Meet ‘Mr. Texas,’ folklorist J. Frank Dobie
The Austinite was an early literary superstar, but who reads him today?
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.