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CHARLES DOBIE : GENEALOGY

BIOGRAPHY OF
JAMES FRANK DOBIE

This is a transcript of the obituary of James Frank Dobie, published on page 109 of "Current Biography: Who's News and Why", 1964 edition, folowed by his biography published on pages 153 through 156 of the same publication, 1945 edition.


DOBIE, J. FRANK Sept. 26, 1888 -- Sept. 18 1964 Texas author and university professor; chronicler of the history and folklore of his native state; from 1921 to 1947 was the unorthodox teacher of "Life and Literature of the Southwest," reputed to be the most popular course at the University of Texas.

Reference quoted:
New York Times, p.27 S 19 '64.


DOBIE, J(AMES) FRANK Sept. 26, 1888 - Folklorist; author; college professor. Address: b. University of Texas, Austin; h. 702 Park Pl., Austin, Tex.

The man who "probably knows more about Texas folklore than any other man alive" is J. Frank Dobie, leading authority on the culture of the Southwest. The Lone Star State's colorful citizen, who refuses to be an academician, is known as "the maverick professor" -- he teaches at the University of Texas, where his course "Life and Literature of the Southwest" has attracted students for more than fifteen years. Dobie is the author or editor of some thirty books on the subject, and his articles have appeared in a number of national magazines. He occupied the chair of American history, on an exchange professorship, at England's Cambridge University in 1943-44, a year that brought forth his book "A Texan in England" (1945). The Texan, who is also known for his outspoken liberalism, found much to admire in England, and book critics found much to admire about his book.

James Frank Dobie was born on a Texas ranch, in Live Oak County, on September 26, 1888, the eldest of the six children of Richard Jonathan and Ella (Byler) Dobie. Heir to the old Texas traditions of a family long established on the range (his great-grandfather had come to Texas from Virginia in 1834), the boy lived on the family ranch of about seven thousand acres until his sixteenth year. Dobie tells the story of his childhood in "St. Nicholas" magazine, October 1933. His mother, who had been a teacher, gave him his first lessons -- it was his parents, he said, who gave him his taste for literature; and it was the range country which taught him much besides -- "the land on which I was reared and the brush growing on the land taught me more than shoolteachers have ever taught." For a time, with his brothers and sisters he went to the one-teacher schoolhouse built by several ranch families, and he had his share of chores to do. After going to high school in the town of Alice, forty miles away, he attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he received his B.A. degree in 1910. One summer before his graduation young Dobie studied at the University of Chicago, although he was drawn back to the ranch nearly every vacation. For one year (1910-11) Dobie was school principal in the Texas town of Alpine, after which he returned to Southwestern University as teacher of English and secretary to the president. During the summer of 1914 he worked on the Galveston "Tribune" as reporter, work he had done for one summer four years earlier on the San Antonio "Express".

In 1914 Dobie received his M.A. at Columbia University and that year he joined the faculty of the University of Texas, where, except for a few absences, he has remained. During the First World War he served as a first lieutenant in the 116th Field Artillery and upon his return from France in 1919 he resumed his teaching career at the university. But after a year Dobie became dissatisfied with academic life and turned to his "earliest love", cattle raising. Accordingly, for the year 1920-21 he managed his uncle's quarter-of-a-million-acre ranch on the Nueces River. There he conceived the idea to which he has since devoted his life -- to collect and retell the legends and folk tales of Texas.

In 1921 Dobie was back at the university, where he taught for two years before becoming head of the English department at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College. He held that position until 1925, when he returned to the University of Texas as adjunct professor of English. A year later Dobie became an associate professor and in 1933 a full professor, the first native Texan to receive a full professorship in the university's English department. This was also unusual in that Dobie did not have a Ph.D. -- of which he says: "I early learned that a Ph.D. thesis consists of transferring bones from one graveyard to another." During 1930-31 he held a research fellowhip in the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation and another in 1934-35. In the intervening time (1932-33), on a grant from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he traveled two thousand miles on muleback gathering folklore. Much of his research has been done around camp fires, at trading posts, and in chuck wagons.

The folklorist has said that the only reason he teaches is to give his course,"Life and Literature of the Southwest", called the most popular course at the University of Texas. Labeled "a very unprofessorial professor," Dobie teaches through "windy, chatty yarns" and sings the ballads of the trail in his cowboy baritone. Class discussions on controversial subjects range from "a tirade against Pappy O'Daniel [Senator W. Lee O'Daniel] to a discourse on the race question." Dobie has called himself the outlaw of the campus, where he carries on a determined crusade to "keep Texas unique." His opposition to any attempt to standardize Texas has brought him into conflict with university officials, legislators, and politicians. When in 1936 the university's new twenty-seven-story, two-million-dollar building was opened, the professor was bluntly indignant. "It's like a toothpick in a pie," he declared as he refused to take office space in it. His acid remarks on a certain piece of campus sculpture brought admiring comments from Alexander Woolcott.

Dobie has also clashed with the university's board of regents. Late in 1943 he joined a faculty and student group in petitioning for the immediate reinstatement of three teachers who had been dismissed for their activities outside the school. This case eventually led to the dismissal of Dr. Homer P. Rainey, president of the university, who charged the regents with suppression of academic freedom. The Rainey case held national attention and resulted in the probation of the university in July 1945 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Actively supporting Rainey, Dobie said in his testimony at hearings that freedom was at stake in Texas.

When the Manford Act became law in Texas in 1943, to provide for strict regulation of unions and licensing of organizers, Dobie expressed his opinion in typically frank fashion. "A man can come to Texas and without interference invite all the people he wants to join the Republican Party, the Liar's Club, the Association for the Annointment of Herbert Hoover as Prophet, almost any kind of organization except one. If the Manford Law is an index of capitalism's future policy, the people had better begin digging cellars for the revolution." Dobie often uses his column in a Texas newspaper to express his opinions. The writer has a large progressive following in his state and in 1944 efforts were made to draft him to run for governor agaist Coke Stevenson, but Dobie declined. Describing himself as a liberal Democrat, he supported Roosevelt.

Dobie went to England in 1943 for the first time, to succeed Henry Steele Commager of Columbia as professor of American history at Cambridge. (Commager was the first man to hold this position.) In commenting editorially on the Texan's appointment, the New York Herald Tribune said: "In Mr. Dobie the British will find a teacher different from any they ever saw before, and the impact upon them is sure to be considerable . . . His venture into the halls of Cambridge promises to be one of the most happy of all our ambassadorships." In residence at Emmanuel College at the venerable British university, Dobie taught his own special kind of American history to RAF, Royal Navy, and civilian students. He also lectured for the OWI and the Britsh Army Education Office. Dobie confessed that during the first term he "boned like any freshman." He explained that "he hadn't read the American Constitution since he was a boy and didn't understand it then, that he did know the length of the horns of longhorn steers . . . the music inherent in coyote howling . . . the smell of coffee boiled over mesquite wood."

In the course of his stay in England the "sombrero wearer among men in togas" wrote of his experiences for American magazines, and on his return to the United States these were incorporated in 1945 into a book, "A Texan in England", filled with portrait sketches, anecdotes, descriptions and "a fine appreciation of the best of England." Thus it abounds in word pictures of the English countryside, pubs, London under bombings, and many sorts of men and women in whom the author sees such qualities as casualness, patience, politeness, reticence.

While Dobie had written the final chapter of his book in England, on his return home he decided to write a new ending, which he calls "What England Did to Me." Oppressed by the atmosphere he found at the University of Texas, an atmosphere he termed "remote from the air of intellectual freedom enveloping Cambridge," he wrote: "Here on this campus, believers in the right as well as the duty to think are combating a gang of Fascist-minded regents: oil millionaires, corporation lawyers, a lobbyist and a medical politician, who in anachronistic rage against liberal thought malign all liberals as 'Communists,' try with physical power to wall out ideas, and resort to chicanery as sickening as it is cheap. My mind is paralyzed by this manifestation of 'the American way of life.'" On a few other scores, too, Americans suffer from comparison with the English.

The critic J. A. Brandt thought that "A Texan in England" showed Dobie "politically alive, acutely sensitive to human rights and wrongs and making a hard-muscled stand for the right." Clifton Fadiman wrote: "Though not deeply reflective nor particulary well organized, it is an honest and loving essay"; and Roger Pippett remarked that "no more lyrical account of the English countryside has been written by an American." In mild dissent, Englishman W. H. Hindle found Dobie's book "too much a picture of a gentlemanly, feudal England," and somewhat of an apology for this feudal way of life. Struthers Burt's opinion appeared in the New York Times: "At times, Frank Dobie can write carelessly and hastily, and in an odd and not too pleasing staccato fashion, although, as has been said, he can never write uninterestingly; but over and over again his prose rises into something so translucent and starkly noble that it becomes Elizabethan." In the summer of 1945 Dobie returned to England to teach in the United States Army University organized near Oxford. At that time "A Texan in England" was going into its sixth printing.

The story-teller of the Southwest is the author of a number of other books, among them "A Vaquero of the Brush Country" (1929), "On the Open Range" (1931), "Tongues of the Monte" (1935), "The Flavor of Texas" (1936), and "Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest" (1943). "Coronado's Children" (1931), a collection of legends of lost mines and buried treasures of the Southwest, was a Literary Guild selection. It was described by the "Saturday Review of Literature"'s critic as "a rich and fascinating volume, compiled with gusto." In his review of "Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver" (1939) Oliver La Farge declared: "Mr. Dobie's accounts are alive with the space and color of his setting." The writer's study of a vanishing breed of cattle, "The Longhorns" (1941), was greeted as a valuable, "full-bodied" work. Dobie's articles have appeared in such magazines as the "Yale Review", "American Mercury", "Atlantic", and the "Saturday Evening Post". In an issue devoted to the culture of the Southwest, the "Saturday Review of LIterature" (May 16, 1942) carried the Texan's story of "Mister Ben Lilly", extraordinary bear hunter. The May 1943 issue of "Natural History" contains his lengthy study of "The Conquering Mesquite." Since 1922 Dobie has been editor and compiler of the annual publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society, of which he is also secretary; and since 1924 he has been contributing editor of the "Southwest Review".

Noted for his devastating frankness, Dobie is described as a "brash, blue-eyed scrapper" with a "wide Texas smile, a broad Texas hat, and a still wider Texas accent." A ruddy, stocky man of five feet eight inches, he is a vivid and versatile personality, known as "Pancho" to his friends. Dobie's wife, the former Bertha McKee, also a Texan to whom he was married in 1916, at one time taught school after their marriage so that her husband might have time for writing. Her special interest in plants and gardens has been of value to Dobie -- it is evident in what has been called as probably the best single chapter in "A Vaquero of the Brush Country", a chapter on plant life in the brush country.

When Dobie works at his typewriter his hat is usually on his head, and he will read aloud what he has written, "tinkering" with sentences until they "sing like a fiddle." His hobbies are not far removed from his vocation -- he collects literature on the range country and objects made of horn, and his favorite recreations are horseback-riding and deer-hunting. When Cambridge University awarded the Texan the honorary degree of Master of Arts, the citation read in part: "De bobus longicornibus quod ille non cognovit, inutile est alliis cognoscere". In unacademic English that tribute reads: "What he doesn't know about longhorn cattle isn't worth knowing."

References quoted:
New York Sun, p19 N 9 '43; p26 My 2 '45
Newsweek, 22:102 O 25 '43 por
Saturday Evening Post, 216:14-15+ S 11 '43 pors
Time, 37:96 Mr 17 '41
Rogers, J. W., Finding Literature on the Texas Plains, (1931)
Texan Who's Who, 1937
Who's Who in America, 1944-45.

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