J. Frank Dobie’s ranch has provided a refuge for many Texas writers over the years—myself included. But it’s his path-clearing spirit of clumsy, bighearted democracy to which we really owe a debt.
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 erupted into a huge student protest and a march on the state capitol. Stories in the national media portrayed UT as a second-rate backwater school, and the American Association of University Professors formally censured it. Nonetheless, by speaking out, Dobie knew he was putting his job in jeopardy. In 1947, after more than thirty years on the UT faculty, he was terminated.
I didn’t know much of this when I first tried to read Dobie, in college. For writers of my generation (I’m 75), the main question about Dobie was why his reputation so far exceeded his apparent literary achievements. Dobie wasn’t a particularly engaging writer. His stories about Longhorns and buried treasure apparently appealed to readers during the Depression, but even by the sixties they were lost on many of us. I tried to read him again in the winter of 1972, when I got to Paisano. His prose seemed stiff and quaintly old-fashioned. But after reading Davis’s book, I understand that our debt to Dobie isn’t so much about literature as it is about intellectual freedom: By fighting against the forces of conformity and narrow-mindedness, even when they came from within himself, Dobie blazed a trail for the many Texas thinkers and writers who came after him, whether they care to tip their hats or not.
Besides, Dobie was more collector of lore than master prose stylist. “Dobie could have been a good writer,” Davis reminded me recently, when I called him up to talk about his book. “He had the skills. But he came of age during the oral tradition of storytelling. He made a conscious effort to capture that oral style. That’s why his prose sounds so jarring to the ear. It’s like reading dialect.”
Dobie dedicated himself to preserving this style because he knew it was vanishing. The same could be said of the wild Hill Country terrain from which his ranch is carved. Barton Creek curls and twists through the property, running cold and clear between massive limestone bluffs and boulders the size of two-story buildings. There are deep pools where you can swim and sun-baked outcroppings where you can lie on your belly and watch fish spawn and tend nests on the sandy creek bottom. You approach the house along a crooked gravel road, across a low-water crossing where the creek can be either hubcap deep or, in heavy weather, a torrent that can sweep your car away. When the creek is at flood tide—and scores of water moccasins are washing downstream, their heads sticking up like angry periscopes—it doesn’t really matter that there is no direct way into or out of the ranch. It’s a living museum: On a far corner of the property sits a log cabin built more than a hundred years ago. Wildflowers, cacti, rare native grasses, and clusters of giant oaks spread out in all directions, and deer and wild turkey wander at will. I’ll never forget one moonlit night, sitting alone on a log bench on one of the foot trails, watching in amazement as a mother skunk strolled by with her two babies, her nose held high as though to remind me of my inconsequential place in the scheme of things.
The house has six rooms, a large fieldstone fireplace, and thick stone walls. Dobie so loved sleeping in front of a crackling fire that he installed an air conditioner so he could light it even in the heat of summer. There are reminders of him everywhere: his handmade pine writing desk, bearing the date 1911; a mesquite roadrunner carved by his colleague Mody Boatright (paisano is Spanish for “fellow countryman”; in the Southwest, it also means “roadrunner,” an animal that Dobie adopted as his personal symbol); various prints inscribed by artist friends, including a drawing of Dobie by Tom Lea. And of course books, books everywhere, spilling out of every shelf, including a set of Dobie’s works as well as volumes by Webb and Bedichek.
Many of the writers and artists who lived at Paisano experienced a fundamental change, some epiphany that helped shape a career. For me, Paisano was a spiritual rebirth, a space where I caught my breath and reviewed where I’d come from and where I hoped to go. I never finished the novel I intended to write, but I did bang out a long article about an escapade on a movie set in Durango, Mexico, where a group of anarchists (myself among them) made their own movie while intermingling with the cast and crew of a big-time Hollywood production. A. C. Greene, one of the earliest Dobie Paisano fellows, finished A Personal Country and remembered Paisano as “a season of self-discovery . . . a time to find time.” Poet-novelist Sandra Cisneros, a native of Chicago, says that the ranch experience altered her destiny. “It was so healing for me that I decided to stay [in Texas],” Cisneros said. “I would not be a Texan now if it hadn’t been for that Dobie Paisano.” Author Jan Reid told me that it was at Paisano that he first learned discipline and called it “the place where I learned to write.” Several Paisano fellows reported encounters with Dobie’s spirit while at Paisano. I jokingly told a TV reporter that I’d seen Dobie’s ghost sitting in a rocker on the gallery. Later, seated in that same rocker, I had—or maybe dreamed that I had—a brief conversation with Dobie.
“You don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?” the gravelly voice asked.
“Don’t worry. None of us do. Writing is a process of discovery. You learn by doing.”
I’m prepared to admit that my chat with Dobie’s ghost was probably a product of my imagination. That same imagination may be working when I fly into a state of alarm over dark rumors that the ranch is to be bulldozed, paved over, or chopped into subdivisions. As I say, these things are easily exaggerated. The story started with a report in the Dallas Morning News in August linking Paisano’s
fate to that of the controversial development of UT’s Brackenridge Tract, the site of an ecological field laboratory near the Colorado River in West Austin. The UT regents have been debating what to do with Brackenridge for many months, but waterfront property that valuable will almost certainly be developed sometime in the coming years. When that happens, they may need to find a new location for the lab—and Paisano is on the list of possible sites. Yet the university’s president, William Powers, emphatically assured the director of the program that the ranch will never be used for anything other than the Dobie Paisano.
I’m sure President Powers is speaking the truth, but I’m unwilling to completely let go of my skepticism. Not in this current political climate, with its grim recollections of the forties. Have you noticed how much the people running around with signs comparing President Barack Obama to Hitler resemble the ones who said the same thing about Roosevelt? Maybe the strain of lunacy that went after Dobie and his compatriots isn’t dead; maybe it’s just been down there hiding, waiting for the right moment to strike. I’m keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.