Several readers contacted me regarding my story about the late Austin writer, teacher and folklorist J. Frank Dobie, whose name is memorialized all over town but whose voluminous writings are now mostly neglected.
I had recently read the seven Dobie books that are still in print from University of Texas Press, plus Steven L. Davis’ excellent biography.
One correspondent, Jerry Goodrich, says he owns most of Dobie’s 30 or so books, but he hadn’t read them in years.
“Thanks to your article, I’m going to reread them,” Goodrich says. “And I’ve ordered a copy of ‘J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.’ I’ve sometimes thought he was more interesting than his books.”
Goodrich also sparked a thought.
“His newspaper articles would make interesting reading,” he writes. “Is there any way to read the ones that appeared in the Statesman?”
Yes, there is. Why hadn’t I already thought to do so?
Most American-Statesman stories and display ads — from the 1870s through the 1970s — are available on ProQuest, a searchable online database, for no charge with an Austin Public Library card number.
Statesman articles by or about Dobie date back to the early 1920s. Our newspaper also ran a regular column by the “great storyteller of the Southwest” from the early 1950s until his death in 1964 at age 75.
The big, blocky headline for each column?
“By J. Frank Dobie” or simply “J. Frank Dobie.”
No need for an eye-catching subject. The man was the brand.
Naturally, I spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon browsing through his columns and earlier articles online. Fairly well-focused, they hold up rather better than his books, which for the most part are loosely thrown together.
Among the more interesting subjects not covered in his currently available books are accounts of his years teaching abroad, especially in England; his studies at Columbia University in New York City; his travel writing about Mexico and other countries; and his writings on contemporaries such as musicologist John Lomax, historian Walter Prescott Webb and educator and naturalist Roy Bedichek.
Yet some of the liveliest of his “free-speaking” articles can be found in his late-career political attacks on governors W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and Coke Stevenson, Lt. Gov. John Lee Smith, UT President Theophilus S. Painter and the entire UT Board of Regents.
Some of these “barbed whiplashes” were motivated by his support for embattled, then deposed UT President Homer Rainey and their shared devotion to freedom of expression on campus, for which, under risible pretexts, Dobie was dropped from the UT staff.
Dobie was among the few commentators who caught a whiff of fascism in O’Daniel’s down-home populism and in the authoritarian actions of the Board of Regents.
Although very much a frontier individualist early in life, Dobie in the 1940s supported President Franklin Roosevelt and his leadership during World War II. He was outspoken at times in favor of integration and civil rights.
In 1944, admirers even tried to draft Dobie to run for governor against Stevenson.
I also learned that, in 1960, late preservationist and American-Statesman columnist Sue McBee released a recording on Domino Records of Dobie spinning some of his Texas yarns.
Did anyone hang onto a copy of it?