Literary Texas: Fred Gipson

Bronze Sculpture of Old Yeller and Travis, in front of the M. Beven Eckert Memorial Library in Mason, Texas.

“It was a wild, lonesome place, down in a deep canyon that was bent in the shape of a horseshoe. Tall trees grew down in the canyon and leaned out over a deep hold of clear water. In the trees nested hundreds of long-shanked herons, blue ones and white ones with black wing tips…. And beneath them, down in the clear water, yard-long catfish lay on the sandy bottom, waiting to gobble up any young birds that happened to fall out of nests. ” Frank Gipson, Old Yeller

Frank Gipson set his most famous book Old Yeller in the wildly beautiful Texas Hill Country soon after the American Civil War. It opens as the men of a Hill Country settlement commence on a cattle drive to Abilene, Kansas, leaving mostly women and children to fend for themselves. It was a time when most often young teenage boys became men, and teenage girls and women developed an unremitting strength. On the frontier, peril loomed behind every rock, the unknown along every stream. Essentially, this is the story of fourteen-year-old Travis, the older son of the Coates family, though the old cur stray Yeller has a strong supporting role and is a character few who have read the book or seen the movie will ever forget. Its creator grew up on a farm outside of Mason, Texas, deep within this Hill Country and as a boy, learned every creek, riverbank, hill, stone, overhang, and pool of water in the region. Many of his stories are set in these environs, providing a firm sense of place from which the action develops.

Fredrick Benjamin Gipson was born on February 7, 1908, to Beck and Emma Deishler Gipson. He graduated from Mason High School in 1926, worked a few years at farming, ranching, and other odd jobs before starting to The University of Texas in 1936. At the University, Gipson worked on The Daily Texan, the school’s official newspaper and on The Texas Ranger, a humor magazine. He left the school, however, to go to work for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times for a while before moving on to San Angelo to work on the San Angelo Standard-Times. In San Angelo, he met and married Tommie Wynn with whom he later had two sons. While working at the Standard-Times and other newspapers, he began writing articles and short stories and selling them to magazines. He published at first in pulp Western magazines as well as more major slick magazines such as Look, Colliers, and Liberty. Later he published in the Southwest Review, a prestigious literary journal housed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Gipson’s first published book was The Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller’s Story in 1946. But it was Hound-Dog Man published in 1949 that sold over 250,000 copies that brought him acceptance into the literary world. Although he published over twelve novels, he always considered Old Yeller to be his best. In a November 2000 article, Texas Monthly called Old Yeller ” a rite of passage for American children and went on to say, “a true measure of Old Yeller‘s importance is its universal familiarity.” The resulting 1957 Disney movie for which Gipson wrote the script was released on Christmas Day in San Angelo, Texas. The 1963 movie of Old Yeller‘s sequel, Savage Sam, premiered in Mason, Texas, at the Odeon Theater.

During his career, Gipson wrote hundreds of short stories, twelve books, a number of screen plays, and received numerous awards, including a 1957 Newbery Honor and the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 1959, both for Old Yeller. In 1960, he became president of the Texas Institute of Letters. Following is a list of his published books, including revisions and republications:

  • Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller’s Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
  • Hound-Dog Man. New York: Harper, 1949. (Many critics consider this his best work.)
  • Circle Round the Wagons. London: Michael Joseph. 1949. UK edition of Hound-Dog Man.
  • The Home Place. New York: Harper, 1950.
  • Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story (with J.O. Langford). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952.
  • Cowhand: the story of a working cowboy. New York: Harper. 1953.
  • The Trail-Driving Rooster. New York: Harper, 1955.
  • Recollection Creek. New York: Harper, 1955.
  • Old Yeller. New York: Harper, 1956.
  • The “Cow Killers” : (with the Aftosa Commission in Mexico). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956.
  • Recollection Creek, revised for young people. New York: Harper, 1959.
  • Savage Sam. New York: Harper, 1962.
  • Little Arliss. New York: Harper, 1978. (Published posthumously.)
  • Curly and the Wild Boar. New York: Harper, 1979. (Published posthumously.)
  • Hound-Dog Man. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

In his later years, Gipson became an alcoholic who was said to be given to rages. Tragically, his older son committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 22, and Gipson and his wife Tommie divorced in 1964. He married Angelina Torres in 1967, but the marriage ended in divorce less than a year later. On August 17, 1973, Gipson died of a brain hemorrhage. He was 65. By proclamation of Govenor Dolph Briscoe, he was buried in the Texas State Cemetery. Inscribed on his tombstone is “His books are his monument.” His papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

…things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.” Fred Gipson, Old Yeller


2 thoughts on “Literary Texas: Fred Gipson

  1. One of the only movies I saw as a child. It definitely had a tough 7 year old crying. I read the book a year or two later and again the powerful writing had me in tears. After” Old Yeller” I read a study diet of dog and horse books for years before expanding my interests to historical fiction and science fiction. I can thank comic books and authors such as Fred Gipson for ingniting a love of reading within me.

    Liked by 1 person

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