ustxtxb_obs_1983_08_19_50_00020-00000_000.pdf

Page 11

by

CC people, but also, I think, in search of himself. As Hunting Sketches was Turgenev’s preparation for his novels, so might Tongues of the Monte have been Dobie’s, but for his turn back. Why did he turn back? The difficulty of this question is surely attested to in the sentence from the epitaph Dobie composed for himself, which John Graves has reminded us of Dobie’s statement about himself for all the world to know that “because of deference to the wellmannered he failed to expose most of what he knew, enjoyed, and hated.” I think he suffered from what we may call cultural schizophrenia. I do not know what its elements might have been. But he came from a rough ranch life; then he became a literary man, a college English professor. I would guess he felt a conflict between macho and manners, folktalk and literary criticism, frontier tales and literature. In the midst of this conflict he wrote Tongues of the Monte, but gradually he blended the life of the thoughtful intellectual back into the style of the cowboy, and his life and his work became totemic. He was the writer in Texas, a westerner who was also a man of words seeking out the folktales among the frontiersmen. This was a very safe thing to do, when you think about it; useful, worthy, and valuable, but safe. Not only was the conflict in him not resolved in his work; in his books the macho frontier stuff prevailed. I wonder again now why, when I asked him why he did not write about his own times, possibly in novels, out of himself, he responded with exasperation that he had become contemporary too late. At first that does not seem to be an answer, but then one is not so sure. Perhaps, hidden in all he left unsaid in this long-ago exchange, there lay Dobie’s knowledge of the price he, too, had paid for prevailing as a respected chronicler of the Southwestern past. His fierce and aggressive political integrity was the side of him that I first encountered, when I was a student at the University of Texas. By chance I heard him speak on the campus about enlightened human values and freedom of the mind, that sort of thing. He was a maverick in that time and place, I’ll tell you! Some disapprove of a writer making speeches and caring about elections, but everybody, even a writer, is a citizen, and more and more these days writers are deciding that they had better give more time to being citizens or we may not have a society left to write in. The other position, that the writer should give all his 20 AUGUST 19, 1983 or her best energies to his or her work, is no doubt an imperative for many writers, but it does not follow tht it’s best for all of them. Thoreau, Whitman, Yeats, Malraux there are many ways to be a writer and a citizen at the same time. However, in Dobie’s political activism he may have been, consciously or unconsciously, living out his determination that whatever hobblings on his work he had accepted from the culture, one way or another he would give the bastards hell before his time ran out. Give them hell he certainly did, and he regretted it. I remember his saying to me late in his life that this damn politics is a waste of time because you get it all done and here it comes two years later, all over again. His political liberalism was not a subtraction from his best work, it was a substitute for it. His political crusading eased his literary conscience and helped him live with not doing the really difficult and serious writing he had turned away from. Then at the end he knew he had “failed to expose most of what he knew, enjoyed, and hated.” THE OPPRESSOR here, for each of these three men, was the same: the sex-sundered culture, chauvinist-macho men versus bluenose women. One way to defy it would have been to write culture penetrating novels, but none of the three did this, although both Webb and Dobie could have and probably wanted to. Another way was politics, and this both Dobie and \(in his history as cultural understanding, and this was Webb’s work. We valued them because we sensed that they were doing all they felt they could in the situations there were in and because they seemed to care so much about the future, after they were gone. I dedicated my book about them, not to what they wrote, but to what they stood for. Permit me briefly to indicate, with one story, the sort of thing they did for their young friends. I had been inspired by Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and by Pasternak himself. The month Pasternak died I admired, in Dobie’s downstairs work room on Park Place, a photograph of Pasternak he had there: the cut-glass wine glasses were on the table there in front of the Russian and he was gazing into the camera, lost in loneliness, thinking something distant and tired. Dobie said he had gotten the print, I vaguely recall, from a newspaper friend in the East. After a while Dobie sent another copy of the photograph to me. I turned it over, and he had written on the back of it: . . . in the name of one of the holiest of the holy ghosts a man who saw into things and would not fool himself.” Bedichek knew nature, and how to take care of himself in it; he cited an ancient Greek, or recited verse copiously at the drop of a happy context; he could spin tales to transfix the very leaves around. There were not many among us like him then, and there are fewer now. On cold mornings he started his wood fire in the pot-bellied iron stove in the center of the only room. He sat in a hardback wood chair at his plain table; on his aged Oliver, the keys looped up and landed on the cylinder like overhead haymakers. The walls were books, from the floor to the ceiling. The last summer of the drought of the fifties he took me into the caliche hills southwest of Austin and taught me how to camp. We set up in a small grove of oak trees on a broken meadow. With a grubbing hoe he dug a trench in the ground a foot deep and several feet long and built down inside it a strong fire. Supper was my introduction to sardines on lettuce with a cold beer, his savory celery soup, and potatoes and apples carefully washed by hand in a bowl of water, wrapped in wetted brown paper and then again in wetted tinfoil, dipped in water again, and steamed in the coals. He put the brown paper on first because he believed that tinfoil next to the skins might impart harmful chemicals to the food in the baking. In just such details as these, with the patience to do one thing at a time, he wordlessly reproached the clocks, traffic, appointments, modern kitchens, vibrating appliances, elaborate foods all the assorted urgencies of work and relaxation by which we mostly live. As the night came into camp and the stars appeared we settled into steady talk across the fire. Women; the struggle of existence; psychiatry, in which he had a deliberately naive curiosity; public men; the contamination of fruits and vegetables by sprays in the fields and on the supermarket counters; books; his early days. In the morning we poked over a kitchen midden, and took a walk to look at the plants and the trees. He was literate, generous, and forgiving, and God, how he loved the world. He wrote all his four books in his last twelve years. Perhaps we can head off the gathering spirit of parricide about these Old Three if we can just say out loud, none of them was a great writer. Each of them was a