Meet ‘Mr. Texas,’ folk­lorist J. Frank Do­bie

The Aus­ti­nite was an early lit­er­ary su­per­star, but who reads him to­day?

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - AUSTIN360 SUNDAY - By Michael Barnes

At some point, every Texas writer — or se­ri­ous reader — must come to terms with “Mr. Texas.”

To the ex­tent that Aus­tinites to­day rec­og­nize the name of folk­lorist, teacher and widely pub­lished colum­nist J. Frank Do­bie, they might as­so­ci­ate it with a mid­dle school, or a freshly ren­ova ted shop­ping mall at the base of a dor­mi­tory tower (de­spite the fact that Do­bie hated high-rises), or perhaps with “Philoso­phers’ Rock,” a sculp­tural trib­ute at Bar­ton Springs devoted to Do­bie and his gab­bing bud­dies and fel­low Texas lit­er­ary pioneers Roy Bedichek and Wal­ter Prescott Webb.

The lit­er­ary-minded might also think of the Do­bie Paisano Ranch, which serves as a writ­ers re­treat on Bar­ton Creek for Do­bie Fel­lows, or the mod­est old Do­bie res­i­dence across from the Uni- ver­sity of Texas Law School on Waller Creek, where writ­ing stu­dents some­times meet.

Born in 1888, Do­bie came out of the South Texas brush coun­try with an abid­ing in­ter­est in cow­boy yarns, lege nds of lost trea­sure, and tales of con­quis­ta­dors, cat­tle drives and desert rats. Do­bie strug­gled at first to find his voice, but he struck gold in the mass-mar­ket mag­a­zine trade that was hun­gry for ad­ven­ture sto­ries.

Bol­stered by his na­tional fol­low­ing, he then ex­panded those ar­ti­cles, some­times scant­ily, into some two dozen books. He took up res­i­dence at UT and men­tored

sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of folk­lorists and writ­ers. At the same time , he wrote a weekly col­umn that was pub- lished in dozens of news­pa­pers. He died in 1964.

As Steven L. Davis de­scribes in his su­perb bi­og­ra­phy “J. Frank Do­bie: A Lib­er­ated Mind,” the folk­lorist’s in­tel- lec­tual jour­ney took him from un­re­con­structed at­ti­tudes to­ward Mex­i­cans, Na­tive- Amer­i­cans and African-Amer- icans — as well as a be­lief in the self-re­liance of rough-and- ready Tex­ans — to be­come one of the most pro­gres­sive and open-minded colum­nists in the state, the bane of the post-war es­tab­lish­ment. He also men­tored His­panic and African-Amer­i­can folk­lorists, although he broke with the so­cial sci­en­tists in the field who in­sisted on pub­lish­ing undi- luted field notes rather than lov­ingly bur­nished sto­ries.

His motto: “Any tale be­longs to who­ever best tells it.”

One can cer­tainly ig­nore Do­bie and still un­der­stand Texas. Or o ne can cho ose other, bet­ter writ­ers such as Kather­ine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Hor­ton Foote, Stephen Har­ri­gan, O. Henry, Americo Pare­des, Don Gra- ham, At­tica Locke, Sarah Bird or Lawrence Wright to gain ini­tial in­sights about the state.

I, for one, avoided Do­bie for as long as I could. First, I’m al­ler­gic to thickly ap­plied di­alect, whether from oth­er­wise great au­thors such as Ge­orge Eliot (the un­read­able “The Mill on the Floss”) or lo­cal he­roes like John Henry Faulk (when­ever he told an ex­tended story in some­one else’s down-home voice).

Also, Do­bie’s tales seemed di­rected to a youth­ful au­di­ence of, let’s face it, mostly boys, and rarely have I been able to reread even beloved ad­ven­ture sto­ries from child­hood with much sat­is­fac­tion in my later years.

So what drew me to Do­bie in my 60s?

One writer, other than Davis, who got me over the con­cep­tual hump was Bill Wit­tliff, whose mas­ter­ful re­cre­ation of var­i­ous Texas di­alects in his “Devil’s Back­bone” se­ries of pi­caresque nov­els is an ab­so­lute de­light. (A third vol­ume comes out this fall from UT Press.)

So maybe Do­bie’s liber- ally ap­plied Texas di­alects might not set my teeth on edge this time.

Just as im­por­tantly, I’d re­cently read the col­lected works of Kat her­ine Ann Porter, who sparred with Do­bie over their re­spec­tive places among Texas writ­ers, and came away with the im­pres­sion that she is among Amer­ica’s greats, at her best on par with her near con­tem­po­raries Wil­liam Faulkner, Ernest Hem­ing­way and F. Scott Fitzger­ald.

Could Do­bie be, like Porter, bet­ter than I ex­pected?

Davis warned me per­son­ally that the seven volu mes kept in print by the Univer­sity of Texas Press were un­even. In re­sponse to this fail­ing, he re­cently fin­ished “The Es­sen­tial J. Frank Do­bie,” a care­fully edited “best of ” vol­ume that comes out in fall 2019 from Texas A&M Univer­sity Press.

It was to be valued be­cause Do­bie could rise to sus­tained ex­cel­lence, as I later dis­cov­ered.

The prox­i­mate cause for my deep dive into Do­bie, how­ever, was a trip to the still-new of­fices of UT Press on Lake Austin Boule­vard, where all their vol­umes in print are dis- played in the re­cep­tion area. As a die-hard bi­b­lio­phile, I was daz­zled. Then I slipped my fin­gers across the seven beau­ti­fully de­signed Do­bie pa­per­backs with their vin- tage-look­ing cov­ers.

This pa­per­back se­ries, by the way, is kept in print be­cause of a be­quest from Do­bie’s es­tate in the 1970s. Some­one was think­ing ahead to the day when Do­bie was no longer a celebrity. Nowa­days they are mostly avail­able from UT Press via “print on de­mand.”

I asked for all seven. Then slowly read them, some­times giv­ing up al­to­gether, then wind­ing my way back to the brightly colored stack.

“Un­even” does not be­gin to de­scribe the books. Some are barely strung-to­gether anec­dotes, the kind you might find in an old-fash­ioned “gen­eral in­ter­est” news­pa­per col­umn, stitched to­gether by el­lipses. “Rat­tlesnakes” and “The Long- horns” tend to fol­low this pat­tern. In­ter­est­ing in spurts, but repet­i­tive in an un­ap­peal­ing way, like the con­tents of a fil­ing cab­i­net.

Other Do­bie col­lec­tions pre­sent thicker sto­ries, such as the nuggets in “Tales of Old-Time Texas” or “I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Still, the fa­mil­iar pat­terns are burned into the nar­ra­tive leather ,a nd you must be pa­tient with them.

Lost mines and buried trea­sures tick­led Do­bie’s read­ers, and he re­ally does make the search for them com­pelling in “Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver” and, espe- cially, “Coron­ado’s Chil­dren,” the book that prob­a­bly holds up best.

In a spe­cial cat­e­gory is “The Ben Lilly Leg­end,” which ben­e­fits from a fo­cused sub­ject — a great Amer­i­can hunter. Do­bie pur­sued this story with per­sis­tence and rel­ish. It’s as much about the hunt for theh unter as it is about the hunt­ing. I’d be tempted to recomm end this as your first Do­bie, that or “Coron­ado’s Chil­dren.”

Ac­tu­ally, do what I did and start with Davis’ “J. Frank Do­bie: A Lib­er­ated Mind.” You need it to un­der­stand the con­text for any ad­di­tional Do­bie read­ing. Then maybe wait for Davis’ “The Es­sen­tial J. Frank Do­bie” next year.

Do­bie might have been a pro­moter of a Texas that ap­pears in the rearview mir­ror of an over­whelm­ing ur­ban and sub­ur­ban state. And he’s not en­tirely re­li­able as a his­to­rian, but, darn it, he can tell a tale, es­pe­cially when he sticks to the sub­ject. Af­ter all, his sto­ries birthed a lot of Texas mythol­ogy that still shapes the way we think of our­selves to­day.


Folk­lorist, teacher and widely pub­lished news­pa­per colum­nist J. Frank Do­bie helped in­vent Texas lit­er­a­ture.

“The Ben Lilly Leg­end” is the most co­he­sive of the books in print by J. Frank Do­bie be­cause of its fo­cused sub­ject.

“Coron­ado’s Chil­dren” might be your best bet for afirst­di­vein­toJ.Frank Do­bie.

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