J. Frank Dobie: A Reappraisal
DON GRAHAM *
B Y THE TIME OF HIS DEATH IN 1964,J. FRANK DOBIE HAD ACHIEVED AN
extraordinary reputation as a regional spokesman for the South-
west, especially for Texas. He was our Frost, our Faulkner, our Sand-
burg-the local sage who spoke for the region. Sandburg was the one
closest in temperament and achievement to Dobie. They were friends,
and, staying in Dobie's Austin home once, Sandburg said to his host,
upon noticing their similar locks of tousled white hair: "Frank, we look
like a couple of authors."' Certainly Dobie did, with his shock of white
hair and sunny, open face; a smile of apparently legendary charm; and
overall, a sort of cowboyish appeal that never left him. Unlike the
others, however, Dobie did not build his reputation out of imaginative
literature; he wrote neither poems nor novels. He was part folklorist,
part historian, though neither of those disciplines would be comfort-
able with claiming him entirely as one of their own. He rewrote and
retold tales drawn from oral and print sources, and so he was not a
folklorist per se, a collector of folk tales; nor was he a historian like his
friend Walter P. Webb. He was a finder and a popularizer of regional
historical and folkloric materials whose preferred form was the anec-
dotal essay rather than the sustained narrative.
Dobie was born in 1888, the same year as T. S. Eliot and Raymond
Chandler. This is strange company when one thinks about it. Eliot went
on to create some of the greatest of modern poetry, and Chandler be-
came the best hard-boiled detective writer in the U.S. Dobie became a
pioneer literary regionalist; he became Mr. Texas. This honorific title
bestowed upon him by his biographer Lon Tinkle doubles back on it-
*Don Graham is the J Frank Dobie Regents Professor of English and American Literature at
the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Cowboys and Caddlacs. How Hollywood Looks
at Texas (1983), Texas A Literary Portrait (1985), and the editor of South by Southwest- Twenty-four
Stories from Modern Texas (1986). His biography of Audle Murphy, "No Name on the Bullet,"
will be published by Viking in 1989 This essay was presented as the luncheon address on Fri-
day, March 4, 1988, during the Association's annual meeting in Austin.
'Ralph Yarborough, "Yarborough Talks on 'Don Pancho,'" Corral Du.st, XII (Spring, 1967), 5.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 92, July 1988 - April, 1989. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101212/. Accessed January 31, 2015.