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John Graves, Writer

John Graves, Writer

The first book to focus on the entire life and work of John Graves, author of Goodbye to a River and arguably Texas’s most beloved and respected writer.

February 2007
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286 pages | 6 x 9 | 23 b&w illus. |

Renowned for Goodbye to a River, his now-classic meditation on the natural and human history of Texas, as well as for his masterful ability as a prose stylist, John Graves has become the dean of Texas letters for a legion of admiring readers and fellow writers. Yet apart from his own largely autobiographical works, including Hard Scrabble, From a Limestone Ledge, and Myself and Strangers, surprisingly little has been written about Graves's life or his work. John Graves, Writer seeks to fill that gap with interviews, appreciations, and critical essays that offer many new insights into the man himself, as well as the themes and concerns that animate his writing.

The volume opens with the transcript of a revealing, often humorous symposium session in which Graves responds to comments and stories from his old friend Sam Hynes, his former student and contemporary art critic Dave Hickey, and co-editor Mark Busby. Following this is a more formal interview of Graves by Dave Hamrick, who draws the author out on issues relating to each of his major works. John Graves's friends Bill Wittliff, Rick Bass, Bill Broyles, John R. Erickson, Bill Harvey, and James Ward Lee speak to the powerful influence that Graves has had on fellow writers.

In addition to these personal observations, nine scholars analyze essential aspects of Graves's work. These include the place of Goodbye to a River within environmental literature and how its writing was a rite of passage for its author; Graves as a prose stylist and a literary, rather than polemical, writer; the ways in which Graves's major works present different aspects of a single narrative about our relationship to the land; the question of gender in Graves's work; and Graves's sometimes contentious relationship with Texas Monthly magazine. Mark Busby introduces the volume with a critical overview of Graves's life and work, and Don Graham concludes it with a discussion of Graves's reception and literary reputation. A bibliography of works by and about Graves rounds out the book.

John Graves, Writer confirms Graves's stature not only within Texas letters, but also within American environmental writing, where Graves deserves to be more widely known.


Finalist, 2008 Violet Crown Award
Writer's League of Texas

  • Preface (Mark Busby and Terrell Dixon)
  • Introduction (Mark Busby)
  • Part One: Talking with John Graves
    • The Writer John Graves Symposium (Sam Hynes, Dave Hickey, John Graves, and Mark Busby)
    • An Interview with John Graves (Dave Hamrick)
  • Part Two: Friends
    • John (Bill Wittliff)
    • John Graves: A Tribute (Rick Bass)
    • John Graves Tribute, November 11, 2000 (William Broyles)
    • John Graves: From Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family (John R. Erickson)
    • Texas Past, Texas Present (Bill Harvey)
    • The Golden Age of John Graves (James Ward Lee)
  • Part Three: Works
    • Haunted Landscapes: The Ecology of Story in John Graves' Texas (Alex Hunt)
    • Goodbye to a River and American Environmental Literature (Terrell Dixon)
    • Two Approaches to Ecology and Gender in Goodbye to a River (James Langston)
    • Boys' Stories: Beverly Lowry, John Graves, and the (Male) Texas Literary Tradition in The Perfect Sonya (Betsy Berry)
    • Of Dachshunds and Dashes: Subjects and Style in E.B. White and John Graves (Dickie Maurice Heaberlin)
    • Brazos Bildungsroman: John Graves and Texas in Transition in Goodbye to a River (Lisa Slappey)
    • Contested Landscapes: John Graves' Meditations on Hard Scrabble Texas History and Ecosystems (Barbara J. Cook)
    • Kindred Spirits: John Graves and Texas Monthly (Cory Lock)
    • Auroras of Autumn: John Graves' Valedictions (Don Graham)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Mark Busby is Director of the Southwest Regional Humanities Center and the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University-San Marcos, where he also serves as Professor of English.

Terrell F. Dixon teaches literature and the environment at the University of Houston, where his research is currently supported by the Martha Gano Houstoun Endowment in the Department of English. He served as Chair of the department from 1980 to 1995.


Reading Texas writer John Graves' initial major works, Goodbye to a River (1960), Hard Scrabble (1974), From a Limestone Ledge (1980), and the memoir Myself and Strangers (2004) makes you feel as though you have made a friend. After riding down the river in his canoe and listening to him ruminate about the virtues of hardscrabble farming or the disappearance of his dog Blue, you have spent much quality time with the kind of writer who gets inside you, who speaks with a clear, personal voice so that when you are through with a book you know you have met a man—a man who understands the light and the dark of his world and a writer who helps you see the grays of it, too.


In his best-known work, Goodbye to a River, Graves points to the two dimensions of his life and work:


If a man couldn't escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen. The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant. The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man. (145)


It is the masculine language of the time, and Graves' work indeed concerns the traditionally masculine worlds of canoeing, camping, and building fences, but the double vision of this quote indicates that Graves resisted narrowness, particularly the provincial jingoism that Texas regionalism has sometimes encouraged. Throughout his work Graves has looked clearly at where he came from, digging deeply into the roots sunk into Texas soil, and has also traveled widely. As a result, his work reveals his strong sense of the integral relationship between the particular and the universal.


His keen sense of the differences among places resulted partially from Graves' growing up in two distinct places, the newly urban Fort Worth, Texas, and the richly varied South Texas town of Cuero, where his grandparents lived. Born in Fort Worth on August 6, 1920, he explored the Trinity River bottom before it became layered with Coors cans. From a cattle town on the fork of the Trinity River along the Chisholm Trail, Fort Worth had evolved into a city with a central, downtown business district and a ring of homes circling it. As a boy, Graves would take the streetcar down Camp Bowie Boulevard to visit the men's store his father operated, "where oilmen in tan gabardine suits and Borsalino hats would gather around a big table in the rear and tell good profane stories about oil towns with names like Desdemona and Ranger and McCamey, and muse about the big-money game they played and the personalities of those with whom they played it" (Growing Up in Texas, 66-67).


This city life was complemented by the boy's venturing out into the nearby Trinity River bottom, where deer, quail, rabbits, and squirrels still abounded, and he and his friends took their scrappy hounds out there to hunt. Back in the city, he hung around at the drugstores and hamburger joints with other lank-haired youths and lived a typical life for someone growing up during the Depression. But this average life was marked by several influences that affected this boy who was vaguely aware that he wanted to know more of the wider world. Through his varied reading, some teachers, and an educated, cosmopolitan neighbor, Graves was led to imagine life outside his surroundings:


I went through the mélange of best-sellers and classics and leftover 19th-century sentimentality that was on the shelves at home, and stuff dragged down out of the attic of my grandfather's house in Cuero or sought out at the public library downtown. It made for a fine stew in the head, that mingling of Conrad and Fielding and Scott with the Southern soupiness of authors like F. Hopkinson Smith and the Reconstruction virulence of Thomas Dixon and the British Empire heroics of G. A. Henty and the farflung enthusiasm of roving Richard Halliburton. It was further flavored by reading on special subjects that seized me from time to time—Texas and Western lore, the Civil War, flyfishing, horses, how to make buckskin out of rabbit hides and brew tea out of sumac....

But I remember also three or four first-rate teachers along the way who cut through my hangdog dislike of school and showed me what poetry consisted of, and a few other people like the bachelor surgeon who lived with his brother-in-law and sister a couple of doors from our house. He smoked Edgeworth tobacco in the finest-smelling pipes I have ever been around, and had a Yale education and the literate feel for language that many of the old-time Texas Methodists used to have. During long summer-evening lawn conversations he could dip up out of memory, without self-consciousness, tags from Shakespeare or the Authorized Version or the whole long lovely flow of English poetry to suit almost any point, ironically more often than not. So despite all the hodgepodge reading I did, I had an early chance to see that good books were sense and language woven together, and that the weaving mattered greatly. (Growing Up in Texas, 69-70)


Reading books and listening to stories of the world beyond Fort Worth led him to think about the variety of the world, and this awareness was enhanced by the second major life influence as he grew up: regular trips to visit his father's family in South Texas. Graves' grandfather had run away from his Missouri home in his teens, settled in Cuero, along the Guadalupe River, shortly after the Civil War, and married into a ranching family. Although Cuero is only 250 miles from Fort Worth (a short distance in Texas terms), it seemed like a different world from the growing commercial city dotted with elm, sycamore, and bois d'arcs. In Cuero, "big dark liveoaks hung with Spanish moss stood around the houses and sometimes in the middle of the streets, the soft Gulf air working through them and beneath, with always somewhere the frenzy of mockingbirds and the sad low fluting of doves" (Growing Up in Texas, 72). South Texas also offered a variety of cultures and languages as Germans, Czechs, and Mexicans lived, worked, and spoke among themselves and interacted as needed with the English-speaking Texans from British and Scotch-Irish stock.


South Texas was more than Grandpa and that house, even if the memory of them sums it up for me. It was friends I still have, when I see them, and camping and trotlining with them on the slow green Guadalupe, and racing ponies down dusty roads, and quail-hunting at Christmas with uncles to whom shooting and fishing and good dogs were a big part of what life was about, and Mexicans from whom I first got the taste of soft Spanish on the tongue, and elders' bloody tales of Reconstruction days and the Sutton-Taylor feud. It was a lot of things that Fort Worth was not, but mainly for me, I think, it was the past. Not as you find the past in books, even good books, but as you find it to touch. South Texas was where I could reach back to the things, good or bad, that my own people had been, and comprehend a little bit about what other people had been in relation to them. Like all human pasts—and all human presents and all human futures—it had vast imperfections, but I am glad I got to touch it.

Because if you are a backward looker, you need something to look back to. (Growing Up in Texas, 75)


So these two areas of Texas profoundly influenced Graves, and he continued to carry with him the sense of place and history that he learned growing up. He took the influences to Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in the class of 1942. At Rice he studied with George Williams, who also would teach William Goyen and Larry McMurtry. When his graduating class went directly into the war, Graves into the Marine Corps, he carried his influences beyond Texas. After completing Marine Officer Candidates School, he served in the Pacific as a first lieutenant. Seriously wounded on Saipan, he was waiting to be evacuated from an army field hospital when a wounded young soldier next to him asked where he was from. When Graves told him Texas, the young marine asked Graves to hold his hand and said he was glad to have a marine from the South next to him because the wounded soldier could understand what he said. And then the boy "clenched my hand harder still, and died" (Hard Scrabble, 92). As a result of his wounds, Graves lost the sight in one eye and received a Purple Heart. Later, he was promoted to captain and served as a Marine Reserves officer for many years.


After the war, Graves lived for a while in Mexico, and then with the GI Bill, he began graduate work at Columbia University in New York City. He took a writing class from Martha Foley, who edited The Best American Short Stories and Story magazine for many years. He sold one of the stories he wrote for her class, "Quarry," to the New Yorker in 1947. His master's thesis subject was William Faulkner.


After receiving a master's degree from Columbia in 1948, he taught at the University of Texas in Austin for two years. Then the wanderlust got him, documented in Myself and Strangers, and he left the country and traveled around France and Spain, where he lived for a while, and then to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and to New Mexico, before he came back home to his blood's country in 1957 when his father became ill. He took a canoe trip down the Brazos River that fall and wrote a magazine article about the experience, which was published in Holiday that year. After joining the English faculty at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in 1958, he expanded his river article into his first book, Goodbye to a River.


With some of the money he made from the book, Graves purchased a plot of land in Somervell County, Texas, near Glen Rose, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, beginning a relationship with the land that eventually inspired his second major book, Hard Scrabble. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and then left TCU in the mid-1960s to work for Stewart Udall, who was then the secretary of the interior. He concentrated on water issues in Washington, D.C., and wrote "A River and a Piece of Country: A Potomac Essay" for the Potomac Interim Report to the President, a collection of essays by a task force to which Graves was assigned. The report was eventually published as The Nation's River in 1968.


His interest in water issues then led to his being one of three major contributors to The Water Hustlers, an analysis of water issues in specific parts of the United States published by Sierra Club books in 1971. Graves' essay, "Texas: 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet,'" provides an analysis of what he saw as the ill-conceived Texas Water Plan of 1968. The book demonstrates Graves' careful research and clear understanding of ecological issues. However, Graves has dismissed the work, saying:


I guess I undertook it because I had so recently been doing that work for the Interior Department. I was really up on hydrology and the ins and outs of the water bureaucracy at the time.... What I did was all right, I guess, but the state water plan collapsed. Essentially any polemical writing is devoted to an evanescent problem. If it's solved, it disappears, and if it's not solved, it goes away. Polemics are self-destructive in that sense. They're not very satisfying. (Bennett, "John Graves," 71)


On his return to Texas in 1970, after ten years spent building the house on the land he called Hard Scrabble, Graves moved to the 380-acre place with his wife, Jane, whom he had married in 1958, and their two daughters, Helen and Sally. Working on the land also led to Graves' becoming a regular contributor to Texas Monthly magazine and to the writing of his third book, From a Limestone Ledge, which is a collection of these magazine articles. He continued writing, including the text to accompany photographs for a coffee-table book, Texas Heartland: A Hill Country Year; and contributing prefaces, forewords, and introductions to Landscapes of Texas: Photographs from Texas Highways Magazine; Gringos in Mexico: One Hundred Years of Mexico in the American Short Story, edited by Edward Simmen; Digging into South Texas Prehistory: A Guide for Amateur Archaeologists, by Thomas R. Hester; Cowboy Life on the Texas Plains: The Photographs of Ray Rector, edited by Margaret Rector; and Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy, with photographs and text by Bill Wittliff. Additionally, he has lectured and commented widely, especially on Texas literature and the environment.


Two of Graves' publications, The Last Running (1974) and Blue and Some Other Dogs (1981), are short pieces expanded with photographs and drawings into fine-printing books published by Bill Wittliff's Encino Press. Wittliff, who is also a screenwriter and film director, has been one of Graves' closest friends and supporters over the years. The Last Running was originally a short story published in Atlantic Monthly in 1959 and included in The Best American Short Stories in 1960. Blue and Some Other Dogs was first published as one of his Texas Monthly pieces and was included in From a Limestone Ledge. It is a poignant story about the disappearance of Graves' ten-year-old mixed-breed sheepdog, described as the best dog he ever had. A third fine-printing book, Self-Portrait with Birds: Some Semi-Ornithological Recollections (Chama Press, 1991), was first published in Of Birds and Texas in 1986.


Graves' most significant work is Goodbye to a River, based on his canoe trip down the Brazos River in 1957. Graves had written a number of magazine pieces for various publications at that point, and he had a contract with Sports Illustrated to do a piece on the canoe trip. (The piece became more philosophy than sport and was published in Holiday instead of SI.) Graves' strong sense of history was inspired by his South Texas experiences and merged with his keen feelings for the natural world, developed during the time he spent in the Trinity River bottom. He knew that if the five proposed dams were built along the Brazos, the area would be irreparably changed. The Brazos is the third-largest river in Texas and the largest between the Red River and the Rio Grande. Called El Rio de los Brazos de Dios (the River of the Arms of God) by the early Spanish explorers, it flows for 840 miles from its source until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Freeport, just south of Galveston Island.


Drawing from a long tradition of nature writing about rivers—such as Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Rivers of America series, and Paul Horgan's Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History—and from the elegiac pastoral tradition, Graves brings his own unique approach and concerns to writing, much of which reveals a deep ambivalence about his being identified as a nature writer in the Thoreauvian tradition or being perceived as an ideologue single-mindedly pursuing a temporal agenda. In "On the Desirable Reluctance of Trumpets," a 1963 article published in College Composition and Communication, Graves articulated his concerns about hard-nosed persuasion, the article's title revealing Graves' persuasive strategy. In it Graves states that polemical writing "is preachment, a trumpet-note for good action, an exhortation boiling up out of a vision of present wrong and possible right" and that it "arises from a belief that something can be done about almost anything" and is based on "the principle of action that will produce change" (210). He then asks, rhetorically, if it follows that writers should "tootle our built-in trumpets frankly in favor of whatever cavalry charges against evil we see as desirable [and] encourage the conscripts to do the same" and answers by saying:


No, sir, not for a good many of us, it doesn't. Those who like to tootle are going to keep on tootling; their number is legion and they will be with us always, and bless their good hearts one and all. But the fact that even those who don't want to are forced by their own humanness into reluctant or unconscious music of this sort does not invalidate detachment as an ideal, any more than democracy as a concept is invalidated by the fact that it has nowhere ever quite worked, and never will.

The fact is that detachment is in spite of everything probably the best general ideal that a writer can hold to. First-rank writing whatever its form is concerned with expressing human truth. All-out tootlers are apt to confuse truth with facts... The facts of human existence are mostly obvious, and if they are evil facts they can often be changed; they are susceptible to cavalry charges. The truths the facts add up to, though, are neither obvious nor very susceptible. (212; Graves' ellipsis)


These comments clarify some of Graves' basic assumptions underlying his approach to writing persuasively. Both his desire for detached rather than polemical persuasion and his acute awareness of the complexity of human truth lead him to approach writing about damming the river with subtlety. His trumpeting is muted, a reluctant persuasion that takes the form of presenting human truths that are attached to the history of places and objects and therefore instill in those places and objects a value beyond and beneath the surface.


The detached position Graves stakes out leads to subtle persuasion in Goodbye to a River. He adopts a rhetorical stance similar to the one Shakespeare's Mark Antony takes in his famous eulogy for Caesar, saying he comes just to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and then setting about to move his audience in his subtle praise. That is what Graves does with his piece of the Brazos, and it is profound persuasion. As the book begins, for example, Graves seemingly disarms a reluctant reader by saying that he holds no bitterness about the proposed series of dams:


In a region like the Southwest, scorched to begin with, alternating between floods and drouths, its absorbent cities quadrupling their censuses every few years, electrical power and flood control and moisture conservation and water skiing are praiseworthy projects. More than that, they are essential. We river-minded ones can't say much against them—nor, probably, should we want to. (8)


The clue to his real position here is the placement of water skiing in the last and emphatic position and saying, tongue firmly in cheek, that it is "essential." He then goes on to announce that it is not his fight and that he is just going down the Brazos to "wrap it up" before the river and "Satanta the White Bear and Mr. Charlie Goodnight" disappear under "the Criss-Crafts and the tinkle of portable radios" (9). This contrast between the high significance of Texas history and the brittle inconsequence of skiing to the sounds of portable radios heightens his position through verbal irony and allows him to achieve the detached position he seeks.


Goodbye to a River, like many Texas narratives, uses the journey for structure, and the journey takes on symbolic significance as well. This journey is a personal process, a trip to recover a wanderer's sense of history and place. By returning to places that have meaning, the persona-narrator demonstrates how one regains a rootedness that gives life meaning. Although the narrator does not mention Ishmael's water journey undertaken during a "damp, drizzly November in my soul," by leaving on a gray, threatening November day, Graves connects Goodbye to a River to Moby Dick, another work that uses the water journey of escape and return to suggest the powerful personal insights that the experience provides.


While Goodbye to a River enacts the escape-and-return pattern on a small scale as the writer-narrator leaves on November 11, 1957, for a 175-mile journey that ends with return to civilized life on December 2, the return to Texas after Graves' decade as a sojourner abroad also underpins the book. Particular and general pulse like systolic and diastolic in Graves' work, intertwining into a whole. This individual experience represents the possibility of understanding available to everyone, because "one river, seen right, may well be all rivers that flow to the sea" (254).


Still, it is the vividness and intensity of Graves' observations presented in his recognizable style that make the book memorable. This casual and folksy yet philosophical and literate canoeist with his Dachshund pup, Passenger, spins out stories connected to the history of places like Poke Stalk Bend, Old Painted Campground, Thorp Spring, Mitchell Bend, and others. By revisiting these places and recovering the stories the countrymen and women tell and by examining the natural history of the area, Graves constructs and dramatizes how a single individual can "know" a river, understand himself, and symbolize the process of achieving awareness of self through valuing place.


With the river journey to provide the structure, Graves moves back and forth from the river to the larger world through references to his own wandering past and through epigraphs and allusions to Sir Gawain, King Arthur, Laurence Sterne, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen, T.S. Eliot, and one of Graves' favorite writers, the Spanish philosopher Juan Ramón Jiménez, who provides a quotation that buttresses the book: "Foot in one's accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world's air" (254). From these and other references to the "the world's air," Graves shifts to stories of the homeland, recalling the times he and his friend Hale and their massive black companion Bill Briggs spent on the river in their youth (with echoes of Huck Finn) to stories about the Comanches, who called themselves "The People"; the Mitchell-Truitt feud that ended with Cooney Mitchell's hanging in Granbury; the time the hermit Sam Sowell was almost burned up by thoughtless kids and was saved by Graves' friend Davis Birdsong; and the time Birdsong tried to impress a French diplomat by putting his leg behind his head. The human history is complemented by careful examination of natural history, as Graves observes the plants and animals along the trip, musing on the firewood quality of cottonwood, willow, cedar, ash, mesquite, live oak, and walnut, and reproduces in hieroglyphic the birdcall of redbirds and Carolina wrens.


Along the way Graves returns to several important concerns, such as his relationship to Thoreau, to hunting, and to the persistent puritanism of the people who live along the river. Anticipating that critics would note Thoreau's influence, Graves attempts to provide some distance between himself and his strong forebear. Graves makes it clear that he finds Thoreau too rooted in the world's air, too transcendently "ascetic," and consistently refers to him as "Saint Henry." The Texan's distance from his river-traveling ancestor is especially clear when it comes to hunting. Graves notes that even though "Saint Henry had impulses to gobble woodchucks raw," he eventually concluded that "blood sports were for juveniles" (53-54). Although Graves wavers along the way, he ultimately aligns himself with "Prince Ernest Hemingway" and asserts that


killing itself can be reverent. To see and kill and pluck and gut and cook and eat a wild creature, all with some knowledge and the pleasure that knowledge gives, implies a closeness to the creature that is to me more honorable than the candle-lit consumption of rare prime steaks from a steer bludgeoned to death in a packing-house chute while tranquilizers course his veins. (167)


At one point late in the book Graves apparently decides to hunt no more—only to grab his gun when a good shot presents itself, suggesting that the persona the writer has created is inconsistent. Yet it is just such wavering that is significant. His repeated references to the country's Puritanism reinforce his emphasis on his shifting awareness of varying positions. Nature itself confirms his point:


Sunshine and warm water seem to me to have full meaning only when they come after winter's bite; green is not so green if it doesn't follow the months of brown and gray. And the scheduled inevitable death of green carries its own exhilaration; in that change is the promise of all the rebirth to come, and the deaths, too.... Without the year's changes, for me, there is little morality. (119)


Later considering the puritan outlook of the people who live along the river, Graves makes a similar point, noting that if "wrong is sharply wrong enough, its edge digs deeper down into the core of that sweet fruit, pleasure, than hedonism ever thought to go" (191). Later he makes the same point symbolically, when he has Davis Birdsong tell a story about following Sam Sowell through the shin oak brush one day and finding a coiled diamondback rattlesnake. As Birdsong raises his ax to dispatch the snake, Sowell stops him and acknowledges the human connection to the snake's symbolic evil. Good and evil intertwine in Graves' world, and his trip down the river reinforces this knowledge for him in personal, historical, and natural ways.


This awareness suggests how Graves differs from some other Western nature writers. Graves' world is ultimately a "fallen," Manichean world with good and evil intertwined, unlike the innocent world that Thomas Lyon describes as the terrain of other Western nature writers in "The Nature Essay in the West." The function of the nature writer, Lyon suggests, is "to reforge a fundamental continuity between inner and outer, so that for the reader the world is alive again, seen precisely for what it is, and the mind is alive to it." Lyon continues:


To have known the beauty of the world, seen with unclouded eyes the sheer wonder of a clear river or a mesa or a cottonwood tree, is to be in some sense and for that time, psychologically whole. The deepest attraction of the nature essay, probably, is this basic rightness of gestalt. Good nature writing is a recapturing of the child's world, the world before fragmentation, the world as poets and artists can see it. (221)


Although the elegiac tone of Goodbye to a River suggests nostalgia, Graves does not look back to an innocent world devoid of evil. Rather, his piece of the Brazos reinforces and becomes the vehicle for his understanding of human complexity.


In an insightful observation of Graves' style in 1981, Larry McMurtry, who taught with Graves at TCU in the early 1960s, points out that "one of his most frequent rhetorical devices ... is to undercut himself: questioning a story he has just retold, doubting an observation he has just made, twisting out from under a position. Often he simply reverses his field and abandons whatever line of thought he has been pursuing" ("Ever a Bridegroom," 29). This technique highlights the complexity and mystery of human truth rather than clarifying it. McMurtry explains:


He is popularly thought to be a kind of country explainer, when in fact he seems more interested in increasing our store of mysteries than our store of knowledge. He loves the obscure, indeterminate nature of rural legend and likes nothing better than to retell stories the full truth of which can never be known. If nature continues to stimulate him it may be because it too is elusive, feminine, never completely knowable.

Certainly he is not looking forward to becoming the Sage of Glen Rose. His best writing is based on doubt and ambivalence—or at least two-sidedness; he is not eager to arrive at too many certainties, or any certainty too quickly. The persona he adopts most frequently is that of the man who considers. He may choose to consider a goat, a book, an anecdote, or some vagary of nature, but the process of considering is more important to the texture of his books than any conclusions that may get drawn. (29-30)


Goodbye to a River demonstrates clearly the reluctant trumpeter considering, in this case the human and natural history of a small piece of the Brazos River. Through his emphasis on using the natural world to consider the human history associated with it and his own consciousness, Graves provides a clear example of the process Scott Slovic describes in Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing. Slovic notes that the tradition of nature writing from Thoreau through Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Barry Lopez reveals an emphasis on the relationship between nature and the considering writer's mental state: "Nature writers are constantly probing, traumatizing, thrilling, and soothing their own minds—and by extension those of their readers—in quest not only of consciousness itself, but of an understanding of consciousness" (3).


Graves' consciousness results from a combination of personal experience, history, folklore, nature, and philosophy—a unique mixture that led to numerous positive reviews. Paul Horgan in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review hailed Graves as a new talent: "This highly original book bears witness to the appearance of an excellent literary talent not previously seen in book form." Wayne Gard in the New York Times Book Review called it "a memorable saga ... a warm, moving book with many rewards for the reader." And Edward Weeks in the Atlantic Monthly pointed out the connection between the specific and the general, saying that "as you read, you have the feeling that the whole colorful, brutal tapestry of the Lone-Star State is being unrolled for you out of the biography of this one stream." The book was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award for 1960 and won the Texas Institute of Letters Carr P. Collins Award for nonfiction that year.


By considering the complexity of human experience, Graves uses numerous themes and techniques that demonstrate how he senses more than a simple attitude. Those same concerns recur in his second book, which follows logically from Goodbye to a River, recounting a wanderer's return to a region that provides understanding about the profound value of knowing place. Hard Scrabble takes the commitment to place further than the first book and dramatizes Graves' attempts to recapture a worn-out piece of land. But this seemingly simple purpose takes on varied meanings and demonstrates Graves' awareness of simple complexity. One technique that he uses to achieve this purpose, for example, is to adopt several terms that on the surface seem simple and clear. One is the term "Tonk Nation," which initially seems to refer to the Tonkawa Indians who lived in Central Texas at the time of first contact with European explorers but whose numbers decreased until they disappeared from the state. Graves soon broadens the term from its specific reference to a band of native people, explaining that it can be applied "to the hard-bitten whites who settled and lingered there." He then adopts it as a generic term that is "quite descriptive of the country itself," noting that "as erosion and agricultural ruin spread down through the lower hills, Tonkishness spread with them, and in later days the name came to fit the whole hill zone, including Hard Scrabble. I use it that way in my mind. The Tonk Nation wherein we dwell..." (27; Graves' ellipsis).


Another term that contains layers of meaning is what Graves calls the Ownership Syndrome, shortened usually to the Syndrome. Initially negative, referring to the narrow vision of people who own and work land, the term shifts meaning and indicates the kind of concern for land and property that ownership instills. The Syndrome usually is in conflict with the Way, shortened from the natural way, or "sacred Way," of preserving nature for wild things. Held together, both terms achieve a creative tension that adds complexity to seemingly simple ideas.


Another term that seems uncomplicated but achieves complexity is "O. F.," which Graves applies humorously to the Old Farts like himself who putter around "reading magazines about making compost and how to build things out of hunks of busted concrete," as his lawyer friend comments (8). But Graves quickly tells the lawyer that the O. F. is "a friend of mine—kinfolks, sort of," and makes it clear that he identifies with the O. F. In the fictional chapter 10 of Hard Scrabble, the O. F. becomes the major character as Graves traces his leaving home, coming to the area, marrying, and having children. The O. F., in his dealings with his wife and daughter, becomes a young and later an old father. Although Graves never translates O. F. as "Old Father," in his connection with the fictional character's problematic relationship with his daughter Midge, the story emphasizes the fatherly relationship, and the O. F.'s connection with husbanding the land gains more emphasis throughout the rest of the book. Finally, Graves asserts:


If much of a future remains to mankind on this planet—a good moot point, of course—it probably rests largely in the hands of Old Farts, of whatever age or size or color or sex or wealth or class or profession or level of educational bliss. For the mark and sign of a true hydrogen-sulfide Old Fart is this: that while he knows men must use the earth, he knows too that it matters for its own sake and that it must stay alive, and therefore according to such understanding as he may have he tries to keep his dealings with it right and gentle, and only thereafter reflects on fiscal gain. (230)


It is just such a reconciliation that Hard Scrabble is about, for Graves takes as his major theme the process of recovery. Ostensibly, working this hardscrabble farmland is an attempt to recover the land itself from the unproductive state it has reached because of relentless cotton farming and mindless overgrazing by his thoughtless forerunners in the Tonk Nation. But is also largely about recovering a sense of balance between human and natural worlds that the seeming warring camps of nature lovers and economic Darwinians obscure. Just as Goodbye to a River concerns reclaiming a balance between a concern for the particular balanced by understanding of the general, larger world, Hard Scrabble emphasizes that both the Way and the Ownership Syndrome have competing truths.


The book's structure largely derives from the pull of these opposite positions, as thesis and antithesis, and then points toward the synthesis that the writer—the O. F., the Head Varmint—ultimately achieves:


So that he can no longer truly find the dividing line between his more or less useful country self, who plows and sows and builds and fences ... and that other less pragmatic self, older in time but younger in spirit, who sips with bees and envies trumpeting cranes, and is restless when the plover flute from beneath low clouds on their way ... and runs in his mind with Evetts Gilliver's hounds and with the fox they chase as well as with all honest chasers and all chased beasts now and in all times past....

Queerly, they are the same man. (248)


Throughout the book, Graves moves easily from one seeming opposition to another as his book leads toward its final reconciliation. In the first part of the book, Graves traces the history of the region, explains how he came to buy his plot in Somervell County, and considers the trees, shrubs, grasses, and creatures (deer, wolves, foxes, bobcats, among others) that are native to the region. This material is interspersed with "irrelevancies" such as his story about the marine's death in the bunk next to his on Saipan, stories about bootleggers and lawmen, a story about an Arab father with three retarded children, and the fictional story of the O. F., which serves generally as the break between the first part's concern with natural creatures and the second half's consideration of farming, building fences, setting stones, and other aspects of "the war with Mother N."


Like Goodbye to a River, Hard Scrabble generally received good reviews in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, and Sewanee Review. Edward Hoagland, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, concluded that the "exceptional staying power is a tone that suits the book." While the greatest criticism has been that it lacks the structure of the first book and Hoagland called it a "homemade book—clumsy once in a while in the way it's put together or rhetorically empurpled," he further described it as "imperfect like a handmade thing, a prize." Timothy Dow Adams in a later analysis in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook noted:


For some readers the disjointed structure of Hard Scrabble, the agricultural details, and the author's occasional crotchetiness on some topics might be irritating at times, more jarring in the relative civilization of the author's farm than similar eccentricities were out on the river in his first book. But for scope and detail, for the harsh juxtaposition of nature at its worst with a sweet afternoon rain in early autumn, Hard Scrabble is nearly equal to Goodbye to a River in its power to make the reader stop reading and consider moving to the countryside. (236)


Like Graves' first book, Hard Scrabble won the Texas Institute of Letters Carr P. Collins Award for nonfiction for 1974.


Graves' third book, From a Limestone Ledge: Some Essays and Other Ruminations about Country Life in Texas is clearly a collection of essays, all initially published in Texas Monthly between 1977 and 1980 in a regular column, whose background Cory Lock traces in the present collection. In the preface, Graves calls many of them "footnotes" to Hard Scrabble, noting that they "are expansions or variations on themes found there" (xiii). Indeed, this third volume returns to several of Graves' concerns and amplifies ideas introduced in the earlier books. From a Limestone Ledge is divided into three parts. The first part, "Coping," covers various topics related to working the place, with essays on fences, preparing meat, growing grapes and making wine, collecting trash, and sensing the spirits surrounding the accumulating things. The second part, "Creatures," as its title indicates, considers the rancher-farmer's domesticated natural creatures—cows, goats, bees, dogs, and chickens. Part 3, "Ponderings, People, and Other Oddments," is something of a miscellany, with essays on noticing, the weather, treasure hunting, snuff, chewing tobacco, country ownership, and a farm auction.


From a Limestone Ledge lacks the unity and metaphysical analysis of Graves' other two books, primarily because it was written with space and time restrictions for a specific audience, as Graves explained candidly to Patrick Bennett in a 1979 interview: "You do edit yourself to some extent when you're writing for any publication; you know what their slant is, what their readership is largely like. Those pieces, even though they're fairly honest, don't for the most part have a lot of depth to them" ("John Graves," 68). There is, however, the same persona, the cosmopolitan wanderer who has chosen to settle in a hardscrabble world where he observes the details of that world with clarity. In "Noticing," for example, Graves begins by recalling the time he lived in New York City and observed the trivial events in the rooms of a department store across from his apartment. He then contrasts the level of observation in the city with that required in the country, what he calls the "noticingness" of rural life:


It comes from having a personal stake in the landscape that envelops you, in the various beasts and fowls and crops and objects it contains whose ownership you claim, and in the activities of many wild things that own themselves. To take stock of all this daily, to exercise surveillance, is about as much a requisite for survival as was my Fifteenth Street indifference—survival for your chattels alive or inert and therefore for you as a countryman. (155)


This quality of noticingness typifies the essays in From a Limestone Ledge, and Graves becomes a kind of country Boswell to the valuable and possibly soon-to-disappear country life that is his subject.


Graves reinforces the elegiac quality of the book with the last essay, "A Loser," which tells of Graves' attending a foreclosure auction of a 125-acre farm in another county, drawn there by an advertisement for a grain combine. Graves captures the sights and sounds of the auction and the auctioneer's snappy, garbled patter: "'Urba durba dibba rubba hurty-fie,' said the auctioneer in abandonment of the subject. 'Hurty-fie hurty-fie hurty-fie, who say fitty: Fitty, fitty, fitty, fitty, durba dubba ibba dibby who say forty-fie? Forty-fie, forty-fie, come on, folks...'" (226). Ultimately, Graves makes this specific, pale, "pinched waxy" man losing his farm a representative figure: "The Loser had made us view the fragility of all we had been working toward, had opened our ears to the hollow low-pitched mirth of the land against mere human effort" (228). This is one of Graves' continuing themes: those who work with the earth possess and understand its value; the more we lose this ability, the more diminished our humanity. But again Graves achieves his purpose in a subtle, understated way by allowing the narrative and the details to carry the point.


What makes Graves a memorable writer is this subtlety and his distinctive style, an amalgamation of fiction, folklore, philosophy, history, nature, personal experience, anecdotes, and allusion presented with repeated use of sentence fragments, ellipses, dashes, parenthetical remarks, and dialogue. Graves achieves a balance of high and low, moving from a quotation by Shakespeare or Veblen to regional dialect and sounds such as the auctioneer's. He is also fond of shifting from the formal third person "one" to the informal second person, with the "you" referring both to the narrator and the audience. His style, as the following quotation from Goodbye to a River demonstrates, reflects his theme of assimilation:


Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck—of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom—and though you may doze away the cedar and coax back bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama, you're not going to manhandle it into anything entirely new. It's limited by what it has been, by what's happened to it. And a people, until that time when it's uprooted and scattered and so mixed with other peoples that it has in fact perished, is much the same in this as land. It inherits. (237)


One of the major aspects of Graves' style grows from his ability to merge personal experience and fiction. The persona he creates in his four major books is ostensibly the writer himself. But Graves makes it clear in a note at the beginning of Goodbye to a River that although it is a work of nonfiction, "it has some fictionalizing in it," including the dramatic presentation of historical events and the transposition of places and incidents. He also states that some "of the characters, including at times the one I call myself, are composite," but he concludes that "even those parts are true in a fictional sense. As true as I could make them." This fictionalizing reflects Graves' early academic training, having written a master's thesis on Faulkner and published a first story in the New Yorker. He told Patrick Bennett that having his first story accepted by a major magazine was "far too auspicious a beginning" and that he "couldn't duplicate it" ("John Graves," 67). Still, he has worked hard at fiction over the years, with two unpublished novels, one finished, one unfinished, and he has used his talent as a fiction writer to create his persona and to merge fictional elements, such as the story of the O. F. in Hard Scrabble, into his books.


The subject matter of his published stories is as varied as Graves' wanderings. "Quarry" concerns New York apartment dwellers who capture a mouse, keep it overnight debating whether to kill it or set it free, and release it only to see it fall from the fire escape and die. Several stories are set in Mexico. "The Aztec Dog," selected for Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards, examines a Mexican aristocrat and a feckless American who spar over the old man's dog. "The Green Fly" concerns a young American completing a PhD in English literature who goes to Mexico to fish and relax and ends up in a complicated relationship with an old doctor. "The Off-Season" focuses on two veterans who visit Acapulco after the war to escape from the complications of life, only to find a different reality when two women arrive.


The passing western frontier is the subject of two stories. "The Dreamer" involves a former hunter, trapper, and mountain man who had married and then lost a Ute wife. After he returns to civilization, he is often lost in "dreams," times of despondence during which he recalls his life experiences. The end of the frontier is the subject of what is probably Graves' best story, "The Last Running," called by former Texas Monthly editor William Broyles "the best short story in the English language." Gordon Lish describes it as "one of the great stories in American writing." A.C. Greene says it is "a classic ... American short story"; William Kittredge calls it "the great father of stories written about the American West." And in a 1990 review of a reprint of the story, Rick Bass asserts that it should be "required reading" because the "story and the emotions are as real and honest and important as the land across which they drift: the land having been developed, and the emotions fading too."


Based on an anecdote originally told in Goodbye to a River about Comanches coming to beg a buffalo from rancher Charles Goodnight long after those Indians had been confined to a reservation in Oklahoma, the story fictionalizes the events. Goodnight is transformed into Tom Bird, in 1923 an aging rancher who lovingly keeps fourteen buffalo on his caprock ranch. A ragtag group of Comanches from the Oklahoma reservation, led by a crippled chief named Starlight, come to get a buffalo so that they can perform a ritualistic buffalo hunt one last time. The old rancher initially refuses, but Starlight, who had once fought against Bird after a horse-stealing raid, persists and eventually gets Bird to give them not just a buffalo but the prize bull, Shakespeare. The group then performs the ritualistic last running, kills the buffalo, and leaves.


Many of these stories and occasional pieces are collected in A John Graves Reader, published by the University of Texas Press in 1996 as the first book in the Southwestern Writers Collection Series. The Reader includes selections from Graves' books, as well as "Self-Portrait, with Birds," a long, autobiographical piece that focuses on Graves' growing experiences as a birder; character studies of friends and a former teacher; a previously unpublished story, "A Valley"; and most importantly, selections from Graves' unpublished novel A Speckled Horse.


In 1999, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine began publishing Graves' discussions of Texas rivers, in which he wrote about the Canadian, the Pecos, and the Llano rivers. Then, in 2002, those pieces were published in Texas Rivers along with essays about the Lower Neches, the Brazos Clear Fork, and the Upper Sabinal, accompanied by photographs by famed Texas photographer Wyman Meinzer. In a prefatory note, Graves remarks that the book does not try to cover all of Texas' rivers, but the ones included have some similarities:


The main things that these rivers—some of them just sections of rivers—have in common is that they all flow within Texas, and that the country through which each one passes is typical of a distinctive part of the state. Those in the wide and varied region we call West Texas do share some historical memories from the eras of Indian warfare, northward trail drives, and so on, but the lands they drain, like the tone of their people's lives in the past and now, differ significantly, and in pictures and words we have tried to define some of those differences.

All the rivers too have suffered to some extent, often greatly, from modern mankind's manipulation and exploitation of their waters and their basins, and we have tried also to be honest about those matters. (6)


These essays demonstrate Graves' distinctive combination of history, geography, and folklore, but he has a less personal connection with these rivers that he does with the Brazos.


Graves and Meinzer teamed up again in 2003 for Texas Hill Country, another coffee-table book with Meinzer's photographs of the "old land" and the "rumpled terrain" of the Hill Country. Graves' essay emphasizes the effect of change on this now gloried area of the state:


At New Braunfels where long ago I used to stop and fish, the lovely little Comal below the springs is now overwhelmed by a huge water park with rides given coyly faux-German names like Blastenhoff and Surfenburg, and in season the river's daily hordes of innertubers drifting downstream make happy noise and adorn the shores and streambottom with emptied beer and soft-drink cans and various forms of paper and plastic.... The peaceful era in these places has faded away, and many natives, not having known much prosperity before, relish the change. Others don't, nor does an aging outsider like me, who preferred the towns as they used to be. (60)


Over the years Graves has lamented the time wasted on trying to produce a major work of fiction, a subject that becomes especially clear in Graves' memoir, where he suggests that he should have produced more but was too often distracted. The memoir clarifies the record and demonstrates how Graves' life is all of a piece, with a full commitment to the literary life. Taken from the journals he kept mainly after his graduation from Rice in 1942, dealing with his marine experiences in World War II when he lost his sight in one eye, graduate work at Columbia, and travels to Mexico, Spain, and the Canary Islands before returning to Texas at the end of the 1950s, the book details Graves' apprenticeship as a writer.


Graves splits the material into two types: the raw journal entries as recorded and his contemporary comments by the then eighty-three-year-old "Old John," who often corrects, chides, or compliments the observations and activities of "Young John." To those who followed Graves' career, Myself and Strangers provides the backdrop for his life's work.


There is a confessional quality to the memoir, answering questions about many of the ideas and issues that Graves alluded to in the previously published works, such as the details about his World War II experience, his failed first marriage, and his ill-fated attempts as a novelist. For those who have been following Graves' work over the years, reading the memoir feels like sneaking into someone's study and furtively reading private papers. There is a rush to learn the details about events that have been only faint subtexts in the major works. For example, the beginning of Goodbye to a River indicates that the John Graves who is going down the river seems to have returned home from some sadness akin to Ishmael's "damp, drizzly November" of his soul in Moby Dick that sent him on a water trip. Graves only suggests that he has been a traveler and has now returned and that those travels included some war experiences that seem painful for the traveler to recall. In Myself and Strangers, Graves makes that background clear, spelling out the war experience:


The beaches [on Saipan] 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. (7-8)


We also learn about Graves' first marriage, something that, as far as I know, Graves had never written about directly before. If you read someone's private journals, there's often an uncomfortable feeling that you've intruded into personal space, a trespasser beyond accepted boundaries. So it is sometimes in this memoir, even though the subject has decided to make these private entries public. That's especially true in the parts that deal with several of the romantic relationships Graves had over those wandering years after the first marriage and the successful, longtime second one. Young John was often on the prowl, and he tells of relationships, some brief, others long-term, with Spanish women caught in an older system with their own failing marriages that meant they were condemned to the solitary life unless a wandering American might join them in furtive encounters.


But the heart of this memoir is Graves' emphasis on the literary life. It's clear that he dedicated himself to writing and especially to writing "the book." Over and over Young John laments that the only way he can cement his life as a real writer is by completing the book. And for much of the time, he follows the trails of one of his literary mentors, Ernest Hemingway. Graves travels to and around Spain, goes to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and even sees the great man, Prince Ernest, who was back in Spain for the first time since the Civil War. Young John sees Papa in a sidewalk café but decides not go over and introduce himself: "I had not yet proved myself as a writer, a real one, and until I managed that I didn't feel I had a right to impose myself on established authors, however much I might admire their work" (67-68).


He continues to follow Hemingway's lead, buying a sailboat and heading out to fish. But mainly he reads and reads. And throughout the book we learn of Young John's opinions about his reading. After reading James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, he writes: "Michener to me at present looks like nothing at all—can't write, can't tell a story or even the truth, can't deal with complexity in characters, can only recognize good material and milk it" (174). And on Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, he concludes: "There is much acute observation but it gets lost in the shouting. There is real poetry, but the fatigue induced by the rhetoric that precedes it keeps you from rising to it..." (211; Graves' ellipsis). His reading leads him to Gertrude Stein, and in The Making of Americans, Stein writes: "I write for myself and strangers." That's where Graves takes his title.


This then is the literary apprenticeship, the long, intense journey to becoming a writer. There's a large irony here, since John Graves' reputation as a writer is built upon his connection to his home country, particularly to his own part of Texas along the Brazos near Glen Rose. He got there by following the old mythic pattern of Odysseus and the Prodigal Son who can know home only after escaping from it and viewing the wide world. Graves' long journey led him, unlike Wolfe, to conclude that he could go home again.


In his memoir, as he does through all of his writing, Graves demonstrates how a writer with a clear sense of purpose, a respect for the bounty of the natural world, an understanding of the depth of simplicity, and a strong grip on language can step forth and move people in ways that last. It is the work of a masterful writer. One final irony remains about John Graves. Near Hard Scrabble and not far from a small hill called Comanche Peak, a nuclear power plant named for the hill began being constructed shortly after Graves finished Hard Scrabble. A troubled nuclear plant in the shadow of a historied place seems a fittingly complex image for a writer who has attempted to dramatize his own awareness of the world's multilayered and paradoxical realities.



“The editors of this work have faithfully captured the spirit of the man behind the writing, and as the various essays contained in this volume demonstrate, the fluid, captivating prose of John Graves is directly connected to his comfortable stance within a changing world, his profound sense of place, his keen observations about history and contemporary life in Texas serving as a microcosm for the world. The collection is particularly satisfying because of the smart way the editors expose Graves -- his personality along with his thoughtful claims about life and art.”
Texas Books in Review


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