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Master Class

At the University of Texas at Austin, I teach a course on Southwestern literature—a genre that didn't exist until J. Frank Dobie put it on the map.

By January 2003Comments

WITH THE LATEST INSTALLMENT OF the Texas Book Festival in the barn, it is perhaps a good time to look back at the invention of Southwestern literature—that is, at its conception as a recognizable body of writing with its own characteristic features and canonical authors. At the tail end of the twenties, J. Frank Dobie proposed a new course to be taught in the Department of English at the University of Texas. A lowly instructor with a master’s degree and no aspirations to acquire a doctorate, Dobie wanted to offer a course on Southwestern literature. Immediately, he ran into strong opposition. As the story goes, the full professors in the department solemnly declared that there was no such thing. Dobie’s riposte became part of his legend: “Well, there’s plenty of life in the Southwest, so I’ll just teach the life.” Dobie, incidentally, did not have much use for Ph.D’s, arguing in 1942 that in their theses they “merely transfer bones from one graveyard to another.”

To be fair, the old dons in the English department had a point. In 1929 American literature itself was only beginning to challenge the dominance of British and classical literature in the nation’s colleges and universities. Certainly the concept of the Southwest as a literary region would have been a hard sell to professors who were skeptical of adding American literature to the curriculum. Dobie well understood what he was up against. As his biographer Lon Tinkle observed, Dobie complained that “some of the departments here have no more sympathy for the life of the Southwest than they have for life in Patagonia.”

Happily, Dobie’s proposal coincided with a burst of creative literary interest in the region. In 1930, for example, two books about the Southwest won Pulitzer prizes: The Raven, Marquis James’s biography of Sam Houston, and Oliver La Farge’s novel about Navajo life, Laughing Boy. In Texas things were astir as well. Katherine Anne Porter’s Flowering Judas was published to widespread acclaim, and Dobie’s own Coronado’s Children achieved national standing by being picked as a Literary Guild selection.

In any event, Dobie, who could be very persistent and persuasive, got his course—English 342: Life and Literature of the Southwest—up and running in the spring semester of 1930. He would offer it regularly for the next twelve years, and it would continue in other hands through the rest of the century and into the next. The manner in which Dobie taught the class can be gleaned from a document that survives from the 1940 spring semester, a compilation of the best work done by members of the class. In May the students put together a bound mimeographed anthology. The title page described the work as “A Collection of Stray Mavericks Caught, Roped, and Branded by Members of the ‘Big Corral.'” A student named William H. Cleveland, Jr., was listed as the “Foreman,” and the “Boss O’ the Outfit” was, naturally, J. Frank Dobie. Sixty-nine pages long, the anthology brought together the work of 35 student contributors from a total of 107 class members.

In a brief preface, Dobie, styling himself the “chief ramrod,” enthusiastically endorsed his experience of teaching the course that spring: “Riding with you three mornings a week in the room numbered 201 under ‘the Doric wheat elevator’ has generally been bully business for me.” (The “Doric wheat elevator” was Dobie’s characteristic disparagement of the recently erected UT Tower, which he never missed an opportunity to mock.)

The preface went on to defend, as Dobie did many times in his writings, the value of studying the art of a particular region: “I have not ceased to din into your ears the idea that any literature, art, architecture, or even music that the Southwest can hope to achieve, will, if it is ‘authentic,’ reflect the backgrounds of its setting.” Then he took a typical swipe at the Littlefield Fountain, arguing that the sculptor should have depicted burros or mustangs instead of winged horses. One thing about Dobie: He didn’t mind repeating himself, and when he disliked something, he kept reminding everybody of why they should dislike it too.

Dobie never met a Western metaphor he didn’t like, and his rhetoric seems to have made an impression on his scholars. The student work was arranged in categories that might have come from a Dobie book: “Critters in the Southwest,” “The Pioneers,” “These Here Folks,” “Dust, Quartz, and Bullion,” “Ridin’ Herd,” and “Hunter’s Stew.”

As for his students, they all sounded like little Dobies. The titles of the individual pieces included “Cougar Tales My Grandma Told,” “The Story of Juan Torres,” “Dulce, the Cutting Horse,” “Down the Road Lived Bigfoot Wallace,” “Buried Treasure in Central Texas,” and “The Cowboy’s Philosophy.” Dobie the literary and curriculum pioneer was leading his charges into the still-fertile field of frontier folklore. His students could interview grandparents and other old-timers who went all the way back to the thrilling days of yesteryear. Nineteenth-century history was as close as Granddad’s rocking chair.

Because of the newness of the subject and the scarcity of texts—remember, this was long before paperbacks—Dobie did not have a core set of works, a canon, that everybody read. In effect, he was trying to figure out if there was a canon. To this end, Dobie assembled and, as the years went by, added to an annotated list of books that he considered worthy.

One such mimeographed compilation, for example, was put together in 1936, with the title “Life and Literature of the Southwest: An Incomplete Guide to Books on Texas and the Southwest.” It contained 26 pages of works, ranging from Cabeza de Vaca’s Narrative to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains. In a brief introduction, Dobie made the case for his subject in his usual combative manner. Castigating Harvard and the “sheep-like makers of textbooks” for emphasizing the Puritan writers, whom he considered “dreary creatures,” he wrote, “I rebel at having the tradition, the spirit, the meaning of the soil to which I belong utterly neglected by academicians and at the same time having the Cotton Mather kind of thing taught.”

The “Incomplete Guide” eventually resulted in the publication in 1942 of Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, which was followed ten years later by a second edition “Revised and Enlarged in Both Knowledge and Wisdom.” By then Dobie, who had left the university several years earlier, had won the battle for regionalism but was tempering his claims considerably. In “A Preface With Some Revised Ideas,” he expressed dismay at “provincial inbreeding” that led to chauvinistic championing of the second-rate. “I am sorry,” he wrote, “to see writings of the Southwest substituted for noble and beautiful and wise literature to which all people everywhere are inheritors.” In another passage he assayed his life’s work in these terms: “No informed person would hold that the Southwest can claim any considerable body of pure literature as its own.” The one claim he was still willing to make was the one with which he had begun: that at least the Southwest had a “distinct cultural inheritance, full of life and drama.”

By the time of Dobie’s death, in 1964, new voices were abroad in the land—Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, John Graves, Billy Lee Brammer, Edwin “Bud” Shrake, and others—and Dobie had read them right up to the end, although they did not always sing to him. The course he invented rolled on and was imitated at other colleges and universities in the Southwest and the West. His attempts to define the canon influenced writers like A. C. Greene, whose The Fifty Best Texas Books, excerpted in Texas Monthly (August 1981), stimulated useful discussion.

Now Dobie is a statue, enshrined in bronze, but his course lives on, and it is in the classroom that the canon gets defined every time a professor draws up a reading list. At the University of Texas at Austin, Rolando Hinojosa, José Limón, and I regularly offer sections of 342. The texts we use represent a pretty firm consensus, arrived at without any concerted effort. We all teach Larry McMurtry and some combination of Katherine Anne Porter, George Sessions Perry, Américo Paredes, Cormac McCarthy, and Rolando Hinojosa. Other authors who are sometimes taught are John Graves, Sandra Cisneros, Tomás Rivera, Billy Lee Brammer, and J. Frank Dobie himself. Beneficiaries of the paperback revolution, we are nonetheless dependent on publishers’ whims as to what is kept in print and what isn’t.

Were Dobie to come back today, he would find the course much changed, but he would also find the same ongoing critical effort to, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” In this case, of course, the world is the Southwest.

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