The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 92, July 1988 - April, 1989

J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb

Remembering Walter Prescott Webb
LEWIS P. SIMPsoN*
I recall that when J. Frank Dobie announced he was severing his con-
nection with the University of Texas, a large group of students-who
were sympathetic with the stand Dobie had taken against the University
administration during the political turmoil of the 194s-paid him the
tribute of a torchlight parade to his home. I remember, too, that when
he was asked to comment on Dobie's action, Walter Prescott Webb said
of his old friend, "Well, Frank has always been a maverick." Even though
he was thoroughly sympathetic with Dobie-and felt, as he once told
me, that he himself had had "all the stuffing.., knocked out" of him
by the political events of the forties-Webb never seemed to consider
leaving the faculty; or, if he did in fact do so, did not reveal this pub-
licly. In contrast to Dobie, who was essentially a displaced cowhand with
a genuine nostalgia for the open range, Webb, for all his own strong
emotional attachment to the memory of a preindustrial America, was
an institutional man. He believed in staying with the system and mak-
ing it work as well as possible against adverse circumstances. Yet, though
he inspired no torchlight parades, Webb was more truly the academic
maverick than the at times flamboyant Dobie (who once went to jail
rather than pay a fine he had incurred for defying the parking regula-
tions on the Drag). Indeed, Webb had prefaced his career as a major
historian by defying, for the sake of his intellectual integrity, the sacred
authority of the graduate school of the University of Chicago and leav-
ing without receiving his academic union card, the Ph.D. degree.
One of Webb's difficulties with historical orthodoxy was that he
believed-somewhat like an anthropologist, or it may be more like a
poet-that if he made himself sufficiently attentive to the concrete life
of a time and place, an imaginative historian could test the received his-
torical interpretation of this time and place by reexperiencing it, in a
sense, himself. What did people actually do in a given historical situa-
tion? What tools, weapons, etc., did they have in their hands? How did
they use these? Asking such questions, Webb revised the thesis ad-
vanced by Frederick Jackson Turner, and at the same time constructed
a broader way of looking at the character of what Turner had defined
as the "significance of the frontier" in American history. Paying close
attention to the connection between technology and the westward
movement, Webb saw how the plains frontier remained resistant to
*Lewis P Simpson is Boyd Professor at Louisiana State Umniversity and editor emeritus of the
Southern Review

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 December 27, 2014.