Steven L. Davis
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Readers who know J. Frank Dobie only as a wizened old author on the pages of their English textbooks may not recognize the vibrant and rebellious figure who emerges from the pages of J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind. The biography, which seeks to revive Dobie’s fading literary legacy, examines the man behind such Texas classics as Coronado’s Children and The Longhorns. Davis is the assistant curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection, at Texas State University—San Marcos, which houses Dobie’s literary estate. Read an excerpt.
Since his death, in 1964, J. Frank Dobie has been somewhat forgotten. Can you provide a quick portrait? Dobie was the first Texas-based writer to gain a national reputation, and he all but invented Texas literature. Born at a transformative time—the Indian wars were over, the open range was getting fenced off, railroads were knitting the country together—Dobie saw an old way of life vanishing before his eyes. He was an English instructor at the University of Texas at Austin, but he refused to get a doctoral degree. Instead he headed out to the backcountry, tracking down old-timers and collecting their stories of trail drives, buried treasure, and Longhorns and coyotes. He rescued huge chunks of our region’s folklore and adapted these tales into his own brand of literature. Dobie’s great insight—and this was daring at the time—was to realize that authentic writing can spring from one’s native soil, even if it’s Texas. He also became something of the state’s public conscience. For example, he was calling for the complete integration of UT in the forties, some twenty years before it actually happened. He alienated a lot of readers and was denounced as a Communist.
Did you find that the man was ultimately more interesting than his writings? Absolutely. But he’s had a lasting influence as a writer. One example: At the time Dobie was writing, academics were expected to be opaque, to write jargon-laden studies inscrutable to the rest of society. Dobie was the opposite. He spent his career fighting to bring scholarship down to earth, and there are many great professors who have since followed his example of writing in a clear, engaging style, from Américo Paredes to Mark Busby to Don Graham. Another example: A number of writers have come after Dobie who have adapted his tales into their own work—everyone from Cormac McCarthy to Larry McMurtry to Bud Shrake. Without Dobie we wouldn’t have had a lot of those stories left to tell. I respect Dobie as a writer, even if I’m not always crazy about everything he’s written.
Were the critics as accepting of Dobie’s books as the public? For a long time they were, at least the middlebrow critics. His big breakout came in 1931, when the Literary Guild of America made Coronado’s Children the first book from America’s interior to become its featured selection. Dobie became an instant legend. During the thirties and forties, his books were routinely praised in places like the New York Times and Time. But by the fifties and sixties, Dobie’s old brand of storytelling was clearly becoming a relic. Then, in 1968, four years after his death, Larry McMurtry kicked the wall down with his essay “Southwestern Literature?” With an emphasis on the question mark. It’s pretty much been downhill for Dobie ever since. But underneath all the dirt remain some solid pieces of his work, hard as granite, waiting to be rediscovered.
If you can try and put yourself in your subject’s shoes, how do you think Dobie would react to your book? I’m sure he’d wince in a few places, maybe even a lot of places. But Dobie was always lobbying others to be honest in their work. When a college student wanted to write her master’s thesis on him, he told her, “You can write what you damn please about me—otherwise it’s no use your writing at all!” I think Dobie would be pleased to know that I tried very hard to be fair to him, to get a sense of who he really was. And after all these years of neglect, he might even be a little grateful. University of Texas Press, $24.95