Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations

Author: James Frank Dobie

A Preface With Some Revised Ideas

IT HAS BEEN ten years since I wrote the prefatory "Declaration" to this now enlarged and altered book. Not to my generation alone have many things receded during that decade. To the intelligent young as well as to the intelligent elderly, efforts in the present atmosphere to opiate the public with mere pictures of frontier enterprise have a ghastly unreality. The Texas Rangers have come to seem as remote as the Foreign Legion in France fighting against the Kaiser. Yet this , extensively added to and revised, is mainly concerned, apart from the land and its native life, with frontier backgrounds. If during a decade a man does not change his mind on some things and develop new points of view, it is a pretty good sign that his mind is petrified and need no longer be accounted among the living. I have an inclination to rewrite the "Declaration," but maybe I was just as wise on some matters ten years ago as I am now; so I let it stand.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.

I have heard so much silly bragging by Texans that I now think it would be a blessing to themselves—and a relief to others—if the braggers did not know they lived in Texas. Yet the time is not likely to come when a human being will not be better adapted to his environments by knowing their nature; on the other hand, to study a provincial setting from a provincial point of view is restricting. Nobody should specialize on provincial writings before he has the perspective that only a good deal of good literature and wide history can give. I think it more important that a dweller in the Southwest read than all the books extant on killings by Billy the Kid. I think this dweller will fit his land better by understanding Thomas Jefferson’s oath ("I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man") than by reading all the books that have been written on ranch lands and people. For any dweller of the Southwest who would have the land soak into him, Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," "The Solitary Reaper," "Expostulation and Reply," and a few other poems are more conducive to a "wise passiveness" than any native writing.

There are no substitutes for nobility, beauty, and wisdom. One of the chief impediments to amplitude and intellectual freedom is provincial inbreeding. I am sorry to see writings of the Southwest substituted for noble and beautiful and wise literature to which all people everywhere are inheritors. When I began teaching "Life and Literature of the Southwest" I did not regard these writings as a substitute. To reread most of them would be boresome, though , Boswell’s , Lamb’s , and other genuine literature remain as quickening as ever.

Very likely I shall not teach the course again. I am positive I shall never revise this again. It is in nowise a bibliography. I have made more additions to the "Range Life" chapter than to any other. I am a collector of such books. A collector is a person who gathers unto himself the worthless as well as the worthy. Since I did not make a nickel out of the original printing of the and hardly expect to make enough to buy a California "ranch" out of the present printing, I have added several items, with accompanying remarks, more for my own pleasure than for benefit to society.

Were the listings halved, made more selective, the book might serve its purpose better. Anybody who wants to can slice it in any manner he pleases. I am as much against forced literary swallowings as I am against prohibitions on free tasting, chewing, and digestion. I rate censors, particularly those of church and state, as low as I rate character assassins; they often run together.

I’d like to make a book on —Emerson, Jefferson, Thoreau, Tom Paine, Newton, Arnold, Voltaire, Goethe.... When I reflect how few writings connected with the wide open spaces of the West and Southwest are wide enough to enter into such a volume, I realize acutely how desirable is perspective in patriotism.

Hundreds of the books listed in this have given me pleasure as well as particles for the mosaic work of my own books; but, with minor exceptions, they increasingly seem to me to explore only the exteriors of life. There is in them much good humor but scant wit. The hunger for something afar is absent or battened down. Drought blasts the turf, but its unhealing blast to human hope is glossed over. The body’s thirst for water is a recurring theme, but human thirst for love and just thinking is beyond consideration. Horses run with their riders to death or victory, but fleeting beauty haunts no soul to the "doorway of the dead." The land is often pictured as lonely, but the lone way of a human being’s essential self is not for this extravert world. The banners of individualism are carried high, but the higher individualism that grows out of long looking for meanings in the human drama is negligible. Somebody is always riding around or into a "feudal domain." Nobody at all penetrates it or penetrates democracy with the wisdom that came to Lincoln in his loneliness: "As I would not be a SLAVE, so I would not be a MASTER. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." The mountains, the caves, the forests, the deserts have had no prophets to interpret either their silences or their voices. In short, these books are mostly only the stuff of literature, not literature itself, not the very stuff of life, not the distillations of mankind’s "agony and bloody sweat."

An ignorant person attaches more importance to the chatter of small voices around him than to the noble language of remote individuals. The more he listens to the small, the smaller he grows. The hope of regional literature lies in outgrowing regionalism itself. On November 11, 1949, I gave a talk to the Texas Institute of Letters that was published in the Spring 1950 issue of the . The paragraphs that follow are taken therefrom.

Good writing about any region is good only to the extent that it has universal appeal. Texans are the only "race of people" known to anthropologists who do not depend upon breeding for propagation. Like princes and lords, they can be made by "breath," plus a big white hat—which comparatively few Texans wear. A beef stew by a cook in San Antonio, Texas, may have a different flavor from that of a beef stew cooked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but the essential substances of potatoes and onions, with some suggestion of beef, are about the same, and geography has no effect on their digestibility.

A writer—a regional writer, if that term means anything—will whenever he matures exercise the critical faculty. I mean in the Matthew Arnold sense of appraisal rather than of praise, or, for that matter, of absolute condemnation. Understanding and sympathy are not eulogy. Mere glorification is on the same intellectual level as silver tongues and juke box music.

In using that word INTELLECTUAL, one lays himself liable to the accusation of having forsaken democracy. For all that, "fundamental brainwork" is behind every respect-worthy piece of writing, whether it be a lightsome lyric that seems as careless as a redbird’s flit or a formal epic, an impressionistic essay or a great novel that measures the depth of human destiny. Nonintellectual literature is as nonexistent as education without mental discipline, or as "character building" in a school that is slovenly in scholarship. Billboards along the highways of Texas advertise certain towns and cities as "cultural centers." Yet no chamber of commerce would consider advertising an intellectual center. The culture of a nineteenth-century finishing school for young ladies was divorced from intellect; genuine civilization is always informed by intellect. The American populace has been taught to believe that the more intellectual a professor is, the less common sense he has; nevertheless, if American democracy is preserved it will be preserved by thought and not by physics.

Editors of all but a few magazines of the country and publishers of most of the daily newspapers cry out for brightness and vitality and at the same time shut out critical ideas. They want intellect, but want it petrified. Happily, the publishers of books have not yet reached that form of delusion. In an article entitled "What Ideas Are Safe?" in the for November 5, 1949, Henry Steele Commager says:

If we establish a standard of safe thinking, we will end up with no thinking at all.... We cannot ... have thought half slave and half free.... A nation which, in the name of loyalty or of patriotism or of any sincere and high-sounding ideal, discourages criticism and dissent, and puts a premium on acquiescence and conformity, is headed for disaster.

Unless a writer feels free, things will not come to him, he cannot burgeon on any subject whatsoever.

In 1834 Davy Crockett’s was published. It is one of the primary social documents of America. It is as much Davy Crockett, whether going ahead after bears in a Tennessee canebrake or going ahead after General Andrew Jackson in Congress, as the equally plain but also urbane of Franklin is Benjamin Franklin. It is undiluted regionalism. It is provincial not only in subject but in point of view.

No provincial mind of this day could possibly write an autobiography or any other kind of book co-ordinate in value with Crockett’s "classic in homespun." In his time, Crockett could exercise intelligence and still retain his provincial point of view. Provincialism was in the air over his land. In these changed times, something in the ambient air prevents any active intelligence from being unconscious of lands, peoples, struggles far beyond any province.

Not long after the Civil War, in Harris County, Texas, my father heard a bayou-billy yell out:

Whoopee! Raised in a canebrake and suckled by a she-bear!
The click of a six-shooter is music to my ear!
The further up the creek you go, the worse they git,
And I come from the head of it! Whoopee!

If it were now possible to find some section of country so far up above the forks of the creek that the owls mate there with the chickens, and if this section could send to Congress one of its provincials untainted by the outside world, he would, if at all intelligent, soon after arriving on Capitol Hill become aware of interdependencies between his remote province and the rest of the world.

Biographies of regional characters, stories turning on local customs, novels based on an isolated society, books of history and fiction going back to provincial simplicity will go on being written and published. But I do not believe it possible that a good one will henceforth come from a mind that does not in outlook transcend the region on which it is focused. That is not to imply that the processes of evolution have brought all parts of the world into such interrelationships that a writer cannot depict the manners and morals of a community up Owl Hoot Creek without enmeshing them with the complexities of the Atlantic Pact. Awareness of other times and other wheres, not insistence on that awareness, is the requisite. James M. Barrie said that he could not write a play until he got his people off on a kind of island, but had he not known about the mainland he could never have delighted us with the islanders—islanders, after all, for the night only. Patriotism of the right kind is still a fine thing; but, despite all gulfs, canyons, and curtains that separate nations, those nations and their provinces are all increasingly interrelated.

No sharp line of time or space, like that separating one century from another or the territory of one nation from that of another, can delimit the boundaries of any region to which any regionalist lays claim. Mastery, for instance, of certain locutions peculiar to the Southwest will take their user to the Aztecs, to Spain, and to the border of ballads and Sir Walter Scott’s romances. I found that I could not comprehend the coyote as animal hero of Pueblo and Plains Indians apart from the Reynard of Aesop and Chaucer.

In a noble opinion respecting censorship and freedom of the press, handed down on March 18, 1949, Judge Curtis Bok of Pennsylvania said:

It is no longer possible that free speech be guaranteed Federally and denied locally; under modern methods of instantaneous communication such a discrepancy makes no sense.... What is said in Pennsylvania may clarify an issue in California, and what is suppressed in California may leave us the worse in Pennsylvania. Unless a restriction on free speech be of national validity, it can no longer have any local validity whatever.

Among the qualities that any good regional writer has in common with other good writers of all places and times is intellectual integrity. Having it does not obligate him to speak out on all issues or, indeed, on any issue. He alone is to judge whether he will sport with Amaryllis in the shade or forsake her to write his own . Intellectual integrity expresses itself in the tune as well as argument, in choice of words—words honest and precise—as well as in ideas, in fidelity to human nature and the flowers of the fields as well as to principles, in facts reported more than in deductions proposed. Though a writer write on something as innocuous as the white snails that crawl up broomweed stalks and that roadrunners carry to certain rocks to crack and eat, his intellectual integrity, if he has it, will infuse the subject.

Nothing is too trivial for art, but good art treats nothing in a trivial way. Nothing is too provincial for the regional writer, but he cannot be provincial-minded toward it. Being provincial-minded may make him a typical provincial; it will prevent him from being a representative or skilful interpreter. Horace Greeley said that when the rules of the English language got in his way, they did not stand a chance. We may be sure that if by violating the rules of syntax Horace Greeley sometimes added forcefulness to his editorials, he violated them deliberately and not in ignorance. Luminosity is not stumbled into. The richly savored and deliciously unlettered speech of Thomas Hardy’s rustics was the creation of a master architect who had looked out over the ranges of fated mankind and looked also into hell. Thomas Hardy’s ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey, but his heart, in accordance with a provision of his will, was buried in the churchyard of his own village.

I have never tried to define regionalism. Its blanket has been put over a great deal of worthless writing. Robert Frost has approached a satisfying conception. "The land is always in my bones," he said—the land of rock fences. But, "I am not a regionalist. I am a realmist. I write about realms of democracy and realms of the spirit." Those realms include The Woodpile, The Grindstone, Blueberries, Birches, and many other features of the land North of Boston.

To an extent, any writer anywhere must make his own world, no matter whether in fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry. He must make something out of his subject. What he makes depends upon his creative power, integrated with a sense of form. The popular restriction of creative writing to fiction and verse is illogical. Carl Sandburg’s life of Lincoln is immeasurably more creative in form and substance than his fanciful . Intense exercise of his creative power sets, in a way, the writer apart from the life he is trying to sublimate. Becoming a Philistine will not enable a man to interpret Philistinism, though Philistines who own big presses think so. Sinclair Lewis knew Babbitt as Babbitt could never know either himself or Sinclair Lewis.
J. F. D. 1952


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Chicago: James Frank Dobie, "A Preface With Some Revised Ideas," Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations (New York: George E. Wood, 1850), Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022,

MLA: Dobie, James Frank. "A Preface With Some Revised Ideas." Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1850, Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Dobie, JF, 'A Preface With Some Revised Ideas' in Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations, ed. . cited in 1850, Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, With a Few Observations, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from