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J Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas

FEBRUARY 1—JULY 31, 2006

The Life & Times of “Mr. Texas”
A Major Retrospective from the J. Frank Dobie Archives
at the Southwestern Writers Collection

The Southwestern Writers Collection (SWWC) celebrates its 20th anniversary with J. Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas, an exhibit honoring its inaugural acquisition: the J. Frank Dobie Archives. “The Writers Collection really began in 1986 when Bill and Sally Wittliff donated an extraordinary Dobie collection,” said Connie Todd, Curator of Special Collections. “And showcasing these Dobie archives is the perfect way to celebrate our 20th anniversary.” The exhibit runs from February 1 through July 31, 2006.


J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) was Texas’s most famous writer and a colorful personality from the 1920s to the 1960s. Known as “Mr. Texas,” Dobie helped define the state in the popular imagination. He grew up on a working ranch in South Texas, and he published tales of cowboys, lost gold mines, and figures from “old-time” Texas. He also chronicled the state’s natural history, writing books about longhorns, mustangs, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. Dobie was a long-time professor at the University of Texas in Austin, where he championed “Southwestern Studies” and academic freedom, noting that “only free minds ever created anything beautiful.”

Although he died in 1964, Dobie’s influence over Texas literature remains strong today. His ranch southwest of Austin is home to the Dobie-Paisano fellowship, where writers and artists receive a six-month stay to work on their projects. Dobie is also commemorated in a larger-than-life statue at Barton Springs in Austin, along with his literary compadres, Walter Prescott Webb and Roy Bedichek. Titled “Philosophers’ Rock,” the sculpture pays homage to this “Texas Triumvirate,” and their leader, the man who proclaimed, “I have come to value liberated minds as the supreme good of life on earth.”

J. Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas—the Southwestern Writers Collection’s first exhibition of its Dobie collection—showcases artifacts, photographs, and manuscripts highlighting distinct aspects of the man’s life. Among the treasures on display are Dobie’s 1914 diary kept while he was a student at Columbia University, which captures the exact moment he realized his future lay in collecting the stories of Texas and the Southwest. Dobie’s white linen suit, his desk, typewriter, and items that were on his bedside table at the time of his death give visitors a very personal view of the man.

Examining Dobie’s role as a folklorist, the exhibit shows some of the ways he sought to capture the life and lore of the Southwest. Dobie’s own storytelling encompassed more than just books and magazines. He also wrote a poplular newspaper column for thirty years, hosted a weekly radio program, and appeared frequently on television. “Dobie felt that storytelling was an art,” said Steve Davis, the SWWC’s Assistant Curator and co-curator of the exhibition, “and he clearly delighted in capturing the rhythms and cadences of the spoken word. Exhibit visitors can hear this for themselves in Dobie’s voice telling them stories from his audio recording, ‘The Ghost Bull of the Mavericks and Other Tales,’ as they view his artifacts.”

J. Frank Dobie held a great affection for the natural world, recognizing the important role that the southwestern landscape plays in shaping its inhabitants. He collected folktales about the region’s most distinctive animals, such as the roadrunner, or paisano, which became his personal symbol, and his porcelain roadrunner is included in the exhibit. Dobie maintained extensive correspon­dence files from people who shared animal stories with him. Many of those tales ended up in Dobie’s books, newspaper column, and magazine articles, and the original letters are preserved among his archives.

Dobie grew up among vaqueros who shared stories of Mexico and he retained a lifelong interest in that country. He traveled widely throughout Mexico, preferring to journey by mule rather than by car or train. In this way, Dobie felt, he could experience the real Mexico. One of his most personal books, Tongues of the Monte (later reprinted as The Mexico I Like), recounts these travels and the stories he heard. On display are several of Dobie’s Mexican photographs, publications, and artifacts, including his visa and “Saltillo” diary, kept during his journeys through Mexico in 1932-1933.

While J. Frank Dobie’s books often focused on traditional aspects of southwestern culture, his immense popularity also granted him a “bully pulpit,” which he used to argue for progressive change in society. Dobie often used his weekly newspaper column as a forum to condemn censorship and fascism, while arguing in support of civil rights and intellectual freedom. By the 1940s, Dobie was publicly calling for integrating African Americans into the University of Texas. These stands made Dobie a controversial figure in Texas, but he relished the role.

Dobie also believed in equality between the sexes. Included in the exhibit is a letter to his wife Bertha written in 1917, in which Dobie consoles her over the subordinate place of women in society and promises that things will get better. He added that, “You know my ideas coincide with yours, entirely, without reservation, on these matters.”


Most of the materials on display were donated by Austin filmmaker and photographer Bill Wittliff and his wife Sally. When Bill Wittliff purchased Dobie’s remaining literary papers at an estate sale in 1985, he came across items no one knew existed, including Dobie’s diary from Columbia, which Dobie himself believed he had destroyed. Wittliff understood that the Dobie papers represented an enormous treasure, offering deeply personal insights into a seminal Texas figure.

Wittliff envisioned the Dobie archive forming the backbone of something even larger—an entire collection devoted to the writers of Texas and the Southwest. With that in mind, Bill and Sally Wittliff established the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State in 1986. In the years since, the collection has grown and flourished, gaining recognition as one of the nation’s major repositories for regional culture.

In 2005, the Southwestern Writers Collection received a major addition to its J. Frank Dobie archives when famed Texana collector Al Lowman and his wife Darlyne donated a comprehensive collection of the author’s published materials, many volumes of which have been inscribed by Dobie. Included are vintage copies of magazine articles and first editions of Dobie’s books. Many items from the Lowman-Dobie collection are also on display in this exhibit.

After her husband’s death, Bertha Dobie gave Bill Wittliff a keystone, carved with a large star, that J. Frank Dobie saved from one of the arches of the old Bee County courthouse and kept at his Paisano ranch for many years. When Bill and Sally Wittliff founded the Southwestern Writers Collection in 1986, they asked that Dobie’s keystone be set into the stucco over the exhibition room’s fireplace. “Its rustic beauty and metaphoric significance as the clave that ensures the stability of the arch itself make it a natural choice as the symbol for the Special Collections Department,” said curator Connie Todd.

 J. Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas is scheduled to run through July 31, 2006, with a “Dobie Day” symposium held on April 8. The exhibit was co-curated by Steve Davis, Assistant Curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection, and Joel Minor, Processing Archivist, with assistance from curator Connie Todd and archives assistants Mary Garcia and Tina Ybarra.