “Who believes that God cares whether one bunch of young apes or another one has the most success with an inflated pig bladder?” Though Dobie could invoke the deity when rhetoric called for it, he was, on the whole, a devout agnostic and detested most preachers. At the funeral of Bedichek, in 1959, Dobie sat at the end of a pew and every time the preacher mentioned “everlasting life,” he uttered “no, no” in a voice that could be heard all around him. Webb also held a dim view of professional religionists. One time a preacher inveigled him to give a talk on cowboys and religion. Webb appeared at the appointed time, stood up, said, “I have been asked to speak on the cowboy and his religion. He had none,” and then sat down.

The most serious public controversy that they all took part in was the acrimonious debate that occurred at the university in the mid-forties over the firing of President Homer Rainey by the board of regents. Rainey incurred the ire of certain regents because he refused to dismiss four economics professors for their “radical” ideas. The English department also came under fire for including John Dos Passos’ novel U.S.A. on a reading list for sophomores. One regent even wanted Bedichek cashiered because of a UIL ruling that negatively affected the athletic eligibility of his two sons, who were then seniors at Orange High School. Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb leapt to the defense of Rainey, and Dobie eventually paid a price for it. His drumbeat of Texan foibles had left him vulnerable to attacks from yahoos. Dobie’s “radical” politics—which in Texas at that time meant merely being an outspoken New Dealer and civil libertarian—more than irritated the powers that be. In 1945 Dobie had the gall to argue, in print, that blacks should be given full voting rights, and in a speech in Fort Worth, he declared that he would welcome qualified black students to the University of Texas. Opinions such as these drew criticism in the state Legislature and anonymous hate letters like one addressed to “Mr. Dopey,” calling him a “decrepit, good-for-nothing old fossil and fool.” Bedichek, like Dobie an ardent advocate of such unpopular issues of the day as integration and academic freedom, remarked to Webb in a letter: “Dear Dobie works so hard, and smashes so relentlessly in the daily papers at reactionaries in politics, literature and religion that I know the good Lord is laying up a reward for him in heaven if he fails to connect with it here on earth.” The university certainly wasn’t laying up any reward. When Dobie, who had been granted numerous leaves of absence over the years, applied for another one for the fall semester of 1947, the administration turned him down. Texas novelist George Sessions Perry couldn’t believe that the university had “finally turned its back on great, lovable, intractable Frank Dobie, who for so long a time has been the state’s and the university’s ambassador to the world.”

ALTHOUGH THERE IS NO PHOTOGRAPHIC evidence of Webb ever having been at the site, it is appropriate for him to be included in the circle of friends at Barton Springs. He did not have to be there physically, and much of what transpired there was communicated to him by Bedi and Dobie, either in conversation or in letters. Statues constitute a species of myth by defining history, charging a site with new meaning, formalizing an idea. It is interesting to speculate what the three friends would have thought about their own apotheosis in bronze. My guess is that Dobie would have loved being immortalized in public, his vanity being no less than and probably equal to that of most people enamored with the blandishments of fame. After all, he didn’t get to be Mr. Texas by being a shrinking violet. And Dobie commented memorably on public statuary. The Littlefield Fountain, at the south end of the UT campus, for example, offended him mightily. He described it as “a conglomerate of a woman standing up, with arms and hands that look like stalks of Spanish dagger; of horses with wings on their feet, aimlessly ridden by some sad figures of the male sex, and various other inane paraphernalia.” A statue of a spraddle-legged, braying burro would have been more natural, he said. Bedichek was no less interested in public statuary. In a 1941 letter copied to Webb and Dobie, he went into ribald detail about a local statue of a fireman that had once adorned the south entrance of the Capitol grounds but, because of scandal, had been removed to an obscure spot on East Sixth Street. Bedichek deliciously described the thing that caught everybody’s eye: “Do you remember how this hideous figure of gigantic size, drawing a hose over his hip, appeared, at least from a certain point of the compass, to be holding not the nozzle of a hose, but something else, stiff and straight, protruding at an angle of about 45 degrees from his inguinal region?”

He then told how he and other “dirty-minded boys” construed the fireman’s figure as Priapus bent on having his way with the goddess surmounting the dome of the Capitol. State authorities agreed that the statue had an unfortunate sexual subtext and ordered it removed. When Bedichek rediscovered it in a grass-grown lot on East Sixth, he was almost nostalgic in noting “the same extension . . . , the same threat to virginity, the same eternal erection.”

The elegant frankness of Bedichek’s observations points to another dimension of the circle of friendship. These were men, not demigods, and theirs is a story of men with the bark on. Like many phrases from the past, this one may need explanation. “With the bark on” means “the unvarnished truth.” A tree with the bark off (though the phrase is never used that way) would be prettified, denatured, inauthentic. Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek all had the bark on.

Their letters are a bountiful index of their wide variety of interests, and they were interested in damned near everything. Birds, for instance. All three of them were as daft as any Englishman on the subject of birds. Bedichek wrote and received hundreds of letters about birds. Birds could move him to ecological passion: “The red-headed woodpecker is getting scarcer and scarcer here in Austin, since the damned city and thrice damned telephone company began creosoting their ten times goddamned poles.”

They also had a rich sense of humor, and that humor was not infrequently scatological, bawdy, risqué. On the rock in the afternoon they didn’t always speak of high-minded things. Nor did they in their letters always speak of birds, ideas, and current events. Born during the reign of Good Queen Victoria, they carried with them a certain ingrained reticence in the company of women, but in their letters and conversations they relished outhouse and sexual humor to a fare-thee-well. Bedichek and Webb worked for years on a top-secret collection of dirty anecdotes and jokes that they intended to call “The Privy Papers of Sitting Bull.” Their chief source was graffiti on the walls of public toilets. In one letter to Webb, Bedichek mentioned having discovered a rhyme so foul that he had, against his will, found himself memorizing it. He wrote another friend about the collection: “We got the darndest assortment of it that you ever heard in your life. But we were ashamed to sign our names to it.”

It is safe to say that Bedichek and Dobie, at least, were fascinated with the subject of sex. Bedichek hoped that some day Walt Whitman’s influence would be so thorough and liberating that “people can write and talk of sex as naturally as they do of other fundamental appetites.” He read the Kinsey Report with scrupulous attentiveness and concluded that the greater incidence of sodomy in urban centers had to do with the absence of animals for the purposes of bestiality. He raised prescient questions about the nature of scatological and sexual humor. In one letter he asked, “Why is the Anglo-Saxon word for defecation taboo, and why are there so many funny stories about this natural function?” In the same letter, he mentions a friend of his who, like Montaigne, was so struck by the ludicrous aspects of human copulation that he was overcome by the sheer physical absurdity of the act. There is also a charmingly told whorehouse story. It begins with a mild disclaimer of Dobie’s assertion that Bedichek was an authority on whorehouses. When Bedichek was a young man, he writes, he visited a local establishment on West Fourth Street run by one Dixie Darnell. Bedi engaged the services of one of Dixie’s young women only to discover, once in the room, a volume of poetry by Heinrich Heine, one of his favorite poets. The prostitute, who was of German extraction, was a great fan of Heine, and for the next several hours they discoursed on the beauties of his verse. Bedichek paid for his time, during which the only thing he removed, he says, was his detachable collar.

Bedichek was also a master of the dirty joke. In a letter to Dobie he told the one about the two cowboys who had been together on the range for too long and who were getting mighty tired of each other’s company. One night one of the cowboys made some biscuits that the other cowboy couldn’t eat, they were so bad. He said they were so bad their hound wouldn’t eat them. But the hound gobbled them right up, and the cook, vindicated, said, “You see, he et ’em all right.” “Yes,” said the other cowboy, “but he had to lick his ass to take the taste out of his mouth.” Such jokes endeared Bedichek to Dobie and Webb.

Dobie was every bit as interested in sexual folklore as he was in cowboys and gold seekers. One of his research habits was to collect items, stories obtained in interviews, anecdotes, scraps of folk idiom, scholarly articles, newspaper stories, anything pertinent to a topic, and place them in an empty typing-paper box. When the box was full, he had a book. Among his archives at UT’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center is a box of clippings and related materials collected for a book to be called “Piss and Vinegar.” This is not exactly the usual Dobie title, and what he had in mind was something along the lines of his friends’ secret “Privy Papers of Sitting Bull.” The box contains dirty jokes going all the way back to Sam Houston, who has always been good copy for Texas historians. One tells of how Houston would ride across Texas with an erection and would camp at the spot where the erection fell limp. Obscure informants sent Dobie jokes and stories, and famous ones too. John Graves, for example, sent along a limerick about a young lady from Bombay. The joke turned upon the c word. Dobie’s friend Mody Boatright, like Dobie a folklorist and English professor at UT, sent him a Texas brag sexual joke: There was a rancher who boasted that his son weighed sixteen and a half pounds at birth. “My goodness, how much does he weigh now?” asked the listener. The rancher answered, “Six and a half pounds.” “How can that be?” asked the listener. The rancher said, “We’ve just had him circumcised.” Also in the box are lists of folk expressions based on Anglo-Saxon words for the familiar excremental functions and numerous unpublished essays. The essays bear titles like “Obscene,” “Sexual Potency,” “Why Southern Men Fought for Slavery,” “On the Size of Pricks,” and so on. There is another on that treasure trove of f and c words, Dobie’s favorite modern novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. One of the frankest essays was titled “C—: The Word and the Thing.” It quoted the self-proclaimed expert on the subject, Henry Miller, and told off-color stories detailing the sexual escapades of well-known Texas figures.

Dobie, ever the moralist, had a serious purpose apart from the thrill of the word chase. The essays, both fragmentary and complete, always pleaded for honesty and frankness in dealing with natural functions and inveighed against hypocrisy, puritanism, and censorship. In “Obscene” he professed, “I can’t for the life of me see that a picture or a piece of writing of civilized nature, often beautiful and more often natural, that stirs the sex impulse is obscene.” In “Doing Dirt to Sex” he let it rip: “Like Rabelais, I contemplate only with derision some gut-stuffing, fart-stinking, ballicks-sweating, mouth-snoring piety-intoning priest, smelling terribly of mortality while pretending to have God by the ear because he professes to deny sex.” Like “The Privy Papers of Sitting Bull,” “Piss and Vinegar” remained underground, scraps in a box stuffed with the blue, the bawdy, the unnameable, the humorous.

DOBIE, WEBB, AND BEDICHEK WERE men, as Dobie would have said, “out of the old rock.” They prided themselves on their connectedness with the earth, for which they have been much celebrated, and to that I would add their connectedness to earthiness, a humor that Chaucer, Rabelais, and Henry Miller, among others, would have enjoyed. Their public contribution to Texas culture is perhaps the place to conclude. Webb, a master of the plain style, said, “My theory holds that the true distinctive culture of a region, in this case of Texas, springs from the soil just as do the plants.” Dobie eloquently championed the cause of regionalism in an oft-quoted passage: “If people are to enjoy their own lives, they must be aware of the significances of their own environments. The mesquite is, objectively, as good and as beautiful as the Grecian acanthus.” And in a marvelous passage from his Letters, which represent Bedichek’s best work, he speaks with admirable energy of his commitment to the Austin of Barton Springs, of local knowledge: “Personally, if I have to fight for this country, I will not fight for the flag, or democracy, or private enterprise, or the American ‘way of life,’ or for any other abstractions, which seem cold as kraut to me. But I will fight to the last ditch for Barton Creek, Boggy Creek, cedar-covered limestone hills, blazing star and bluebonnets, golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and so on through a catalogue of the natural environment of Austin, Texas.”

The books of the triumvirate are there for readers who seek them, and if you happen to journey to Barton Springs, there the men loom, in all their one-and-one-quarter-size glory, intentionally bigger than life, according to sculptress Goodacre. With its anchored solidity and gravity the statue has a reasonably good chance of outlasting even the springs themselves, if ecological jeremiads prove accurate. Under sun and moon, there the old three are, eternally sharing some gem of discourse, a passage from Keats perhaps, or the one about the preacher’s wife, some moment of pleasure, something natural that amused them.

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