A Guide to the J. Frank Dobie Papers, 1898 -1988 (Bulk: 1914-1964)
J. Frank Dobie, teacher, storyteller, folklorist, historian, and author, was born September 18, 1888 on a ranch in the South Texas brush country of Live Oak County. Raised in the toughening, physically bracing traditions of a remote ranching region, Dobie nonetheless developed an early love for language and literature. His mother encouraged reading, providing her children with mail-ordered books, and his father developed the boy's narrative sense with nightly readings of the King James version of the bible. Dobie's mother saw to it that he and his siblings were sent away to relatives in the small town of Alice so that they could obtain the requisite schooling to pursue higher education.
Dobie received his BA from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. There, under the influence of Professor Albert Shipp Pegues, he became enthralled by the English romantic poets. There too he met the poetry-loving Bertha McKee, who would become his wife, lifelong companion, adviser, booster and critic. After Dobie received his degree in 1910, he taught at a high school in Alpine, Texas and worked summers as a newspaper reporter. Deciding he wished to teach poetry at a more advanced level than high school, Dobie pursued a Masters at Columbia University. He later admitted to being only a lackluster student who learned more from New York and the New York theater than he did from the university.
Returning to Texas, Dobie joined the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin. In his first year there, he officed with Stith Thompson who introduced him to the organization with which he became so closely identified, the Texas Folklore Society World War I soon wrested Dobie from the classroom and he was sent overseas shortly before the armistice. While he missed the fighting, he took the opportunity to acquaint himself with Europe.
Dobie returned to the University of Texas English Department after his discharge from the army. Still ambivalent about his life's direction, he left UT in 1920 to run an uncle's ranch. The ranching stint was unsuccessful and he returned to teaching, writing his wife that "in the university I am a wild man; in the wilds I am a scholar and a poet" (Tinkle 102). He began to settle on a scholarly pursuit that could make use of both environments. Dobie had enjoyed listening to the stories of one of his uncle's vaqueros, Santos Cortez. "It came to me that I would collect and tell the legendary tales of Texas as Lomax had collected the old-time songs and ballads of Texas and the frontier. I thought that the stories of the range were as interesting as the songs. I considered that if they could be put down so as to show the background out of which they have come they might have high value" (Tinkle 102). From that point, Dobie actively pursued the folk legends of the Southwest in his travels, readings, and writings.
Dobie became editor of the Texas Folklore Society in 1921. He took a strong hand in the independent direction of the organization, which still follows the standards he set. Under Dobie, the Texas Folklore Society broke from the practices of the American Folklore Society. The national branch examined the subject from an objective scholarly viewpoint while Dobie and his followers instead collected and presented folklore as a living, breathing, participatory endeavor.
Dobie's second book, Coronado's Children, received national attention and broadened substantially the Texas writer's audience. In 1932, Dobie ventured into broadcasting with the radio program "Longhorn Luke and his Cowboys." He also published articles in magazines and continued to put out his folklore books. He frequently traveled in search of material for his books, and he became a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. In 1939, he began his syndicated newspaper column "My Texas." Successful in each medium, Dobie came to symbolize the essence of Texas in the popular mind.
Through all this activity, Dobie remained based at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1930, he introduced his course Life and Literature of the Southwest, and it became the most popular offering on campus. Its curriculum was copied in universities across the state.
Dobie had always had a prickly relationship with the University of Texas based partly on his refusal to seek a PhD and partly on his belief that the Southwest was a sufficient scholarly focus in its own right. In 1943, Dobie left UT to serve a two-year stint as lecturer on American History in Cambridge, England. Upon his return, Dobie jumped right into a heated controversy when he spoke out in defense of Homer Price Rainey, president of the University of Texas, in the fight with the Board of Regents. In 1947, when then University president Theophilus Painter refused to grant Dobie another leave, Dobie resigned with the administration's acquiescence. He remained at his home in the University area and was always associated with the University of Texas though his formal days as a teacher were over.
Dobie endeared himself to the public both through his personality and his brand of tale telling. He boldly used his popularity to speak out on social issues and other causes that captured his attention. An ardent individualist, he constantly railed against censorship, demagogic religiosity, and those who would impede freedom of thought. "I have come to value liberated minds as the supreme good of life on earth" (Some Part of Myself 6). He championed black voting rights in 1945 and supported organized labor's right to strike. He considered certain college departments unsatisfactory as programs of learning. Journalism, he said, was the unctuous elaboration of the obvious. Of education-trained teachers he commented, "I have never encountered one possessed of a first class mind, though I have encountered a few fairly good ones. Many are dull well-meanders, cunning climbers, exponents of the paltry, and, worst of all, duelers of eager searching intelligence--especially of intelligence lodged in teachers not willing to knuckle" (Tinkle 170).
After Dobie's death in September of 1964, his wife Bertha, who had worked so closely with him throughout their life together, saw to the publication of two books under Dobie's name based on his notes. The Dobies had no children of their own but were particularly fond of Bertha's nephew, Edgar Kincaid. Kincaid moved in with the Dobies when he became a student at the University of Texas, and he remained in their Austin house on 26th Street to tend to them in their old age. Kincaid was an avid ornithologist and editor of The Bird Life of Texas (1974).
The Dobie name today is often spoken in the same breath with that of his two University of Texas contemporaries, the historian Walter Prescott Webb and the naturalist Roy Bedichek. The three friends have been titled Texas' intellectual triumvirate and are considered the forerunners to Texas literature. "[They] were living proof that serious persons could do independent cultural work in Texas" (Texas Observer 18).
Joe Frantz remarked that Dobie was "Texas' first liberated mind to achieve a wide audience and the first truly professional writer produced by the state" (Third Coast 1983). Many Texas writers openly credit Dobie with giving them the inspiration not only to be a writer but also to feel comfortable using their home state as a subject. Billy Lee Brammer admitted, "It never occurred to me--ever--until I read Frank Dobie, that I could be a writer. There simply were no writers in Texas" (Texas Observer 21). Fred Gipson confided that he had never realized it was possible to live in Texas and be a writer until Dobie set the example (Austin American Statesman B5). Publisher and screenwriter Bill Wittliff wrote Bertha on Dobie's death that "Dobie was the prime moving force of my life." Bertha and friends established a most fitting memorial to Dobie in light of his contribution to Texas letters, the Dobie-Paisano fellowship. The award provides money for writers and artists to work on their projects during a six month stay on Dobie's Paisano ranch in the hill country outside of Austin.
Bibliography: Dobie, J. Frank. Some Part of Myself. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967; Dugger, Ronnie, "Dobie, Bedichek, Webb: Workers in the Culture," The Texas Observer 19 Aug. 1983: 18; Frantz, Joe, "The Forty Acre Follies,” The Third Coast, Dec. 1983: 100; Porterfield, Billy, "Dobie's Roots Helped Texas Writers Blossom" The Austin American-Statesman, 24 Sep. 1990: B1; and Tinkle, Lon. An American Original. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1978.
The bulk of this archive was acquired through Bill and Sally Wittliff, who purchased the material in an estate sale in 1985. (See Richard Holland's article in Corners of Texas cited above for a fuller description of the acquisition.) Dobie had already donated much of his library and papers to the University of Texas at Austin. The material at Texas State was what remained in his Austin house at the time of his death in 1964. It is divided into five series: Works, Personal, Bertha McKee Dobie and Edgar Kincaid Papers, Artifacts, and Newspaper Clippings. The series contain drafts of Dobie's posthumous books, research material, drafts of newspaper columns, magazine articles, lectures, transcriptions of radio broadcasts, correspondence, photographs of family and friends, property deeds, income tax records, personal items (pipes, clothes, a favorite chair), wills, and clippings about Dobie as well as articles, clippings and photographs that had belonged to Bertha McKee Dobie and/or Edgar Kincaid.
Series I: Works, 1914-1982, n.d., Bulk Dates 1922-1964 Boxes 1-12, 25
The first subseries, Books, contains drafts, galleys, research notes and clippings, photographs, correspondence, captions, typescripts and a record album of Dobie's books. Also included are files on posthumous books compiled by Dobie's wife Bertha.
The second subseries is entitled Research Material. The research files include correspondence, bibliographical notes, articles, clippings, pictures, and quotes on the Southwestern themes Dobie explored. Subjects covered are animals, Southwestern customs, Texas heroes, Southwestern characters, hunting, tall tales, cooking and treasure hunting. Files of old maps and guidebooks document research trips made to Mexico including the 1933 trip to Saltillo with Henry Nash Smith.
Fellow University of Texas English professor Stith Thompson invited Dobie to join the Texas Folklore Society in 1915. The third subseries contains documents relating to his involvement in the organization. Dobie claimed he had never heard of the word folklore before. "If Stith Thompson hadn't said folklore to me . . . I don't know where in the devil I'd be today. (Tinkle 37) Dobie succeeded Thompson in 1922 as secretary-editor of the society's publications. He revitalized the society after it had become moribund during World War I, and he pushed it in a direction independent of the American Folklore Society. Dobie resigned as editor in 1943, when he left Texas to teach a year in Cambridge, England, but he continued as a participant in the society and his influence remains strong to this date.
The fourth subseries is entitled Newspaper Columns. Dobie first worked for a newspaper, the San Antonio Express, the summer after graduation from Southwestern in 1910. In 1914, he reported for the Galveston Tribune to earn extra money during a summer break from teaching at the University of Texas. In September 1939, Dobie began a syndicated newspaper column which he continued writing until the year of his death. His columns touched on a wide range of areas from current events and postwar Europe to folk tales and Texas characters. This subseries contains drafts of these columns. It also contains his file on the Alamo memorial sculpture controversy, which includes articles, interviews and correspondence. In 1937, the sculptor Pompeo Coppini was commissioned to create a monument to the fighters at the Alamo. Dobie vehemently took issue with the choice and expressed his views publicly by radio and newspaper.
The next subseries, Magazine Articles, includes the typescript of Dobie's first nationally published article for The Country Gentleman. The subsequent magazine articles cover various topics of interest to Dobie--cowboy life, Mexico, herbs, animals, reading, literature, etc.
Dobie became a popular lecturer as his books and articles on Southwestern ways gained national attention. The sixth subseries, Lectures and Speeches, includes notes on his speaking itinerary and covers his lectures on folklore, the Southwest and his experience as a Texan in England.
The final subseries has been titled Radio and Television. Dobie began broadcasting from the radio in 1932 with five-minute talks on the program "Longhorn Luke and His Cowboys." His radio programs and later television appearances covered the same subjects as his books and articles but the audio/visual aspects of the technologies allowed him to enhance the tales with live narration. The files contain a letter from his original radio sponsor, fan letters, and scripts.
Series II: Personal, 1898-1988, n.d., Bulk Dates 1914-1964 Boxes 13-23
The first subseries within this group of records, Family, contains a family photo album of mostly 19th century photographs of the Dobie and Byler families. Also included are the family bible from which Dobie's father read nightly and two of Dobie's own bibles given to him as gifts: one in 1905 from W. H. Butler and the other from his family in 1908.
The next set of files, entitled Graduate Education, contains class notes, the Masters thesis, theater programs and newspaper clippings from Dobie's Columbia University days. Despite Dobie's statement in Some Part of Myself that he destroyed a "kind of diary" he kept at the time because he "was so disgusted with the sentimentality in it" (185), there is a diary herein which for the most part describes his reactions to the New York theater.
In the third subseries, World War I Service, is found Dobie's army uniform, his shipping trunk, and military documents. Dobie enlisted in the Army May 17, 1917 but was not shipped to Europe until October of 1918 shortly before the armistice of November 11. He never saw action but was able to use the opportunity to see something of Europe.
The next subseries, Teaching, contains grade books, teaching notes, lectures and diaries. It includes the notes from the lectures Dobie gave at Cambridge University in 1943.
Household Records and Personal Effects, the fifth subseries, contains property deeds, income tax records, invoices, mementos, personal items, addresses, wills, and notes. There is information on Dobie's homes, lifestyle and interests. The file named Workfiles and mementos contains miscellaneous envelopes, empty files, clippings and articles including Walter Prescott Webb's "The Search for William E. Hinds."
The next subseries contains correspondence. The majority of these letters are from Dobie to Bertha detailing his experiences in the army. Other letters to Bertha were written during various separations and discuss family, personal matters and Dobie's writings. They also mention Dobie's work with the Texas Folklore Society and his various research interests. The other major correspondence in this subseries is the letters of Roy Bedichek. Bedichek was director of the University of Texas Interscholastic League by profession but a student of nature by predilection. Bedichek often met with Dobie and historian Walter Prescott Webb for barbecue or at Barton Springs swimming pool in Austin to argue and philosophize. Prodded by Dobie and Webb, Bedichek became a writer of lyrical books on nature at the advanced age of 70. His letters discuss animal stories, politics (especially Texas politics), and mutual friends--University of Texas president Homer Rainey, Folksong collector John Lomax, political commentator John Henry Faulk, Western historian Henry Nash Smith, Walter Prescott Webb and Texas Folklore Society editors Mody Boatright and Wilson Hudson. Also included here are some letters from Isabel Gaddis, a friend who collaborated with Dobie on I'll Tell You A Tale, published in 1960.
Dobie died on September 18, 1964. The seventh subseries, Dobie’s Death, contains the many telegrams and condolence cards sent to his widow along with funeral arrangements, the memorial record book and newspaper clippings about Dobie's accomplishments.
The eighth subseries, Writings about Dobie, is a collection of clippings, articles and papers on J. Frank Dobie gathered by his wife Bertha and his nephew, Edgar Kincaid. A few of the clippings concern Roy Bedichek or Edgar Kincaid. There also is a file on the Paisano Fellowship, the grant set up as a memorial to Dobie. His beloved ranch west of Austin was deeded to the University of Texas, which, along with the Texas Institute of Letters, manages a fellowship for selected Texas writers and artists. The award enables the writer or artist to spend six months on the ranch with a stipend in order to work on projects free from distraction. The first fellowship was granted in 1967 to Billy Porterfield.
Photographs, the final subseries contains photographs of Dobie, his wife Bertha, and their family and friends. There are publicity photos, photos taken on Dobie's research trips, and pictures clipped for research. Included are photos of Dobie and Bertha on their ranch or entertaining friends.
Series III: Bertha McKee Dobie and Edgar Kincaid Papers, 1926-1974, n.d. Boxes 23-25
This series contains family letters to Bertha. The bulk of the correspondence is from her mother and mentions Dobie, his work, and his trips to Mexico. The letters also discuss Bertha's family, health and gardening. Included too are Bertha's gardening columns, and various sundry clippings, pamphlets and articles that she collected about Dobie and other matters of interest to her. Edgar Kincaid's family records and photographs of Kincaid at a book signing for The Bird Life of Texas are also present.
Series IV: Artifacts, n.d. Boxes 26-27
This series contains personal items that belonged to J. Frank Dobie, including clothing, toiletries, a ceramic roadrunner figurine, pipes, a typewriter, and a Dictaphone machine.
Series V: Newspaper Clippings, n.d. Box 28
This series is housed in one oversized box and contains unprocessed original newspaper clippings collected by J. Frank Dobie.
Open for Research
Donated since 1988 by Bill and Sally Wittliff. Contact the SWWC for information about additional materials from this writer that have not yet been fully processed.
Processed by Gwyneth Cannan, May 1994; Inventory revised by Brandy Harris, 2005.
For further information on Dobie and his work see: Dugger, Ronnie, ed. Three Men in Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967; McVicker, Mary Louise. The Writings of J. Frank Dobie: A Bibliography. Lawton, Ok: Museum of the Great Plains, 1968; Stone, Paul Clois. "J. Frank Dobie and the American Folklore Movement." Diss. Yale University, 1995.
For a history of the disposition of Dobie's manuscripts see: Holland, Richard. "A Corner Forever Texas." Corners of Texas. Ed. Francis Edward Abernethy. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1993.
Detailed Description of the Collection