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  • J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind
  • David G. McComb
J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind. By Steven L. Davis. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. 296. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978029271142. $24.95 cloth.)

If you love Texas, you should read this book. Do not rush through it like a graduate student short on time, but read it in a reflective manner that would win the approval of Dobie himself. The character of this man, who was the first national literary star from Texas, deserves to be savored and understood in the climate of his time. He was stubborn and outspoken, friendly and generous, original [End Page 218] and rambling, self-promoting and considerate, hated and revered. But, as Joe B. Frantz adjudged in The Forty Acre Follies, "He belonged to the campfire and a ring of silence, where a man lets his words and thoughts lie on the wind awhile before moving on to the next stanza" (162).

J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) grew up in the ranching country of South Texas; absorbed the prejudices of his white neighbors; pursued an education that carried him through a master's degree at Columbia; married Bertha, his college sweetheart; and began a mixed career of ranching, teaching, speaking, and writing that resulted in 21 books, 800 magazine articles, and 1,300 news columns. He was labeled as a folklorist whose breakthrough book, Coronado's Children: Tales of Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of the Southwest (1930), demonstrated a talent of gathering folk stories and retelling them in an agreeable, if loose, manner. He was not a "scientific folklorist" who was careful about evidence. As he commented to historian C. L. Sonnichsen, who was offended by such an attitude ("J. Frank Dobie," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1988), "But I think when you are writing history, you have to stick to the facts, but when you are telling a story, you have to make it a good story" (107).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dobie's life, as biographer Steven L. Davis emphasizes, was his transformation from a young conservative of rural narrowness to an old liberal with a worldly "liberated mind." Dobie was jolted to the left by administrative attacks upon academic freedom at the University of Texas in 1942, where he taught in the English department, and by the global view of English scholars at Cambridge who shattered his Texas provincialism when he taught there in 1943. Dobie began to defend unions and the civil rights of minorities. He had such a large reputation and personality, however, that he became the natural target for conservatives who inspired a secret FBI investigation, Mexican scholars who resented the patronizing attitude of his early writings, and new writers who attacked the predominant intellectual triumvirate of Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek.

Having been the subject of other biographies and articles the main events of Dobie's life are well known and there exist large archives of Dobie letters and papers. Davis, for instance, is the assistant curator at Texas State University-San Marcos for a collection of Dobie materials rescued by happy chance from an estate sale by writer Bill Wittliff of Austin. Davis utilized the various archives and built upon the work of others, particularly Lon Tinkle's prize-winning biography, An American Original: The Life of J. Frank Dobie (1978). Davis often cites Tinkle as his source of quotations. The problem here is that Tinkle's book provides no footnotes, so a terrier-like researcher will have difficulty tracking a quotation to its documentary origin.

This new biography, nonetheless, is efficient, pleasant to read, and adds new information. Bertha, who was often left for long periods at home, is treated with greater sympathy than in other accounts; Dobie's softening prejudice toward Blacks, Indians, and Mexicans is explored; the secret F.B.I. files are exposed; and there is a thorough review of Dobie's various books. But the reason that this biography should be read by those who love Texas is that it provides a warm description of Texas's intellectual emergence with the work of Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek, the triumvirate so easily dismissed...


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