Sunday, February 26, 2017

DOROTHY SCARBOROUGH AND THE WIND OF WEST TEXAS


Dorothy Scarborough is an author whose story intrigues me. She was the youngest child of Mary Adelaide (Ellison) and John Bledsoe Scarborough, a Confederate veteran from Louisiana and successful Texas lawyer. Dorothy was born on January 27, 1878, in Mount Carmel, a small Smith County community near Tyler, Texas. Her brother, George Moore Scarborough graduated from the University of Texas law school in 1897 and went on to become a successful playwright. Her sister, Martha Douglass (Mrs. George McDaniel), had degrees from Vassar and Baylor and eventually published three books.

The family moved to Sweetwater, in West Texas, in 1882 because Mrs. Scarborough needed the dry climate for her health. They left Sweetwater in 1887 and Mary and Judge John Scarborough moved their family to Waco into a Victorian mansion near the campus so that the children could have a good education at Baylor.

By no means comparable since my father was not a Judge, my parents moved to Lubbock so that my brother and I could attend good schools and later attend Texas Tech. Hero’s parents did the same to provide access to good education for him and his siblings.

Dorothy had always been encouraged in her studies by her parents. Writing became her passion along with a career in teaching. Judge Scarborough became a member of the Baylor University board of trustees in 1888 and served until his death in 1905. Dorothy made her home in Waco until she moved permanently to New York City, where in 1916 she began to teach at Columbia University.
Scarborough received her B.A. from Baylor in 1896 and her M.A. in 1899. 

Dorothy Scarborough, photo from Baylor University
She pursued further graduate work in literature at the University of Chicago in the summers from 1906 to 1910. She spent the 1910–11 school year in residence at Oxford University in England, even though women could not be awarded degrees there at that time. She went on for the doctorate in literature at Columbia University and received the degree in 1917. She was hired immediately to teach creative writing in the extension division of Columbia. In 1923 Baylor University awarded her an honorary doctor of literature degree.

While completing her master's degree she taught English at Baylor and also taught briefly in the public schools of Marlin, Texas. As a regular faculty member at Baylor from 1905 to 1915, she taught general literature courses, composition, creative writing, and journalism. She also taught a popular and influential college-men's Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church in Waco. Her progress at Columbia was marked by her promotion to lecturer in 1919, to assistant professor in 1923, and to associate professor in 1931. Her teaching emphasis was creative writing, especially the techniques of the short story and novel.

The study of folklore in Texas was in infancy when Scarborough was teaching at Baylor. She was an early member of the Texas Folklore Society, which was founded in 1910, and served as president of the society in 1914–15. She called herself a "song catcher." She believed radio threatened the survival of folk songs, and she traveled around the Appalachian Mountains recording centuries-old ballads with a hand-powered Dictaphone. Scarborough believed these folk songs told stories about a community's values and its collective history. Dorothy Scarborough took inspiration from America's regional cultures and, in doing so, preserved the creative expressions of ordinary people from times past. Don't you wish we could listen to those Dictaphone melodies?

As reflected in her publications, her interests as a folklorist were generally in folksongs, cowboys, and the lore of the Negro. In addition to various essays and articles, she published two major folklore collections, ON THE TRAIL OF NEGRO FOLKSONGS and A SONG CATCHER IN THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS (published posthumously in 1937).

Dorothy Scarborough was a novelist whose works dealt primarily with the plight and role of women in Texas and elsewhere, although she also had an interest in ghosts, sharecroppers, cowboys, and other local characters and settings. Her first book was a collection of her own poetry, FUGITIVE VERSES in 1912. She also published poetry in various magazines and journals at Baylor and elsewhere.

Mexican Family 1910
near Sweetwater, Texas

IN THE LAND OF COTTON, CAN’T GET A REDBIRD, and THE STRETCH-BERRY SMILE examine the crushing responsibilities of cotton farming on the children of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. These novels, plus her juvenile reader, THE STORY OF COTTON, vividly depict all aspects of cotton farming, from planting to chopping to picking and finally to ginning and selling.

Cotton in the field
ready for harvesting
I suppose another of the reasons Dorothy Scarborough appeals to me is that for most of his life my father was in the cotton business, first as manager of a cotton gin and later as a cotton buyer. He often talked of the poor treatment of migrants and said that the only thing a dry-land farmer raised in West Texas was dirt—not technically true but often the case. In addition, Ms Scarborough is a writer as I am and we both also worked as journalists—although she had a far better education than I have and a more respected journalistic career.

Ms Scarborough's books include FROM A SOUTHERN PORCH, IMPATIENT GRISELDA, THE SUPERNATURAL IN MODERN ENGLISH FICTION (her dissertation thesis), THE UNFAIR SEX (serialized, 1925–26), and THE WIND. This last, controversial novel, has assured her reputation as an American regional novelist.

THE WIND created a furor in Texas when it was published because of its negative portrayal of frontier living conditions on the cattle ranges around Sweetwater in the 1880s. The book was also published anonymously as a publicity ploy. Reviewers praised the book for depicting the West with "cold truth." However, many Texas readers attacked THE WIND—and argued that only a Yankee could have written it.

According to Gene Fowler, “few Texas books have generated such controversy as Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel, THE WIND. Set amid the sandstorms around Sweetwater during the drought of 1886-87, the book described the West Texas winds as "the enemies of women," a "resistless force" that "wailed to [Letty, the main character] across waste places in the night, calling to her like a demon lover." R.C. Crane, a Sweetwater lawyer and president of the West Texas Historical Association, spoke for many West Texans when he blasted the novel’s author (the first edition was published anonymously) for what he saw as inaccuracies in local color, geography, and cowboy talk. The book, Crane declared, even slandered the prairie dog. Other, enthusiastic critics called the book a masterpiece and likened Scarborough’s treatment of nature to that of Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad.”

Many critics regard this novel as a Texas classic, notable for its characterization of a tragic heroine driven to murder and insanity.

Finally, the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce invited Dorothy to visit, thinking its members could point out the many good aspects of their community. Ms Scarborough accepted the invitation, but must have felt vindicated when a West Texas “blue norther” storm blew in and proved her point. Winning her audience with humor and charm, she quoted a letter her mother had written after the family’s move to Waco. Complaining of Central Texas’ heat and dryness one summer, Mrs. Scarborough had exclaimed, "Oh, how I long for a Sweetwater breeze!"

Participants in Sweetwater's spring Rattlesnake Roundup
Sweetwater is a nice town in spite of the above (shudder)
THE WIND was made into a movie in 1927 starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hansen. That movie is probably the last great silent film, even though the producers changed—as movies are apt to—the ending to a happy one unrelated to the ending of the novel. By the way, Lillian Gish was producer of the movie and must have been one of the first actresses to produce a movie. She arranged for the story rights.

Movie poster
According to Ms Gish, “The film was shot near Bakersfield, California (where I lived for six years as a child) at the edge of the Mojave Desert where temperatures rose to 120 degrees in the middle of the day,” she said in an interview. “Eight airplane propellers were employed to stir up all the sand. There was so much swirling sand that everyone on the set wore black grease paint around the eyes and big goggles and scarves around the face as much as possible. The sand was so stinging and hot that it burned holes in my clothes.” Ms Gish tells of the day when she went to her dressing room trailer and unwittingly clasped the burning hot metal doorknob. It took the skin off her right-hand palm.

As Ms Gish related, the exhibitors liked the movie, but wouldn’t accept the ending. They knew that their audiences wouldn’t tolerate a tragic ending, so the crew was forced to shoot another scene, which ends with a happily ever after. Ms Gish said in the interview, “We all thought it was morally unjust to force us to change an artwork.”

Ms Scarborough’s story line of THE WIND is fairly simple. Traveling by train from civilized Virginia, the refined young heroine Lettie Mason is puzzled and disoriented by the sandstorms the train encounters as they reach West Texas. She is to live with a relative and his family.

To her horror, she discovers that the wind is never-ending — a driving, tormenting beast. Involved with two men who want her, she fights for her sanity. In the final scene, she runs out into the sandstorm and is swallowed up and lost.

Sandstorm rolling into at Midland, Texas, 1910
You can understand how someone could run
into this storm and get lost.

Ms Scarborough also edited three books, FAMOUS MODERN GHOST STORIES, HUMOROUS GHOST STORIES, and SELECTED SHORT STORIES OF TODAY. Her other literary productions include short stories, book reviews (she was on the literary staff of the New York Sun), critical essays, and articles dealing primarily with folklore and other literary topics. She also serialized “The Woman’s Viewpoint” in a magazine, in which she denounced the inequities under which women lived and worked at that time.

Though she lived the last two decades of her life in the northeast, she vowed, "I’ll match my loyalty against that of anybody in the State." As for Texas as a subject for literature, she wrote that "her native sons and daughters would be foolish to look elsewhere for literary inspiration."

Dorothy Scarborough died on November 7, 1935, at her home in New York City and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco, Texas.

Sources:




Most of my books are set in Texas and two of them include sandstorms. The first is the historical THE MOST UNSUITABLE COURTSHIP in which a sandstorm plays a large part. 

The other is the contemporary , which takes place in West Texas, HOME SWEET TEXAS HOME.
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3 comments:

  1. What an interesting lady, Caroline. I'd never heard of her and what a shame since she spent so much of her life in Waco at Baylor. I'll see if I can find a copy of THE WIND. Thanks for introducing us to her.

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  2. Dorothy was beautiful, wasn't she? And she has an almost regal look to her demeanor. No wonder she was brilliant..she looked, that, too. So sorry I have not heard of her, but I will look up more about her now.
    The Wind....Lillian Gish? I can just imagine how the movie makers used her overdone, over the top acting to show how women would kill their babies and then themselves..just to escape the wind.
    Oh, yes, that wind can blow out there. I know several of us have either lived there, and maybe was born out there.
    Thanks for this thorough, revealing story about a fantastic woman. Makes me feel so insecure and insignificant. Just think what she could have done with a computer!
    The photos are wonderful.

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  3. I found Dorothy so interesting and she reminds me of so many authors who persist no matter what. Even though she wore glasses, I thought she had a lovely face.
    A heroine driven to murder and insanity doesn't sound very appealing and, I hate to say it, I'm glad the film makers changed it to have a happy ending.
    Texas has some wild and wicked weather for certain, but beautiful to look at. I used to like thunderstorms where lightning flashed inside the clouds, but it never rained.
    This was a wonderful article about Dorothy Scarborough. I have never heard of her until now.

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