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J. Frank Dobie

J. Frank Dobie
A Liberated Mind

Taking a fresh look at a landmark Texas writer who hasn't been the subject of a biography since Lon Tinkle's 1978 An American Original, this book reveals J. Frank Dobie as a "free-range thinker" who fought for liberal political causes.

Series: Charles N. Prothro Texana Endowment

October 2009
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296 pages | 6 x 9 | 38 b&w photos |

The first Texas-based writer to gain national attention, J. Frank Dobie proved that authentic writing springs easily from the native soil of Texas and the Southwest. In best-selling books such as Tales of Old-Time Texas, Coronado's Children, and The Longhorns, Dobie captured the Southwest's folk history, which was quickly disappearing as the United States became ever more urbanized and industrial. Renowned as "Mr. Texas," Dobie paradoxically has almost disappeared from view—a casualty of changing tastes in literature and shifts in social and political attitudes since the 1960s.

In this lively biography, Steven L. Davis takes a fresh look at a J. Frank Dobie whose "liberated mind" set him on an intellectual journey that culminated in Dobie becoming a political liberal who fought for labor, free speech, and civil rights well before these causes became acceptable to most Anglo Texans. Tracing the full arc of Dobie's life (1888–1964), Davis shows how Dobie's insistence on "free-range thinking" led him to such radical actions as calling for the complete integration of the University of Texas during the 1940s, as well as taking on governors, senators, and the FBI (which secretly investigated him) as Texas's leading dissenter during the McCarthy era.


Texas Institute of Letters AwardsFinalist, Carr P. Collins Award for Nonfiction

  • Acknowledgments
  • A Liberated Mind
  • Part 1: Rebel of the Lost Cause
    • Chapter 1: Along the Ramirenia
    • Chapter 2: The Education of a Brush Countryman, 1904-1912
    • Chapter 3: From Texas to New York, 1913-1914
    • Chapter 4: Fighting Conformity, Courting Bertha, 1914-1916
    • Chapter 5: The Great War, 1915-1919
  • Part 2: The Rising Star
    • Chapter 6: A Rangeland Epiphany, 1920-1921
    • Chapter 7: The Making of a Folklorist, 1921-1923
    • Chapter 8: The Rising Star, 1923-1926
    • Chapter 9: Voices of the Southwest, 1926-1930
    • Chapter 10: Regionalism Goes National, 1929-1930
  • Part 3: Mr. Texas
    • Chapter 11: Dobie in Bloom, 1930-1934
    • Chapter 12: Into Mexico, 1933-1935
    • Chapter 13: The Flavor of Texas, 1936
    • Chapter 14: The Austin Liberals, 1936-1938
    • Chapter 15: Apache Gold vs. Pale Horse, 1937-1939
  • Part 4: Texas Needs Brains
    • Chapter 16: The Longhorns, 1939-1941
    • Chapter 17: True Patriotism and the Singing Governor, 1940-1941
    • Chapter 18: The Liberal Hero, 1941-1943
    • Chapter 19: A Contemporary of Himself, 1943-1946
    • Chapter 20: A Texan in England, 1943-1946
    • Chapter 21: Texas Needs Brains, 1946-1947
  • Part 5: Elder Statesman
    • Chapter 22: Coyote Wisdom, 1948-1953
    • Chapter 23: Elder Statesman, 1951-1958
    • Chapter 24: Literary Dictator, 1952-1960
    • Chapter 25: End of an Era, 1955-1959
  • Part 6: Twilight
    • Chapter 26: One Touch of Nature, Plus, 1960-1962
    • Chapter 27: Sunset, 1962-1964
    • Chapter 28: Dobie's Legacy
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Steven L. Davis is the Assistant Curator at the Southwestern Writers Collection/The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University–San Marcos and serves as editor of the Southwestern Writers Collection book series, published by the University of Texas Press. His previous books include Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond.


The White House, April 25, 1964. 12:10 p.m.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Hello.

Harry S. Truman: This is Harry Truman talking.

Johnson: Yes sir, Mr. President, how are you? Lyndon Johnson [here].

Truman: Well, my goodness alive.

Johnson: I'm mighty glad to hear your voice.

Truman: I thought I ought to report that I appeared. I thought maybe if it was convenient to you after lunch I'd like to come over and pay a call to you.

Johnson: Well, I've got a good old friend of mine . . . why don't you come and have lunch with me?

Truman: Oh, my goodness alive.

Johnson: Come over here . . . you can walk over here. I'm going to have a little press conference . . . I'm going to let them come in and tell them they can go for the weekend. But if you want to come over, say 12:45 or 1:00, why we'll say howdy to the boys and then you and I and Dr. Frank Dobie, an old friend of mine that you've met down in Texas two or three times with Rayburn, he's here, and we'll just have a quiet little luncheon. You come and eat with us. I'll give you a snort or two, but I won't put you on the helicopter.

Truman: [laughter]

Johnson: I won't put you on the helicopter.

Truman: [laughter] . . . all right . . . you know I always obey the President, especially when it's you.

Johnson: Thank you, Mr. President.

Truman: I'll be over.

Johnson: Wonderful to see you.


J. Frank Dobie was not quite a "doctor," as Johnson described him. Although a longtime professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the independent-minded Dobie had always resisted the stuffiness and pedantry of academia. Indeed, he led a lifelong rebellion against his own profession, working to bring scholarship out of the ivory tower and down to earth, where it could be shared among the people. He had long ago forsworn getting his doctoral degree, famously observing, "The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another."


It had not been easy for Johnson to bring the ailing seventy-five-year-old to Washington. When the president's staff extended the invitation, Dobie turned them down, citing his poor health. Then Johnson placed a direct call. The president didn't tape that conversation, but he did record a subsequent phone call to journalist Marshall McNeil. "I called old man Dobie this morning," Johnson said, "and told him I'd send Lady Bird's plane and bring him to Dallas and I'd buy his tickets . . . and I'd get him up here and he'd stay at the White House and, goddammit, he'd have to come up and do it." Johnson added, "He said he didn't know whether he'd make it, but said 'I'm like a horse that's down in his bottom.'"


Dobie spent three days in the president's company, sitting in with Johnson during meetings with California Governor Pat Brown and United Auto Workers Union President Walter Reuther. He also joined Johnson and Truman for lunch and a press conference. After Dobie's return home to Austin, Johnson announced that he was awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Dobie would live just long enough to see the medal.


After his death, an old friend of Dobie's, Kate O'Connor, reached for her copy of his book The Longhorns, which had been published some twenty years earlier. Dobie had written portions of it on the O'Connor Ranch and had dedicated a chapter to her. He had warmly inscribed this particular copy to the O'Connor family. She opened the book and wrote, "J. Frank Dobie died in Austin Texas Friday Sep 18-1964—unloved and unmourned—because he defected to the enemy—communism."


Dobie was hated and loved, sometimes by the same people. A University of Texas regent who sought to remove Dobie from his teaching post observed, "[He is] beloved by all of us and I don't know anybody who isn't his friend." Yet the regent added, "I tell you frankly you can either fire him or keep him, you can't control him." One of Dobie's sternest critics, a Mexican American scholar named Américo Paredes, later told an interviewer, "I found him to be a very loveable old . . . fraud." Paredes produced the most scathing literary portrait of Dobie in existence, yet he also sang a song in the old man's honor after his death. Dobie's long-suffering wife, Bertha, who was often left alone while he set out on adventures, once observed, "I should say that in Frank, pig, charging bull and mule together make a half, and that the other half is humanity at its very finest." Although Dobie received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government also secretly investigated him as a subversive threat, according to recently declassified FBI documents.


James Frank Dobie came to prominence in the 1920s as the savior of Texas's rural past, hailed by his many admirers for capturing the region's folk history, which was quickly disappearing ahead of the nation's rapid industrial expansion. He was the first Texas writer to achieve significant national attention, and he parlayed his success into building an image for himself as "Mr. Texas." As a highly quotable, often controversial figure, Dobie was a publicist's dream. A stocky man of medium height, he exuded vigor and charm. The stubborn set of his jaw and his blazing blue eyes were offset by a wide, contagious grin and cackling laughter. He had a thick thatch of prematurely gray hair and bushy dark eyebrows. He puffed thoughtfully on an ever-present pipe and outfitted himself in crumpled khakis, tucking his pants into his boots, rancher style. Resting on his head was a Stetson hat. Dobie looked and sounded like he had just come from the ranch, but then he could quote Shakespeare with ease.


Many people viewed Dobie as Texas's ambassador to the world and he relished his status, working vigorously to influence the state's cultural development in the directions he thought it should go. He grew up in Texas during an era when the state was emphatically Old South, when farmers outnumbered ranchers and cotton was king. Yet Dobie focused his attention on cowboys, cattle ranching, and the early Spanish Mexican presence, helping Texas reinvent itself as part of the New Southwest.


At the University of Texas, Dobie challenged his colleagues to broaden their conceptions of education beyond the traditional emphasis on classical and European civilizations. A great university, he argued, should be of the state it is in, and he criticized those who have "no more sympathy for the life of the Southwest than they have for life in Patagonia." Despite encountering significant opposition, Dobie helped pioneer the concept of "regional studies" in academia. The point of studying one's own region, Dobie noted, is that, "If people are to enjoy their own lives, they must be aware of the significances of their own environments."


Dobie also helped dismantle the traditional "Great Man" approach to history, in which historians explained the past by focusing on the military and political exploits of a few powerful individuals. Dobie's own aim was to capture stories that "express a social background" by revealing "the mind, the metaphor, and the mores of the common people." It took the historical profession a few decades to catch up with Dobie and other renegades like him, but many scholars eventually recognized that social history—examining the lives of everyday people—provides a more compelling portrait of our shared past.


Prior to Dobie's time, academics were expected to publish narrow treatises, primarily for the benefit of other scholars. Many academics abhorred the thought of being understood by common readers. Dobie's ability to convey scholarly ideas through accessible prose is one of his enduring achievements. He inspired many future scholars—although by no means a majority—to aim for clarity in their writing.


However, Dobie's own legacy as a writer remains uneven and, like the man himself, is full of contradictions. Highly praised during his lifetime, he has been attacked by legions of critics since his death. His rallying cry was always "authenticity," yet he approached his native region with a romanticism that unwittingly contributed to the same "Wild West" stereotypes he railed against. Although he claimed deep friendships with Texas Mexican vaqueros, his view of race relations was complicated by his fealty to Anglo American culture, and Chicano scholars have since accused him of jingoism. He consistently demanded the highest level of achievement in other writers, and yet his own prose sometimes reads, as one critic complained, "as if it had bored him to write it."


Despite his flaws as a writer, Dobie succeeded in capturing vital aspects of Texas's past that would have otherwise been lost. His books helped nourish future generations of authors—such as Larry McMurtry—who freely adapted his tales into their work. Dobie also mentored dozens of younger writers—men, women, Mexican Americans, and African Americans—who went on to significant accomplishments of their own.


Dobie grew up worshipping the nineteenth century's open range, and he absorbed many of the mythologies—and prejudices—of those times. He believed that Anglos were entitled to expand their control over territory previously held by other ethnic groups. He lionized frontiersmen such as Jim Bowie, whom he once described as "brave, bloody, rough, romantic, real, enigmatical . . . who fought for nebulous treasure as hardily as for a nation's liberty."


Dobie's provincial pride led him to engage in chauvinistic boosterism, and he made such claims as, "In one Texas town there is more color of legend and history than can be found in the whole state of Iowa." When Texas braggadocio reached new heights during the state's 1936 centennial celebration, Dobie took the opportunity to enshrine his reputation as "Mr. Texas."


Dobie also expressed "violently anti-New Deal" opinions during the 1930s, as his fierce devotion to freedom led him to oppose any governmental constraints. He was ill equipped to understand the causes of the Great Depression, nor did he accurately gauge its severity, and he was among those who believed that Franklin Roosevelt threatened to turn proud, individualistic people into "a nation of sap-suckers."


But change was on the horizon for Dobie, thanks to his principled belief in free-range thinking. Even though he seemed to embody conservative Texas's traditional values, he was never an easy man to pin down. In the 1920s he single-handedly integrated the Texas Folklore Society, installing a Mexican American woman named Jovita González as the organization's president. In the 1930s he inducted J. Mason Brewer, an African American writer, promoting his work and career with equal fervor.


As the United States began to pull out of the Great Depression, conservative political opposition to Roosevelt mounted into hysteria, and Dobie began to realize that abusive corporations, rather than the federal government, posed the larger threat to individual liberty. Attacks by right-wing businessmen on academic freedom at the University of Texas made the battle personal for him, and at the age of fifty-three, Dobie came out fighting as a political liberal.


The transformation was remarkable. The person who once symbolized Texas provincialism began criticizing "Texas bragging that goes no deeper than the imitation felt of a big hat." With his customary gusto, Dobie fought for labor, free speech, and civil rights. By 1946 he was calling for the complete integration of the University of Texas. Many old friends thought he had lost his mind, and many fans felt betrayed.


Dobie never backed away from his convictions, and he continued to broaden his mind and sharpen his writing as he grew older. He ultimately realized the limitations of political activity, concluding that personal "enlightenment is the only answer." In his later years Dobie became viewed as a "sage of the sagebrush," sharing his hard-won insights with others in the hope of inspiring a wiser and more tolerant humanity. By the end of his life, Dobie overcame many—though not all—of his early limitations. The epitaph he penned for his own tombstone sums up his life's journey: "I have come to value liberated minds as the supreme good of life on earth."



“A crisp, reliable, and thorough biography. . . . Steve Davis gives us a much richer understanding of Dobie than we have had previously. All in all, a fine effort.”
Larry McMurtry


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