An uneasy peace has long existed between Texas and literature, a peace the Texas Institute of Letters ( TIL) has tried for fifty years to preserve and protect. Threats have been constant. In several cases, foreign emissaries have found themselves treated in alarming ways. British poet Stephen Spender, invited to speak at the TIL‘s annual meeting, endured an incident that must have sent his rarefied mind into turmoil: a member of the institute allegedly threw up on the poet’s shoes. Other emissaries have expressed queasiness of their own. Critic Dwight Macdonald refused to lecture to the group until they had passed a hat. Still, the members themselves have kicked up the most dust.
The contentiousness began even before the institute was founded. J. Frank Dobie at first refused to join, Walter Prescott Webb saw trouble in the TIL’s formal structure, John Lomax thought that the proposed membership was too heavy with academics, and others had doubts about the name itself—“institute” sounded too highbrow. Even so, 48 charter members signed on and the name took. The institute gathered in the Hall of State in Dallas on November 9, 1936, during Texas Literature Week, which was proclaimed by Governor James V. Allred in the TIL’s honor. If Dobie, Webb, or Lomax were around to see today’s TIL, they would be pleased to find at the institute’s annual meetings the lively soicalizing that Dobie deemed to be the TIL’s lifeblood; the discussion of important issues like censorship; the bountiful prizes for the year’s best fiction, nonfiction, short story, and poetry; and the announcement of the Dobie-Paisano writing fellowship recipients.
The TIL is like any club with an exclusive membership—petty squabbling over who belongs and who does not is inevitable. No sooner has one group