Dorothy Scarborough was the youngest child of Mary Adelaide (Ellison) and John Bledsoe Scarborough, a Confederate veteran from Louisiana and successful Texas lawyer. Dorothy was born on January 27, 1878, in Mount Carmel, a small Smith County community near Tyler. Her brother, George Moore Scarborough, who graduated from the University of Texas law school in 1897, went on to become a successful playwright. Her sister, Martha Douglass (Mrs. George McDaniel), had degrees from Vassar and Baylor and eventually published three books.
The family moved to Sweetwater, in West Texas, in 1882 because Mrs. Scarborough needed the dry climate for her health. They left Sweetwater in 1887 and moved to Waco so that the children could have a good education at Baylor. Judge Scarborough became a member of the Baylor University board of trustees in 1888 and served until his death in 1905. Dorothy made her home in Waco until she moved permanently to New York City, where in 1916 she began to teach at Columbia University.
Scarborough received her B.A. from Baylor in 1896 and her M.A. in 1899. She pursued further graduate work in literature at the University of Chicago in the summers from 1906 to 1910. She spent the 1910–11 school year in residence at Oxford University in England, even though women could not be awarded degrees there at that time. She went on for the doctorate in literature at Columbia University and received the degree in 1917. She was hired immediately to teach creative writing in the extension division of Columbia. In 1923 Baylor University awarded her an honorary doctor of literature degree.
"Miss Dottie's" career falls into three categories: those of teacher, folklorist, and writer. While completing her master's degree she taught English at Baylor and also taught briefly in the public schools of Marlin, Texas. As a regular faculty member at Baylor from 1905 to 1915, she taught general literature courses, composition, creative writing, and journalism. She also taught a popular and influential college-men's Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church in Waco. Her progress at Columbia was marked by her promotion to lecturer in 1919, to assistant professor in 1923, and to associate professor in 1931. Her teaching emphasis was creative writing, especially the techniques of the short story and novel.
The study of folklore in Texas was in infancy when Scarborough was teaching at Baylor. She was an early member of the Texas Folklore Society, which was founded in 1910, and served as president of the society in 1914–15. As reflected in her publications, her interests as a folklorist were generally in folksongs, cowboys, and the lore of the Negro. In addition to various essays and articles, she published two major folklore collections, On the Trail of Negro Folksongs (1925) and A Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains (1937, posthumous).
Dorothy Scarborough was preeminently a novelist whose works dealt primarily with the plight and role of women in Texas and elsewhere, although she also had an interest in ghosts, sharecroppers, cowboys, and other local characters and settings. In the Land of Cotton (1923), Can't Get a Redbird (1929), and The Stretch-Berry Smile (1932) examine the crushing responsibilities of cotton farming on the children of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. These novels, plus her juvenile reader, The Story of Cotton (1933), vividly depict all aspects of cotton farming, from planting to chopping to picking and finally to ginning and selling.
Scarborough's books include From a Southern Porch (1919), Impatient Griselda (1927), The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), The Unfair Sex (serialized, 1925–26), and The Wind (1925). This last, controversial, novel, in which a gentle heroine is driven insane by the incessant wind and drought-plagued frontier environment, has assured her reputation as an American regional novelist. The book created a furor in Texas when it was published because of its negative portrayal of frontier living conditions on the cattle ranges around Sweetwater in the 1880s. The book was also published anonymously as a publicity ploy. Today, however, many critics regard this novel as a Texas classic, notable for its characterization of a tragic heroine driven to murder and insanity. The Wind was made into a movie in 1927 starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hansen. That movie is probably the last great silent film, even though the producers inexplicably destroyed the artistic unity of the story by tacking on a happy ending unrelated to the ending of the novel.
Scarborough also edited three books, Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921), Humorous Ghost Stories (1921), and Selected Short Stories of Today (1935). Her first book was a collection of her own poetry, Fugitive Verses (1912). She also published poetry in various magazines and journals at Baylor and elsewhere. Her other literary productions include short stories, book reviews (she was on the literary staff of the New York Sun), critical essays, and articles dealing primarily with folklore and other literary topics.
Dorothy Scarborough died on November 7, 1935, at her home in New York City and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco.