I happened upon some notes the other day I’d taken down many years ago concerning J. Frank Dobie, that irrepressible Texas raconteur and folklorist.
They had come from a conversation With New Mexico’s legendary book man Jack Rittenhouse, who seemed to have an insider’s story on many of the Southwest’s 20th century writers.
According to what he told me, Dobie in the 1930s had wanted to teach a new course at the University of Texas titled Literature of the Southwest. But prompted by objections from the English Department, which questioned whether much true literature existed in the region, the school administration hesitated.
To resolve the matter,, Dobie added the word Life at the beginning of the class name to read now, Life and Literature of the Southwest.
He thought the change made the title more acceptable because, as he proclaimed, “There’s plenty of life in the Southwest.” Further, the controversial world Literature was de-emphasized by its placement in the title’s interior.
The powers that be accepted the compromise and Dobie’s course became hugely popular. His class bibliography, a handout containing brief and enticing notes for each entry, was published as a book in 1943 to wide acclaim.
Dobie’s experience got me to thinking about the scope and definition of “Southwestern Literature,” a field that I’ve long found fascinating. The first meaning of the word literature is “writing recognized as having permanent value based upon its intrinsic excellence.”
That’s not what ranch-raised Mr. Dobie had in mind. Rather, he leaned heavily toward a second definition of literature, as: “the entire body of writings of a specific language, period or people.”
Casting a wide net allowed an author to go where he please, without fearing what highbrow literary critics and university professors thought of his work.
Another favorite regional writer of mine, Lawrence Clark Powell, published in 1974 his book Southwest Classics, Creative Literature of the Arid Lands. His “Southwest” is limited to what he calls its “heartland,” meaning New Mexico and Arizona.