Scarborough, Dorothy (1878–1935)

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Scarborough, Dorothy (1878–1935)

American novelist and musicologist. Born in Mount Carmel, Texas, on January 27, 1878; died on November 7, 1935; daughter of John B. Scarborough (a lawyer) and Mary Adelaide Scarborough; sister of Martha McDaniel Scarborough and George Moore Scarborough, both writers; received bachelor's and master's degrees from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, 1890s; studied at the University of Chicago; studied at Oxford University in England, 1910–11; Columbia University in New York, Ph.D., 1917; never married.

Selected writings:

Fugitive Verses (1912); The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917); From a Southern Porch (1919); In the Land of Cotton (1923); On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs (1925); The Wind (1925); The Unfair Sex (1925); Impatient Griselda (1927); Can't Get a Red Bird (1929); The Stretch-berry Smile (1932); The Story of Cotton (1933); A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains (1937, posthumous).

Known equally well for a series of realistic novels and for her pioneering investigations of American folk music, Dorothy Scarborough helped to pave the way for the generation of Southern women writers who came to prominence in the middle of the 20th century. Though she wrote and taught in New York for much of her professional life, Scarborough drew upon her Texas origins in her fiction and was perhaps that state's most important contributor to the regionalist style that gained favor between the world wars.

Scarborough was born in the East Texas town of Mount Carmel on January 27, 1878. As a child, she experienced the stark, severe environment of West Texas when her family moved to the town of Sweetwater, hoping the dry climate there would cure her mother's lung disease; West Texas would become the setting for Scarborough's most famous novel, The Wind. Her mother's health did improve, and the family moved to Waco, drawn there by Baylor University and the educational opportunities it could provide for the Scarborough children. All three surviving children showed literary talent—Dorothy's sister Martha McDaniel Scarborough would write novels, poetry, and a biography of her husband, and her brother George Moore Scarborough became a successful playwright. He moved to Hollywood and, in the 1920s, collaborated with Dorothy on the screenplay for the film version of The Wind, which featured silent-screen star Lillian Gish .

Scarborough graduated young from Baylor, contributing a piece to the university's literary magazine when she was only 15. She taught English and journalism at Baylor, and made vigorous efforts to further her education, receiving a master's degree from Baylor and taking courses at the University of Chicago. In 1910, Scarborough traveled to England and spent a year at Oxford University, a journey of the body and mind that challenged her and opened up her future career. Returning to her teaching position at Baylor, Scarborough explored her growing interest in folklore with the publication of a group of poems, Fugitive Verses (1912), which highlighted black folk songs. Baylor granted her a leave of absence so she could work toward her doctoral degree at Columbia University in New York. Her dissertation on the supernatural in English fiction was completed in 1917 and published by Putnam. With the publication came an offer of a teaching position at Columbia, which Scarborough accepted. While teaching there in the 1920s and 1930s, she found herself much in demand as a commentator and lecturer.

Like many other writers of the 1920s, Scarborough strove in her novels toward a realistic depiction of a single region of the country—in her case, the South and her home state of Texas. The Wind (1925) is the story of the devastation wreaked on a cultured woman by the harsh environment of West Texas; the novel's unsentimental depiction of implacable natural forces seized the public's imagination with the aid of Gish's film version. Perhaps inspired by a trilogy of works by novelist Frank Norris that dealt with wheat farming, Scarborough completed three novels that explored the difficult life of Southern sharecropper cotton farmers. In the Land of Cotton (1923), Can't Get a Red Bird (1929), and The Stretch-berry Smile (1932) did not achieve the renown of Norris' books, but, together with The Wind, they cemented Scarborough's reputation as an important regional writer and as the voice of a progressive spirit in Southern fiction.

Even before leaving Texas, Scarborough had become interested in the new discipline of folklore, combining her keen observations of the ways and works of the common people around her (vividly on display in her fiction) with the tools of the systematic study of folk cultures. She gravitated especially toward music. On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs, published by Harvard University Press in 1925, was still useful to scholars decades later, after many other intensive studies of black folk music had been made. At the time of her death in November 1935, she was at work on another major folk song collection, A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains, which was issued posthumously in 1937. The rigors of travel in the mountains may have had deleterious effects on her health.

At Columbia, students of Scarborough's included Carson McCullers , later famous as an explorer in fiction of Southern culture's bizarre corners. Scarborough put her students in contact with such famous writers as her friends Edna Ferber and Hamlin Garland, and many of those students rewarded her efforts by maintaining a lifelong correspondence with her. As a writer, Scarborough engaged herself with some of the most important intellectual currents of her time. As a teacher, she encouraged her students to do the same, and her own early career provided an exemplary demonstration of the value of the single-minded pursuit of an advanced education. It enabled her to rise to the top echelon of the American writing profession of her day.


Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas. Austin, TX: State House Press, 1992.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

James M. Manheim , freelance writer and editor, Ann Arbor, Michigan