Dobie & Webb
Dr. Hardin’s remarks at the 10th Annual Dobie Dichos celebration in Live Oak County, Texas, November 2020.
Nowadays, when folks recall J. Frank Dobie chances are it is as a part of a “triumvirate” of Texas authors, along with Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb. During the 1950s and early-1960s, they dominated the state’s literary scene. All were all University of Texas professors, all supported each other’s work, and all three were chums who often socialized together, occasions noted in society pages of local newspapers.
Many have celebrated their friendship. In 1967, soon after the last of the titans had shuffled off his mortal coil, journalist Ronnie Dugger published Three Men in Texas: Bedichek, Webb, and Dobie, a book that emphasized the trio over the individuals. In 1994, that trend continued when the City of Austin installed Glenna Goodacre’s larger-than-life sculpture Philosopher’s Rock just outside Barton Springs. The artist depicted Bedichek and Dobie bare chested in swim trunks, perched atop “Bedi’s Rock,” and deep in conversation. Bedichek holds a book and wears his reading glasses, while Dobie appears to counter Bedi’s point. Webb, who was no swimmer, stands nearby, pant legs rolled up, wading barefooted in the cooling waters. Bald head gleaming, his ubiquitous cigarette in hand, he pitches in to the argument. In the twenty-first century, the public imagination joins Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek as closely as the fictional Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—the geriatric Three Musketeers of Texas Letters.
Consequently, many are surprised to learn that as younger men, Dobie and Webb had a falling out that interrupted their fellowship for years. It’s difficult to imagine them as young men. Most Dobie images depict his later years. We recall the shock of white hair, that craggy face, and wrinkled khakis. Of course, Dobie was once young, as we all were, and faced the challenges of a young man trying to make a place for himself in a hostile world.
Dobie and Webb had much in common. They were both born in 1888 and in the 1920s were junior faculty members at the University of Texas. Their correspondence revealed a warm association. In 1923, Dobie refused to pursue a Ph.D., and departed Austin to chair the English Department at Oklahoma A&M. Throughout Dobie’s self-imposed exile, Webb remained a staunch friend. He pledged to do whatever he could to help Dobie return to Austin.
Yet, Webb’s own status was far from secure. In 1920, he had written a master’s thesis at U. T. entitled “The Texas Rangers in the Mexican War.” Thereafter, he traveled to the University of Chicago to pursue the Ph.D. Disaster struck when he failed his comprehensive oral exam and returned to Texas humiliated. Back in Austin, his mentor, Professor Eugene C. Barker, finagled his boy a post as associate professor.
The mavericks understood that, without terminal degrees, they must secure their positions through the sheer bulk and brilliance of their writing. In 1925, Dr. Leonidas Payne, the chair of the English Department, was a Dobie advocate and was finally able to call him home. Even so, he still refused to earn a Ph.D. and instead began to grind out articles for popular magazines and collaborated on his first book. Published in 1929, Dobie based A Vaquero of the Brush Country on the autobiographical notes of South Texas cattleman John Duncan Young.
Dobie knew that since 1918 Webb had been researching a comprehensive history of the Texas Rangers. He was equally aware that his associate had pinned many of his professional hopes on its success. On Christmas Day, 1929, Webb had the Dobies to dinner and Frank and Walter discussed the project at length. Early in February 1930, Webb discussed his developing ranger book with Dobie again, but observed that his friend had become “secretive.” He wondered why.
On or about February 20, Webb received a notice from Southwest Press announcing their forthcoming reprint of N. A. Jennings’s A Texas Ranger—with a new foreword by J. Frank Dobie. The revelation shattered Webb. He lamented, “Here was a reprint of a book with almost the same title as mine, coming out under the mast of one whom I had considered a friend.”
Bewildered and devastated by what he considered Dobie’s duplicitous behavior, Webb sought out Barker’s advice. His mentor counseled him to ignore it unless Dobie brought it up and, if he did, to say that he wished he had not written the foreword and leave it at that. Barker, however, acquainted Dr. Payne with the circumstances of the rift. Chairman Payne summoned his protégé and strongly suggested that he mend fences with Webb—and the History Department.
On February 25, Dobie met with his disgruntled colleague. Webb attempted to “make the best of it,” but Dobie’s flippancy cut him even deeper. He noted that Dobie played innocent, “treating the whole matter as incidental, one that he had given little thought to.” Webb was far from mollified but realized he could do little but grit his teeth. “I followed Dr. Barker’s advice,” he fumed, “and told [Dobie] to go ahead [with the project].” Nevertheless, Webb concluded his notes of the meeting with a poignant reproach. “I have never had anything else give me quite the shock that this affair did, and I still fail, in view of all our past relationships, to understand how Dobie could have done it.”
Was Webb’s outrage justified? U.T. historian Llerena Friend, who knew both men, maintained that Webb believed that he “had so completely identified himself with the Rangers that they were HIS.” No scholar can file claim to a subject and deny others trespass. Yet, that was not the source of Webb’s animosity. It was more a matter of Dobie’s deceit. During repeated meetings, how could Dobie have neglected to mention that he was also working on a ranger project?
Webb taught Dobie most of what he knew about Texas Rangers. He probably recalled the 1924 letter in which Dobie confessed to knowing little about the state’s past. “If merely writing these legends was all, I would have a picnic. But I am stalled constantly on history!” The fellow who “stalled constantly on history” now presented himself as an authority on Texas Rangers. When he finally read Dobie’s foreword, Webb was doubtless hurt even more by the lack of a simple acknowledgment.
Why did Dobie behave in such a clandestine manner? He likely anticipated Webb’s reaction and wished to achieve a fait accompli before springing the news. In 1930, both men were forty-two years of age. Not old by any means but not spring chickens either. It was time, past time really, to make marks in their respective disciplines. Did Dobie feel so pressured to add another publication to his vita that he was willing to risk Webb’s friendship? One cannot know with certainty but apparently so.
Ninety years on, the dispute seems little more than a footnote in the lives of these influential Texans. In 1935, Webb published The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense to great acclaim. Dobie attempted to appease Webb with lavish praise of his book. In his Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, he lauded the volume as the “beginning, middle, and end of the subject.” Still, for years the discord surrounding Dobie’s foreword suspended one of the storied friendships of Texas letters. In time, Roy Bedichek was able to wangle a reconciliation between his mutual friends. Nevertheless, Webb was never able to restore completely his former warmth of feeling despite all of Bedi’s serene diplomacy. Webb forgave—but never forgot.
Toward the end of his life, Webb arranged his professional papers, which he had decided to donate to the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center at U.T. He included the notes from February 1930 regarding the friction generated by Dobie’s foreword. In 1997, the University of Oklahoma Press approached me about writing a new introduction for their reprint of Jennings’s A Texas Ranger. While I was researching that assignment, I came across Webb’s rancorous document in his papers. It staggered me. Like most folks, I thought Dobie and Webb had always been the best of friends. Yet, here was a note in Webb’s own hand that spoke of betrayal, duplicity, and skullduggery.
I don’t wish to overstate the importance of this episode. Dobie and Webb were close friends. Yet, even the best of pals occasionally have their misunderstandings and resentments. In the fullness of time—and through the good graces of Roy Bedichek—the pair eventually kissed and made up. Webb was an old man when he collated his papers. He could have expunged his bitter recounting of Dobie’s behavior way back in 1930, but opted not to. He knew some future researcher would discover it and meant to record the event for posterity. He wanted people to know how his old buddy had treated him.
And, now you do.