They don’t make historians — or folklorists — like this anymore.
J. Frank Dobie was of a generation of American historians who wrote readable prose for a general audience. Bernard DeVoto and Samuel Eliot Morison also come to mind. Though he spent much of his life standing in front of classrooms, Dobie was not a historian in an academic sense. He was more of an anecdotal folklorist. His field of study was the Southwest, especially his beloved home state of Texas. To this big subject Dobie devoted twenty-odd books.
The Lone Star State fascinates because of its multicultural frontier history and sheer size. From the eastern pine woods to the western deserts, and from the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico to the buffalo plains of the Panhandle — Texas is a country in itself. The river valleys (The Brazos, the Guadalupe, the Trinity, etc.) draining into the Gulf were settled by Manifest Destiny-driven Americans, and even German immigrants. From San Antonio south to the Rio Grande the Spanish influence from Mexico prevailed. For two centuries the bellicose mounted Comanches ruled the interior plains. In 1836 there was the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, giving birth to the decade-long Republic of Texas. Then statehood in 1845. The kingdom of cattle and the empire of oil. The legendary Texas Rangers. Texas has had a more interesting history than many sovereign nations.
Into this historical-cultural melting pot James Frank Dobie was born in rural Live Oak County, Texas, on September 26, 1888. His father Richard Dobie was a rancher. His mother Ella (Byler) Dobie read the Bible and “Pilgrim’s Progress” to the writer as a child. Dobie graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, in 1910. He married Bertha McKee, a fellow student in 1916. He served briefly in a U.S. Army field artillery unit in France at the end of World War I.
Dobie’s first articles about the Southwest began to appear in local newspapers and magazines in the early 1920s while he was an English professor at the University of Texas (U.T.) at Austin, and later during his tenure as English Department chairman at Oklahoma A&M University. In 1929 Dobie published his first book, A Vaquero of the Brush Country, a scholarly celebration of the 19th century open range Texas cattle culture. He followed it with Coronado’s Children (1931), a popular history of tales of “lost” mines in the Southwest, and those who sought them.
Dobie’s politics was a New Deal liberalism prevalent in the '30s. He promoted it in a weekly Sunday column that appeared in a number of Texas newspapers. He seemed to take his cue from H.L. Mencken as he enthusiastically attacked Texas politicians (“When I get ready to explain homemade fascism in America, I can take my example from the state capitol of Texas”). He also fancied himself an architecture critic, once describing the famed University Tower on the UT campus as a landmark that “looked like a toothpick in a pie.”
Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver appeared in 1939, chronicling the southwest Indian Wars, and then The Longhorns (1941), a more developed treatment of his first book: “Man does everything best — or worst; and next to thunder and lightning, nothing could put more terror into a herd of man-fearing longhorns than Man himself…. Many a stampede was started by some prank of boyish innocence. That’s one reason why many trail bosses would not allow a boy along.” The Voice of the Coyote howled in 1949. It’s a book best described as “everything coyote,” an elaborate examination of Indian legends, ranch folklore, and wildlife biology: “The coyote’s favorite food is anything he can chew; it does not have to be digestible…. His investigative nature demands not only seeing, hearing, smelling, but often also chewing.”
Dobie spent World War II teaching American literature at Cambridge, and out of that experience came A Texan in England (1945). After the war there were teaching stints in Germany and Austria. He was fired from the U.T. faculty in 1947 after tangling with the university regents and Governor Robert “Coke” Stevenson while defending the liberal politics of certain professors, including his own. Stevenson thought Dobie a “troublemaker,” and the regents used his request for an extension of his European sabbatical as an excuse to dismiss him. Dobie turned his back on academia and devoted the rest of his life to writing.
In 1952 Dobie published The Mustangs, his history of the introduction of the horse to the New World and its ramifications, and maybe his best book. This changed the geopolitical makeup of the West as horses — through thievery and trade — made their way north from Mexico in the 17th century. It certainly benefitted the raiding and buffalo-chasing Comanches, who used their newfound mobility to dominate the Southern Plains for a hundred and fifty years. “The only reason, the Comanches boasted, that they allowed Spaniards to remain in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico was to raise horses for them.” Nineteen sixty-four saw the publication of Cow People, a look at colorful personalities related to Texas ranching history. In 1965, Rattlesnakes, a quirky tome of stories and folklore about Texas’ most well-known lethal pest. It was Dobie’s last book, edited by his wife, and published posthumously.
In 1964 Dobie was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded him by his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson. The president and the writer had a long Texas history in common, including a shared animus for Coke Stevenson. Oddly enough, Dobie died four days later on September 18, 1964. He’s buried in the State Cemetery, not far from the U.T. campus, a place he both loved and hated.
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