Webb found farm life on the family homestead in the Cross Timbers area near Ranger harsh and unappealing. In desperation he wrote a letter to the editor of a literary magazine, the Sunny South, asking how a farm boy could get an education and become a writer. William E. Hinds, a toy manufacturer from New York, responded to the boy's query and encouraged him to "keep his sights on lofty goals." Webb finished at Ranger High School in Eastland County and earned a teaching certificate. He taught at various small Texas schools and, with the assistance of his benefactor, William Hinds, eventually attended the University of Texas, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1915 at the age of twenty-seven. Webb interrupted his teaching career to work as a bookkeeper for Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos and to serve as an optometrist's assistant in San Antonio. He was teaching at Main High School in 1918, when he was invited to join the history faculty of the University of Texas. Webb wrote his master's thesis on the Texas Rangers in 1920 and was encouraged to pursue the Ph.D. His year of "educational outbreeding" (as he referred to it) at the University of Chicago was unsuccessful, and he returned to Texas determined to write history as he saw it.
The result was the publication in 1931 of The Great Plains, acclaimed as "a new interpretation of the American West," acknowledged by the Social Science Research Council in 1939 as the outstanding contribution to American history since World War I, and winner of Columbia University's Loubat prize. On the basis of this book, Webb received the Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1932. In 1939, after a year as Harkness Lecturer at the University of London, Webb became director of the Texas State Historical Association. During his tenure (to 1946), he expanded the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and launched a project to compile an encyclopedia of Texas, published in 1952 as the Handbook of Texas. With the assistance of H. Bailey Carroll, he established a student branch of the association, the Junior Historians of Texas, in 1940 to encourage secondary school teachers and students to investigate local and regional history. Respected as a teacher both at home and abroad, Webb returned to Europe in 1942 as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford.
At the University of Texas he became famous for his books and seminars, especially those on the Great Plains and the Great Frontier, in which he developed two major historical concepts. He proposed in the Great Plains thesis that the westward settlement of the United States had been momentarily stalled at the ninety-eighth meridian, an institutional fault line separating the wooded environment to the east from the arid environment of the west. The pioneers were forced to pause in their westward trek while technological innovation in the form of the six-shooter, barbed wire, and the windmill allowed them to proceed. The Great Frontier thesis became the crux of a book of the same title, published in 1952, that Webb declared to be his most intellectual and thought-provoking. The Great Frontier proposed a "boom hypothesis": the new lands discovered by Columbus and other explorers in the late fifteenth century precipitated the rise of great wealth and new institutions such as democracy and capitalism. By 1900, however, the new lands disappeared, the frontier closed, and institutions were under stress, resulting in the ecological and economic problems that have plagued the twentieth century. Although not universally well-received at the time, the Second International Congress of Historians of the United States and Mexico examined the Great Frontier thesis as its sole topic during its 1958 meeting, and the concept was again an object of discussion at an international symposium in 1972.
In all, Webb wrote or edited more than twenty books. In 1935 he published The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, the definitive study of this frontier law enforcement agency, but regarded by Webb as being filled with "deadening facts." Divided We Stand: The Crisis of a Frontierless Democracy (1937) analyzed the practices of modern corporations, which Webb contended promoted economic sectionalism to the disadvantage of the South. More Water for Texas: The Problem and the Plan (1954) reflected Webb's interest in the conservation of natural resources. A collection of his essays, An Honest Preface and Other Essays, appeared in 1959, and at the time of his death he was working on a television series on American civilization under a grant from the Ford Foundation. Webb was one of the charter members and later a fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters. He was also a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas and president of both the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (1954-55) and the American Historical Association (1958). He received honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, Southern Methodist University, and Oxford University in England. He held two Guggenheim fellowships, acted as special advisor to Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson on water needs of the South and West, and received a $10,000 award from the American Council of Learned Societies for distinguished service to scholarship. The United States Bureau of Reclamation also gave him an award for distinguished service to conservation. Webb was married on September 16, 1916, to Jane Elizabeth Oliphant, who died on June 28, 1960. They had one daughter. On December 14, 1961, he married Terrell (Dobbs) Maverick, the widow of F. Maury Maverick of San Antonio. Webb was killed in an automobile accident near Austin on March 8, 1963, and was buried in the State Cemetery by proclamation of Governor John B. Connally. A statue of Webb and his old friends J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek stands in Zilker Park in Austin.
30° 15.920, -097° 43.613
Texas State Cemetery