Best Texas Books: Wrestling with writer J. Frank Dobie

At some point, every Texas writer — or serious reader — must come to terms with “Mr. Texas.”

Author J. Frank Dobie. American-Statesman file photo.

To the extent that Austinites today recognize the name of folklorist, teacher and widely published columnist, J. Frank Dobie, they might associate it with a middle school, or a freshly renovated mall at the base of a dormitory tower (despite the fact that Dobie hated high-rises), or perhaps with “Philosophers’ Rock,” a sculptural tribute at Barton Springs devoted to Dobie and his gabbing buddies Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb.

The literary-minded might also think of the Dobie Paisano Ranch, which serves as a writer’s retreat on Barton Creek for Dobie Fellows, or the modest Dobie residence across from the University of Texas Law School, where writing students sometimes meet.

Born in 1888, Dobie came out of South Texas brush country with an abiding interest in cowboy yarns, legends of lost treasure, and tales of conquistadors, cattle drives and desert rats. Dobie struggled at first to find his voice, but struck gold in the mass-market magazine trade that was hungry for adventure stories.

He then expanded those articles, sometimes scantily, into two dozen books. He took up residence at UT and mentored subsequent generations of folkorists and writers. A the same time, he penned a weekly column that was published in dozens of newspapers. He died in 1964.

As Steven L. Davis describes in his superb biography, “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind,” the folklorist’s intellectual journey took him from unreconstructed attitudes toward Mexicans, Native-Americans and African-Americans — as well as a belief in the self-reliance of rough-and-ready Texans — to become one of the most progressive and open-minded columnists in the state, the bane of the postwar Establishment. He also mentored Hispanic and African-American folklorists, although he broke with the social scientists in the field who insisted on undiluted field notes rather than lovingly burnished stories. His motto: “Any tale belongs to whoever best tells it.”

RELATE: Start with this J. Frank Dobie bio.

One can certainly ignore Dobie and still understand Texas. Or one can choose other, better writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, Stephen Harrigan, Americo Paredes, Sarah Bird, Don GrahamAttica Locke or Lawrence Wright to gain your initial insights about the state.

I, for one, avoided Dobie for as long as I could. First, I’m allergic to thickly applied dialect, whether from otherwise great authors such as George Eliot (the unreadable “The Mill on the Floss”) or local heroes like John Henry Faulk (whenever told an extended story in someone else’s down-home voice). Also, Dobie’s tales seemed directed at a youthful audience, let’s face it, mostly boys, and rarely have I been able to reread even beloved adventure stories from childhood with much pleasure in my later years.

So what drew me to Dobie in my sixties? One writer, other than Davis, who got me over the conceptual hump was Bill Wittliff, whose masterful recreation of various Texas dialects in his “Devil’s Backbone” series of picaresque novels is an absolute delight. (A third volume comes out this fall from UT Press.)

So maybe Dobie’s liberally applied Texas dialects might not set my teeth on edge.

Also, I’d recently read the collected works of Porter, who sparred with Dobie over their respective places among Texas writers, and came away with the impression that she is among America’s greats, at her best on par with her near contemporaries William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dobie next?

Davis warned me personally that the seven volumes kept in print by the University of Texas Press were uneven. In response, he recently finished a volume of “The Essential J. Frank Dobie,” a “best of” edition to be valued because Dobie could rise to sustained excellence, as I later discovered. It comes out in Fall 2019 from Texas A&M University Press.

The proximate cause for my deep dive into Dobie, however, was a trip to the still-new offices of UT Press, where all their volumes in print are displayed in the reception area. As a diehard bibliophile, I was dazzled. Then I slipped my fingers across the seven beautifully designed Dobie paperbacks with their vintage-looking covers.

This paperback series, by the way, is kept in print because of a bequest from Dobie’ estate in the 1970s. Someone was thinking ahead to the day when Dobie was no longer a celebrity! Now they are mostly available via “print on demand.”

I asked for all seven. Then slowly read them, sometimes giving up altogether, then winding my way back to the stack.

“Uneven” does not begin to describe the books. Some are barely strung-together anecdotes, the kind you might find in an old-fashioned “general interest” column in a newspaper, stitched together by ellipses. “Rattlesnakes” and “The Longhorns” tend to follow this pattern. Interesting in spurts, but repetitive in an unappealing way.

Other Dobie’s collections present thicker stories, such as the nuggets in “Tales of Old-Time Texas” or “I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Still, the familiar patterns are burned into the narrative leather and you must be patient with them.

Lost mines and buried treasures tickled Dobie’s readers and he really does make the search for them compelling in “Apache Gold and Yacqui Silver” and, especially, “Coronado’s Children,” the book that probably holds up best.

In a special category is “The Ben Lilly Legend,” which benefits from a focused subject — a great American hunter. Dobie pursued this story with relish and persistence. I’d be tempted to recommend it as your first Dobie, that or “Coronado’s Children.”

Actually, do what I did and start with Davis’ “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.” You need it to understand the context for any additional Dobie reading.

Some great old Hollywood movies were inspired by these books. And one can find threads of these stories in McMurtry and Wittliff, who spun them into fictional gold.

Dobie might have been a promoter of a Texas that appears in the rearview mirror of an overwhelming urban and suburban state. And he’s not entirely reliable as a historian, but, darn it, he can tell a tale, especially when he sticks to the subject. And his stories birthed a lot of Texas mythology that still shapes the way we think of ourselves today.