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Texas’s Most Famous Historian Looks Back at His Own, Legendary Life

Texas Monthly

Originally Posted: February 2021

Andrew R. Graybill is a professor of history and the director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Historian’s History.” 

While working in the archives at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, the historian Michael Collins came across what he describes, somewhat hyperbolically, as “a buried treasure—pure gold, at least in a figurative sense.” It was the unfinished autobiography of Walter Prescott Webb, perhaps the most famous historian the Lone Star State has ever produced. Webb drafted the manuscript in his mid-fifties while spending the 1942–1943 academic year at the University of Oxford as the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History and then apparently set it aside. Though Collins, as he began reading the narrative in the summer of 2008, anticipated “the stale chronicle of a stodgy, pedantic old professor’s life and academic career,” he concluded instead that the 230-page memoir was a “masterful piece of literature,” a real-life bildungsroman mixing profound introspection and self-deprecating humor.

In fact, what Webb titled “The Texan’s Story” had been lying in plain sight for decades—the treasure hadn’t been buried all that deep. Researchers, Collins among them, had known of the manuscript for years; some had previously mined it for insights into Webb’s life and work.

And yet Collins—a professor emeritus of history at Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls—has rendered a great service in editing and annotating Webb’s memoir for publication in book form as A Texan’s Story: The Autobiography of Walter Prescott Webb (University of Oklahoma Press). It’s an engrossing portrait of the scholar as a young (and middle-aged) man, and it reveals how Webb’s lived experience indelibly informed his two best-known books, The Great Plains and The Texas Rangers—for the better and, in many ways, for the worse. READ MORE