Myself and Strangers

[ Biography/Memoir ]

Myself and Strangers

A Memoir of Apprenticeship

By John Graves

Now available in paperback for the first time . . . The story of the decade-long apprenticeship that paved the way for John Graves' masterwork, Goodbye to a River.

2005

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 253 pp. | 18 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-70972-0

In Myself and Strangers, John Graves, the highly regarded author of Goodbye to a River and other classic works, recalls the decade-long apprenticeship in which he found his voice as a writer. He recounts his wanderings from Texas to Mexico, New York, and Spain, where, like Hemingway, he hoped to find the material with which to write books that mattered. With characteristic honesty, Graves admits the false starts and dead ends that dogged much of his writing, along with the exhilaration he felt when the words finally flowed. He frankly describes both the pleasures and the restlessness of expatriate life in Europe after World War II—as well as his surprising discovery, when family obligations eventually called him home to Texas, that the years away had prepared him to embrace his native land as the fit subject matter for his writing. For anyone seeking the springs that fed John Graves' best-loved books, this memoir of apprenticeship will be genuinely rewarding.

  • Author's Preface
  • One. Origins
  • Two. A Mexican Interlude
  • Three. Flounderings, and Escape Across the Waters
  • Four. An Island Full of Noises
  • Five. Mainly Madrid
  • Six. Tenerife and Going Home
  • Seven. Long Island and the Book
  • Eight. The End of a Time

This memoir is one outgrowth of an old-man's task I set myself to a few years ago, that of putting my papers in order. Reading through my handwritten and sometimes typed journal from the 1940s into the '60s with the intention of burning it afterward, I came to believe that I needed to do more with it. I didn't know exactly why, but the need had something to do with not losing an image of what I once was like, or thought I was like, during an intense period when I was doing a lot of belated apprenticeship floundering in terms of both life and writing.

The memoir touches on some earlier and later swatches of my life, but its main emphasis is on the time between the autumns of 1951 and 1956, including about two and a half years when I was living in Europe, chiefly Spain, and then the time back on this continent that it took me to finish an ill-fated novel begun over there. During none of this period was I in the middle of important things that were happening, whether literary, political, or otherwise. I never have been in the middle of such events except during a brief segment of World War Two, and perhaps during a three-year stint of work for the U.S. Department of the Interior in the late 1960s, in a program whose aim was to "clean up the Potomac River and make it a model for the nation." Nor has being outside of the middle ever bothered me much, or being untypical of any particular group or school of writing.

I did finally consign the old journal to the fireplace flames, but not before excerpting the entries that are preserved here, imbedded in a matrix of retrospective summaries, present-day comments, and square-bracketed explanatory asides. The memoir's form is episodic, in part because the journal was not a meticulously and regularly kept piece of work like a diary. It had many gaps in time and coverage, and certain things of interest, to me at any rate, were skimped or not mentioned at all. I did, for instance, a good bit more fishing in Spain than is indicated here, and especially in the latter part of my stay rode my little green BSA motorcycle to many of the big ferias and fiestas in various parts of the country, with their bullfights, but kept notes on those corridas separately in a pocket notebook that I no longer have. Not that the notes would be of much interest to anyone but me, for they consisted chiefly of private symbols for various cape and muleta passes and other events in the ring. I think I had a fishing notebook too, which has vanished in similar fashion.

Another gap is the near absence of a sense of the natural world and the land, which has been strong in me since childhood and has become even stronger in later life, but which seems to have been somewhat in abeyance during the journal's years. This lack may bother some of my readers, especially those in Texas, where I have been referred to as "The Sage of Glen Rose," a sturdy rustic concerned solely with country things. But I never set out to be a rustic sage, only a writer about things that mattered to me.

Some of the names of people have been changed to avoid offense or injury to those few who may still be living, or to touchy kin of the many who have died.

Here and there the journal or the comments and summaries contain, sometimes verbatim, material I have used in other published work. Such passages had often been lifted from the journal for that other work, or have been borrowed now from the other work for use here. Some have even been altered a little or added to, as memory has furnished more details. I have let all these passages stand, with or without notes regarding their appearance elsewhere.

The journal entries and the comments or summaries often reflect the personalities and views of two different individuals, and have two separate voices. In a few ways Young John the journal keeper is something of a stranger to Old John the grayheaded commentator and summarizer and square-bracketer. He was rather ill-read despite six years of college, naïve in several ways, sexually a bit randy, quite profane at times, and filled with inchoate, often frustrated ambition. And he was still carrying a pretty fair load of ingrained Texan-Southern provincialism. "Callow" may be as good an overall adjective as any to describe him.

But the journal entries convey, as noted above, what he was like back then, or what he thought he was like. And Old John is always there with his eye on his younger self's statements, poised to pounce and criticize when he disagrees strongly.

Many other people's memoirs seem to lead to moral justification of the author's way of life, but I don't seem to have that feeling about my own life, or at any rate about the memoir's particular segment of it. In a short 1960s piece about my attitude toward the Vietnam War, written on request from Gordon Lish at Esquire (other writers contributed as well, but the whole politically touchy project was ultimately killed before publication by someone higher up on the magazine's staff), I described myself as "one who has too often glimpsed, skulking from treetrunk to treetrunk behind him, the shadow of his own and his people's imperfection."

I still see that shadow on occasion, and Young John saw it much more frequently. He was, I think, a fairly decent fellow despite his shortcomings, but the chief moral constant I can discern clearly in him is his compulsion to write, to write as well as he could, and if possible to write better and better with time. He did stick to that aim, or it stuck to him, and it held him together during a period when demoralization was never very distant.

I considered calling the memoir The Circle, for it leads its protagonist from Texas through some other parts of the world, and finally back to Texas again. But the present title, taken at Sam Hynes's suggestion from a sentence of Gertrude Stein's quoted in one of the journal entries, seems to sum it up better.

In a time like ours, I have no notion whether enough people to matter will be interested in a book concerned with the longpast apprenticeship ups and downs of a not especially productive writer like myself, whose main work has been backward-looking, rural, and regional. But it seems I needed to put those ups and downs into words.

John Graves
Glen Rose, Texas
2003

I was born and grew up rather unexceptionally in the prairie city of Fort Worth, Texas, my late childhood and youth coinciding with the years of the Great Depression. My family were "nice people" in the Southern phrase, Episcopalian and conservative, with quite a few of the implicit privileges pertaining to that classification, though my father's struggles to stay financially afloat in the 1930s kept us at times barely within the local Establishment's boundaries.

Lying on the eastern rim of the West Texas ranching country, the city had large stockyards and meat-packing plants, an annual Livestock Exposition with its rodeo, and many visitors who wore high-heeled boots and wide hats legitimately, because these were related to their daily work. But its underlying ethos was also quite Southern. Its mythic heroes were often Confederate soldiers, like my four great-uncles, from both sides of the family, of whom two had gotten themselves killed in battle and a third had lost a leg at Chickamauga. Many of the parents of my contemporaries in the town came from other regions, usually in the South—my own mother was born in South Carolina and my father grew up in coastal Texas with a merchant father, though his mother's people had all been ranchers.

***

Ranching and farming mattered far more in the Texas of those days than they do now. In Fort Worth they were a recent part of most of my friends' family backgrounds, and a number of us, after we were big enough to be of any use, spent our summers doing country work, usually for relatives and at the abysmal rural wages of Depression times. ("A dollar a day and keep" was standard, and workdays often lasted eleven or twelve hours.) My own experience of this sort was not very grand, but it meant a lot to me. One of my older cousins was married to a man who ran a stock farm of several hundred acres not far west of the city, a place that was mainly rangeland, utilized by his beef cattle, and partly creekbottom fields sowed annually to various grain crops.

There I drove an old tractor ahead of a plow, or a binder cutting ripe wheat or oats and tying them into bundles that it dropped into the stubble as it moved along. Afterward I and other workers would stack six or eight of those bundles at a time into shocks to await the arrival of an itinerant thresher, and would do other tasks that needed doing, the most pleasant of which for me—because it had the flavor of old romance—was riding out on horseback and helping to drive in feisty crossbred cattle for branding, dehorning, castration, doctoring, or shipping to market.

There were other fine things about that work. Sometimes I labored alongside talkative Mexican illegals on seasonal jobs like fence repair and firewood cutting, and absorbed from them the Spanish names of things and a stock of unseemly words and phrases. The boss himself, my cousin-in-law, though he was a rough, profane, powerful individual intolerant of weakness in others, was intelligent and had an inquiring mind. He knew much local history, for instance, going back to the Comanche wars of the region, and had a remarkable familiarity with the names and habits of the birds and wild mammals that were all around us there. Later—in part I guess because of him—I went more deeply into these subjects on my own.

And I retained an interest in the land and all that it meant....

***

Papa had a well-regarded men's clothing store downtown, but his venerable partner, just before the Depression showed its fangs, had bought a large stock of costly merchandise on credit and had promptly died, leaving Papa with the debt during tough times, in an era when bankruptcy was still a major disgrace. A decent and generous-spirited man, he tried not to impose this situation on his family, but it was there.

Hence, for me, there was a slight element of outsiderness that might have helped to keep me from conforming to the pattern into which most of my Fort Worth crowd fitted comfortably, and might also have helped me to break loose later. There were other such semi-outsiders around, and we tended to know one another and to go our own ways after high school, though a few made the jump and became true Establishment types. People of that more standard ilk most often attended the University of Texas in Austin, joining one of three or four "in" fraternities there and getting to know ruling-class scions from all over the state, with whom they would wheel and deal for the rest of their lives. The friendships I had among them, of which there were enough, were based on having grown up in a neighborhood together and attending the same public schools, and on much hunting, fishing, and other country activity. A number of the less prosperous ones ultimately married money, and as a result made more money and became staid and conservative adults, as their parents had hoped all along they would do. I suppose my parents had hoped for much the same thing, though they never pushed me in that direction.

I was not a rebel loaded with social bitterness, but I did see early that those friends' pattern was not for me. For one thing, I was an inveterate reader and shared few of the ruling passions of their world, such as spectator sports, school spirit, and discussion of what local families had how much money. So when the time came, I attended the small scholarly college of Rice in Houston, soaked up literature and history and friendships, and have been grateful ever since for the experience and the institution.

By the time I finished my studies there we had a war on our hands and, along with several million other Americans, I went to it, another break with personal background. Patriotism was involved, of course, but I think mainly I just wanted to see the fighting. If you had grown up on tales of Rebel great-uncles and the Marines at Belleau Wood, you tended to feel that way.

At Quantico, Virginia, I endured candidates' class and was made a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, got imbued with esprit, went through artillery school, and then was sent to Camp Pendleton on the west coast, where the new Fourth Marine Division was being shaped up. This unit shipped out of San Diego in January of 1944, combat-loaded for the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll.

War is an overwhelming sort of subject and possibly has small pertinence to reminiscences concerned with a writing apprenticeship. But as a force it loomed behind my generation for the rest of our lives, and since my fighting career was pretty short, I might as well summarize it here.

Kwajalein was not a tough battle for most artillerists besides the forward observers landing with the infantry. Our guns were set up on islets within firing range of the main fortified islands, Rol and Namur, which were being pounded by naval gunfire and bombs from aircraft. I and my gun crewmen and our four 75-millimeter howitzers (toys in today's terms) spent the night on one such islet, got sniped at by two or three lingering Japanese who had to be hunted down in the palms and underbrush, and the next morning fired on Roi-Namur in support of the main infantry landing there, until friends and enemies in the beachhead, as reported by our observers on their radios, became so intertangled that we had to stop shooting. And for us that was Kwajalein, though the infantry, as usual, suffered its full quota of casualties.

Then came a sojourn at the new Fourth Division tent camp on a flank of Maui's Haleakala volcano, a pleasant time that didn't last long, for in June we went to Saipan in the Marianas. This was no atoll but a fourteen-mile strip of rough hills full of caves, cliffs, gun emplacements, bunkers, and self-confident hate-filled foemen who gave us hell on the beaches and kept it up as we pushed northward, for the whole time I was there, which turned out to be about two weeks. By then I was on the battalion staff as assistant operations officer, with a section of bright youngsters and duties concerned chiefly with surveying in new gun positions as the infantry advanced and we had to move forward time after time, in order to keep firing in their support. This involved instrument work in a sort of no-man's-land behind the front lines, where bypassed Japanese snipers, most of them fortunately poor shots, could make things interesting on occasion.

The beaches had been rough for just about everybody, but I lost only two men while engaged in that later surveying work, neither of them badly wounded, then received my own comeuppance at battalion headquarters one misty early morning, when thirty or forty disoriented Japanese, trying I think to get back to their main force, barged in on us over the top of a little hill and a brisk firefight ensued. They had the advantage of surprise, but we had a machine gun and more people and after a time the hill was quiet. I joined a group going up to check on things, but when we got among the bodies one turned out to be not a body but a live Jap playing dead, who—a friend told me later—rolled a grenade out in front of me which exploded.

The permanent damage turned out to be only the blinding of my left eye, but that was the end of my career as a combatant. After a few months in naval hospitals I finished out the war on limited duty in North Carolina, in charge of a demonstration battery of howitzers which we fired over recruits arriving from the Parris Island boot camp. I guess I was lucky, really, not only in surviving the grenade but in missing out on my division's next island fight, which was Iwo Jima. On Saipan before I got hit, only a few good friends of mine had been killed or maimed, but Iwo took a far bloodier toll.

I didn't feel lucky, though. I felt incomplete. I had been willing, and had gotten pretty good at handling the superb young Marines under my command, and at the work we did with instruments, maps, and guns. But I hadn't managed to last.

By John Graves

John Graves lives and writes in Glen Rose, Texas, in the Hard Scrabble country that has inspired so much of his work. A recipient of many honors for his writing (including a National Book Award nomination for Goodbye to a River), he is a former President and a Fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters and a past holder of Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships.

"A lovely memoir of young manhood, Europe, the aftermath of war, and the search for craft, by an urbane stylist who found, in his excellent prose, the poise that he was seeking."

—Larry McMurtry

"I know of no other book about a writer's apprenticeship from Graves' generation that has quite the candor, quite the remedies for the displacement of war, or exactly this excitement at being given a rain check on life itself. A great book, a great writer."

—Thomas McGuane

"A shrewd, lucid, and uncomfortably perceptive story of a writer's apprenticeship."

—Jim Harrison

"Graves is a master of visual detail, and his journey unfolds with the picturesque clarity of a film."

Publishers Weekly

"An altogether commendable picture of a time and of a man who proved singularly American."

Weekly Standard

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