TEXAS INSTITUTE OF LETTERS
The organizational meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters convened in the lecture room of the Hall of State on the grounds of the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas on November 9, 1936. The idea for the organization came from William H. Vann, a professor of English at what is now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, in Belton. He and others had been inspired by the celebration of the Texas Centennial to form an organization to promote interest in Texas literature and to recognize literary and cultural achievement. J. Frank Dobie spoke at an evening session on "The Earth Remembers." Advocating that Texas authors write on Texas subjects, he reminded his audience that "great literature transcends its native land, but there is none that I know of that ignores its own soil." Fifty Texans composed the charter list of members, but two of them, Fannie E. Ratchford and Donald Joseph, declined acceptance. Dobie himself at first expressed doubt about the worth of the organization, but after he had become a member he devoted himself to the work. Cokesbury Bookstore in Dallas became an early supporter of the organization and in 1938 began sponsoring annual meetings there. The first book award, in 1939, went to Dobie for Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. In 1946 Carr P. Collins began funding an award of $1,000 for the best Texas book of the year, defined as one on a Texas subject or by a Texas author. Later, this became the nonfiction award when the Jesse H. Jones prize for the same sum was offered by the Houston Endowment for the best book of fiction. Both awards have continued to the present, in increased amounts. Awards funded by other individuals and organizations for poetry, short stories, scholarly authorship, journalism (with emphasis on writing quality), children's books, and book design have been given. Fifty years after its founding, the institute awarded more than $11,000 annually. Starting in 1967 the institute cosponsored, with the University of Texas at Austin, Dobie-Paisano fellowships consisting of six-month stays, with stipends, at Dobie's 265-acre retreat, Paisano Ranch. With the exception of Katherine Anne Porter, most established Texas writers since 1936 have been associated with the Texas Institute of Letters. Apparently because of Porter's chosen disassociation from the state, she never accepted membership. Membership is offered to persons associated with Texas who have been nominated by a member, approved by the council, and elected by the active members. Election is permanent, although only dues-paying members are listed as active and kept on the mailing list for the quarterly newsletter. The institute, whose official address varies according to residence of the secretary-treasurer, meets each spring to present awards and transact business. The sole source of institute income is dues, which are nominal, and outside contributions. The members are novelists, poets, essayists, historians, journalists, playwrights, and other writers, but the emphasis for membership has always been on authorship of quality.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dallas Morning News, March 19, 1986. William H. Vann, The Texas Institute of Letters (Austin: Encino, 1967). John Edward Weems, "History of the Texas Institute of Letters," Texas Libraries 45 (Spring 1986).
John Edward Weems
Article from the Handbook of Texas Online, s.v., http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kqt01 (accessed April 24, 2007).