Two Southwestern writers

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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 bookman 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, in the 1930s Dobie 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, 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 word “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 pleased, 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. What sets those two states apart from Texas on the east and California to the west is his words, that they form “an area distinguished by tri-cultural fusion of Indian, Hispano, and Anglo, plus an unmistakable landscape.”

In his introduction, Powell acknowledges that he has written about “only a few of the books that comprise the literary classics of the region.” To be exact, the number he included, with a chapter on each, in Southwest classics was 26, a bare sampling of worthy candidates. A few examples are Josiah Gregg and Susan Magoffin’s two historical accounts of their separate experiences on the Santa Fe Trail, and Charles F. Lummis’ early interpretive description of New Mexico’s folk cultures, “The Land of Poco Tiempo.” Then a title on everyone’s list is Willa Cather’s novelized treatment of the life of Jean B. Lamy, “Death Comes for the Arhbishop.” Erna Fergusson earns a place on that list with her “Dancing Gods.” Powell dubs that masterful book on ceremonial Indian dances (published in 1937) as hands down, “a classic of Southwestern literature.”

Santa Fe author Oliver LaFarge is included for his Navajo novel, “Laughing Boy,” which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Another fine New Mexico author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Horgan and his “Great River,” a history of the Rio Grande, is not in this book because, therein, Powell only dealt with deceased writers. Horgan was very much alive in 1974. The tally of writers on Arizona that came under Powell’s scrutiny is 10. Powell tacked on a single Texas author, J. Frank Dobie, even though that state was outside of the Southwest that he defined for purpose of his book.

Dr. Powell was a dedicated fan of Dobie and his books, ennobling him with a title, the Laureate of Southwestern Writers. I was fortunate to know both Frank Dobie and Larry Powell. The knowledge and inspiration I gained from them have greatly influenced my career as a Southwest historian.