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A Visit With Miss Dottie

Originally published: June 1976


Born in Smith County, Texas, in 1878, Dorothy Scarborough, one of Baylor’s distinguished graduates and faculty members, made a name for herself as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. She literally grew up on Baylor’s campus, in her family’s home which occupied the site where Allen Hall now stands. After the death of her parents she lived in the home of Dr. J.T. Harrington, now Baylor’s Harrington House faculty center. Taking her BA degree in 1896, “Miss Dottie” taught English for several years at Baylor while concurrently working toward her MA degree. She founded at her alma mater the first department of journalism in the southwest.


Following a year of study at Oxford and the completion of her PhD at Columbia University in 1917, she joined Columbia’s faculty to teach courses in short story writing. She somehow managed also to find time, in addition to a heavy teaching load, to write five novels, publish treatises on cotton, folklore and literature, contribute numerous articles and stories to periodicals, and edit several anthologies of short stories.


Described by her friends as “small, untidy, energetic, unselfish, tireless, and possessed of great originality,” Miss Scarborough was meticulous in researching the backgrounds of her works. Several of her novels took place in Waco, a setting with which she was thoroughly familiar, and some of her characters were students at Baylor. Her novel The Wind, which was first published anonymously, was set in her girlhood home of Sweetwater, where an unsuccessful attempt was made to ban the book because of its unflattering—but highly accurate—presentation of life on the West Texas plains. The book became a popular success, however, and was made into a motion picture starring Lillian Gish. The author allowed her name to appear on the title page of subsequent printings and later redeemed herself to the citizens of Sweetwater by a visit and a series of talks to local clubs.


In 1927, four years after the publication of her first novel on the cotton industry, In the Land of Cotton, the author obtained a six month leave of absence from teaching and commenced a southern tour of research for a second novel on a similar theme. In the course of her travels she managed to spend a few days visiting old friends in Waco. During the interview with a reporter from the Times-Herald Miss Scarborough revealed the thoroughgoing methods by which she was gathering her information.


She had travelled, she said, throughout the South, visiting plantation homes, field workers’ shanties and the cotton exchanges of Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Galveston. As she had no secretary with her, she herself made notes of the facts she discovered, until she arrived in Waco with seven hundred typed pages filled with the intimate details of cotton-market operations. “I will take it back with me, study it thoroughly, and then begin my writing. After the work has begun, I can’t stop and search for more data, you know. I must have the material thoroughly assimilated, thought out, and then I will write,” she said.


When questioned by the interviewer about her writing habits, Miss Scarborough revealed that she normally began work at seven o’clock in the morning. “One can always do his best by starting when the day is fresh. About three hours is all I do at a stretch.” She did not use a stenographer for her writing, she said, because “dictating means one is apt to be verbose. Writing your own copy makes you cut down on superfluous words.”


“Do you write with a pencil?”


“Yes, I use a typewriter only on my correspondence. I like to be by myself, undisturbed, and I must be comfortable when writing.”


“What kind of pencil do you use—one that writes soft, or hard?”


“Just one that I can chew the end of,” the distinguished novelist replied.


The book in preparation, Can’t Get a Red Bird, was published two years later, in 1929. After that time the author’s energies were largely directed toward the gathering and publication of folklore and folk songs. Miss Scarborough died in New York City in 1935, and is buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetry.

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