An Interview with Steven L. Davis

By Brandon Shuler / Texas Literati

 

Lon Tinkle’s 1978 biography, An American Original: The Life of J. Frank Dobie, tackles an American icon; however, although he reported the facts of Dobie’s life, the biography leaves the reader wanting.  What made Dobie the ‘ranching professor?’  What made this conservative farm boy from Live Oak county become a progressive liberal later in life?  What is Dobie’s lasting legacy on Texas literature?  Steven L. Davis’s A Liberated Mind: J. Frank Dobie answers these questions and reveals the late bloomer who becomes the voice of early-20th century Texas.

 

Davis explores the tumultuous relationship of Dobie and J. Evetts Haley and how Haley’s jump to the ultra-conservative right hastened Dobie’s move from the political center to the left.  Davis also explores the influence and mentorship of Dobie on Jovita Gonzalez and J. Mason Brewer.  But where Davis’s writing is the most superb and reveals Dobie’s nature surrounds the Machavellian machinations by the University of Texas Boards of Regents to fire Homer Rainey and ultimately J. Frank Dobie.  Davis probes beyond the highlights we read of the imbroglio described by George N. Green in The Establishment in Texas Politics and Gary A. Keith’s Eckhardt and gets to the core of the communist red-scare which invaded the Texas culture and higher education.  The resounding effects liberated Dobie’s thinking and gave us the man who should be reexamined under an enlightened microscope as Davis does.

Texas Literati recently sat down with Steven Davis to talk about his Dobie experience.  Here’s what he had to say.

TL:  Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer, writes in Literary Biography that through transference and commonality of experience a biographer sends themselves on a journey of self–discovery.  As you researched Dobie’s life, what common experiences did you find that y’all shared and what did you discover about yourself?

SLD:  Leon Edel is exactly right. If your biography’s going to be any good, you have to connect with your subject, to find a way to get inside his or her head.

I’d like to think that I have some special gift or insight that allows me to do this, but in truth whatever success I have is due to the archives—in particular, correspondence. There’s no better way to see what a person’s thinking than to read his or her private mail. That’s a great way to climb into somebody’s mind.

It’s true that I found a number of commonalities with Dobie, and I must say, I was delighted to encounter each one. It really helped me develop a deep kinship with him. At a very basic level, I found that we share an ambivalence about academia. It’s no accident that each of us quit our formal schooling after getting our master’s degrees. And neither of us has any patience for those pretentious scholars who write in a deliberately opaque manner, believing that inscrutability somehow conveys authority.

There are many more affinities we could talk about, but here’s just one more quick example. Those who know me well know that for years I’ve complained about the outsized attention given to outlaws and such. The numerous books on John Wesley Hardin, Bonnie and Clyde, etc… To me such fixations seem representative of an adolescent culture. How nice it was to discover, then, that Dobie felt the exact same way.

The sense of validation that comes from discoveries like this is so important. For years I felt like a lone wolf stumbling around in the wilderness. By studying Dobie I learned that I’m part of a community, part of an established intellectual tradition in Texas. That was a very nice gift to receive while working on this book.

TL:  Some recent Chicano literature scholarship has downplayed, even attempts to negate, the influence of J. Frank Dobie on Mexican–American and minority writers.  However, as you point out, Dobie’s mentorship of Jovita Gonzalez and J. Mason Brewer, and to an extent Americo Paredes, runs deep.  How do you see this recent blush of revisionist scholarship dimming the impact of Dobie on Texas letters, especially Mexican–American writing, if at all?

SLD:  It’s true that the Mexican American community in Texas has been marginalized and discriminated against for so long that it’s hard to blame them for attacking symbols of Anglo hegemony, and Dobie was certainly that.  But Dobie’s fall from grace has been far more brutal than the circumstances warrant.

This whole issue gets into a real problem I have with much scholarship today. As the ideological and theoretical stakes in academia have risen, more scholars are acting like lawyers, rather than judges. They amass highly selective bits of evidence in order to “prove” their cases. These sorts of academics would make great attorneys, but you know, there’s a reason people hate lawyers. Why should you trust any conclusions they reach?

In the case of Dobie, these critics condemn him as a racist by focusing solely on his early writings—and of course they judge him by the standards of our times, rather than his own. But what’s worse, they ignore the very important reality that Dobie evolved, that he later became as wise and admirable as a person of his time and place could be on race issues. You know, it wasn’t easy for him to be the only person in public life in Texas to be calling for the complete integration of UT-Austin in the 1940s. That ought to count for something. Dobie deserves better treatment than he’s received, and that was in part my motivation for writing this book. We need to set the record straight on him.

TL:  The Texas Triumvirate of Webb, Bedichek, and Dobie obviously created a cabal of Texas intelligentsia and camaraderie that is seldom found in the ivory tower of higher education.  You explore some of the later relationships of Texas letters in Texas Literary Outlaws, but those relationships never quite reach the fervor of the great Texas Three.  Do you see any minds today that rival the accomplishments and promotion of Texas letters like the triumvirate?

SLD: There are many excellent people working in Texas today, but everything’s much more decentralized than it was during Dobie’s time. And that’s a good thing. No longer can one person dominate the discourse, as Dobie did.

Mark Busby published an interesting essay about this very issue, titled “J. Frank Dobie: Who Replaced Him?” Busby noted that Dobie dominated several fields, including folklore, literary criticism, nature writing, and political/cultural commentary. Busby listed at least 24 people who later became major voices in each of those fields, from Américo Paredes and Don Graham to John Graves and Molly Ivins.

We have clusters of talent everywhere. And, refreshingly, we have pockets of those I consider to be “organic” scholars—those free from theoretical orthodoxies. In many cases, these scholars are direct descendants of Dobie’s influence. Dobie believed, like Montaigne, that you should trust your own knowledge, experience, and intellect in making observations or judgments. You shouldn’t bend your thoughts to adhere to a fixed doctrine.

TL:  You’ve said in private conversations that you’d rather write about writers unafraid to foist their political opinions into their writing.  You said, “they’re more interesting.”  Dobie was certainly politically motivated and, at times, incendiary, as most great voices I’d say are.  What was it in Dobie’s nature, do you think, which made him such a politically boisterous character?

SLD:  Just to clarify a bit, let me point out that nothing is more tiresome than political writing. What I meant in that earlier quote is that I like writers who aren’t afraid to show their emotions, to take chances, to make mistakes, to get involved in the issues of the day. They’re simply more interesting subjects.

The hilarious thing about Dobie when it comes to politics is that he was equally boisterous when he was a libertarian conservative as he was as a progressive liberal. It was just in his nature to raise hell. I think it was his wife, Bertha, who observed that Frank was never at peace with himself except when inveighing against something. And, of course, to allude to one of your earlier questions, I’ll admit that there’s a bit of that in me, too. Certainly enough to be able to relate to Dobie while writing about him.

TL:  You are quickly becoming the voice of Texas literary history.  The Wittliff Collections have played an important role in this climb.  How have you managed to carve out such a unique voice for yourself?  Who are your favorite current Texas authors and what can we expect from Steven Davis next?

SLD:  Your mention of the Wittliff Collections explains a lot. Dobie said that “luck is being ready for the chance” and I was very lucky to begin working at the Wittliff Collections while I was a graduate student in Southwestern Studies at Texas State. I’m one of those geeks who could never decide between literature and history, and here in the archives I can combine both loves. Obviously I can’t do my research and writing on university time—we stay very busy at the collection—but of course being in the center of all this activity confers many advantages. I know that I’m very lucky so I try to respect karmic energy by working very hard at my job and by helping others whenever possible.

As far as Texas authors, I actually try to read very widely outside of Texas in order to prevent myself from becoming too provincial. I don’t want to become one of those “homers” who function as cheerleaders for Texas literature. (A view Dobie also held, by the way.)

But there are many interesting Texas writers, and I would certainly never miss a new book by many of them. Although Bud Shrake is now gone, I think he’s the most criminally underrated Texas writer. His two best novels, Blessed McGill and Strange Peaches, deserve inclusion in the American canon.

As far as my next project, I’m beginning to feel a little constrained by writing only about Texas literary history. I’ve been busy composing a light comic opera, set in the Himalayas about an alien spaceship that crash lands on Mt. Annapurna and is rescued by a yeti family, which due to radiation is actually hairless, though they’ve also grown third arms, which come in quite handy during the rescue. There’s also an intergalactic romance. Really, it’s much better than it sounds, Brandon. We’re doing auditions in San Marcos next month. How’s your singing voice?