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A John Graves Reader

A John Graves Reader

An anthology of works by a beloved Texas writer.

Series: Southwestern Writers Collection Series, The Wittliff Collections, Steven L. Davis, editor

January 1996
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351 pages | 6 x 9 |

Since the publication of his haunting, elegiac Goodbye to a River in 1960, John Graves has become one of Texas' most beloved writers, whose circle of loyal readers extends far beyond the borders of his home state. A "regional" writer only by virtue of his gift for vividly evoking the spirit of the land and its people, Mr. Graves is also admired for the unerring craftsmanship of his prose.

Now the University of Texas Press takes great pleasure in publishing A John Graves Reader to introduce his writing to a new generation of readers. This anthology contains selections from Goodbye to a River and his two other major books, Hard Scrabble (1974) and From a Limestone Ledge (1980). It also includes short stories and essays, some of which have never been published before and others that Mr. Graves has reworked especially for this book.

All of the pieces in this anthology were chosen by Mr. Graves himself to be, in his words, "representative of my writing, for better or worse." They reflect various stages of his life and writing career—youth in Texas, World War II, sojourns in New York, Mexico, and Europe during the 1940s and 1950s, and his final return to Texas as home and as subject matter—as well as recurring themes in his writing, from the land and the people to fishing, traveling, and the enduring friendships that have enriched his life.

For those who have never read John Graves, this anthology will be the perfect introduction to the range and excellence of his work. At the same time, those who have read him faithfully for many years will find new pieces to enjoy, as well as old favorites to savor once again.

  • Preface
  • Looking Back
    • Self-Portrait, with Birds
  • The Land
    • His Chapter
    • Nineteen Cows
    • Cowboys: A Few Thoughts from the Sidelines
    • A Loser
    • Conclusion of Hard Scrabble
  • Texas Past
    • The Last Running
    • The Dreamer
  • Side Roads
    • Chapter 10 of Goodbye to a River
    • Fishing the Run
    • The Water of Life
    • Kindred Spirits
  • Some Friends
    • George Williams
    • José Mut
    • Alexander Brook
    • Jack Staub
    • Blue and Some Other Dogs
  • Elsewhere
    • The Green Fly
    • The Aztec Dog
    • In the Absence of Horses
    • A Valley
    • A Speckled Horse

John Graves lives and writes in Glen Rose, Texas, in the hard scrabble country that has inspired so much of his work. He is a recipient of many honors for his writing, including a National Book Award nomination for Goodbye to a River.


Such a book as this, made up of samplings from a rather sparse life's work, assembled with its author's cooperation, and published before he is even decently dead, can possibly be seen as exhibiting a degree of self-importance on said author's part. There is of course a measure of that unfortunate attitude in all writing intended for publication, which is a form of telling potential readers, I've got something to say and it's worth your listening to. But if any of it has spilled over into the anthology's contents, it has done so in spite of my best efforts. While I have my fair share of personal shortcomings, taking myself very seriously has never been one of them. I have taken most of the writing seriously, but that is another subject.

Someone in this region, I think McMurtry, once wrote with an apparent touch of pique that John Graves had never published his failures. I suppose that is partly true, for I have always been picky about my work. However, certain failures are being published here, though their deficiencies may be a little less striking than they were before I decided I had a right to tinker with older writing and improve it if I could.

In this connection I would like to invoke a patron spirit. I have mentioned him in my work before, somewhere, but I need him worse this time. He was a comfortably fixed Victorian named Frederick Locker-Lampson, a friend of Tennyson's who when young, in 1857, published a well-received book of verse called London Lyrics. Then he spent much of the rest of his life in revising this book and publishing its latest version. During the same stretch of time, for Locker-Lampson was rather popular, it was being pirated in the United States and elsewhere, so that in the end dozens of editions of London Lyrics existed, all different from one another in some respect, a book-collector's dream.

On an even more eminent level, the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, whose work I admire, was famous or notorious for doing much the same thing—working over old poems of his whenever they were to be republished somewhere.

Although I do not otherwise equate myself with those sterling wordsmiths, the confidence engendered by their examples has freed me to add material and chop out passages and change content and form and language whenever I felt like doing so with individual pieces. Such a procedure is not very scholarly, but then neither am I. The stuff is mine, and as a self-critical and not highly productive writer I have not resisted the temptation to rewrite work from the past, in order to give it a somewhat better chance of accomplishing whatever I wanted it to accomplish when I wrote it in the first place.

I seem to have wound up as a "regional" writer, whatever that may be. It was not what I had in mind at the outset, but I find that this doesn't bother me much these days. After a good bit of floun dering and wandering when younger, I found my principal vein of material in Texas and the Southwest where I had started out, and my concerns for the most part have not been momentously contemporary ones. So be it. I wrote what presented itself to be written, and the question of whence it derived does not loom very large to me at this point. The other question—the main one—of whether it turned out well or badly is for readers present and future to decide.

Persons familiar with my previous books will know that I don't always distinguish sharply between fiction and non-fiction, but often mingle them in a single piece of writing. In keeping with this perhaps reprehensible habit, examples of the two forms are not kept separate here, or labeled as one or the other.

Some surprises await a writer who starts to putter with his own past work. While examining my small assortment of old short stories for possible use in the book, for instance, I was startled to observe how often certain themes are repeated in them, and in some of the non-fiction as well. A main theme of this sort is friend ship between a young man and an older one—and it shows up with variations in "The Green Fly," "The Aztec Dog," "A Valley," A Speckled Horse, and elsewhere. I suppose such friendships have been thematic in my own life, for I have been close to a number of older, often much wiser persons over the years and have been broadened by association with them. But I hadn't realized that those relationships had penetrated my work so deeply.

There are some overlaps of subject matter as well, which I have not troubled to eliminate and won't try to catalog. One sole example I will cite is the account of a sailboat cruise from Mallorca to Ibiza, dealt with first in the profile of my Spanish friend Pepe Mut, and again in shorter, fictionalized form in an excerpt from the unpublished novel A Speckled Horse.

One or another of the items in the book may be tied to a particular time during the era through which I have lived, and I assume that a reasonable reader can make allowance for this by noting the year of composition or publication. Dire datedness is a special pitfall for polemical writing, and largely for that reason none of my occasional sallies in that direction—practically all of them having had to do with threats to the natural world—are reprinted here. You help win a battle and your rhetoric, having justified itself, goes obsolete, or you pick the losing side and without the glow of victory the work is abruptly obsolete too. Few of us are Miltons or Swifts, whose preachments are still revered not for their conviction of righteousness or the causes they espoused, but for their pure and potent excellence as expression.

Other kinds of writing left out of the anthology include apprenticeship stories; slick fiction and commissioned articles written only for needed cash; correspondence; attempts at literary judgment in the form of speeches, book introductions, reviews, and reading notes; and uncharacteristic efforts like a screenplay, still unfilmed, based on my story "The Last Running." An assortment of such material, if anyone is ever interested in it, is preserved in the archives of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

I need here to express gratitude to certain people who helped me along the way, a number of whom are now dead. As a writer I have been mainly a lone wolf and the list is not very long, though it dates back a number of decades, like much of the anthology's contents. A strong debt to my college teacher George Williams is acknowledged in the section called "Some Friends." Others in earlier years who were able and willing to give good advice about my writing included Abe Rothberg, a bright friend from my time at Columbia University just after World War II, and Martha Foley, who more or less presided over a fertile clump of disorder she called a writing class at that same institution. My fine agent John Schaffner, when he believed in a piece of writing, would peddle it right down the list of high-paying magazines and finally to quarterlies that couldn't afford a fee of more than twenty dollars, if that. He cared, as did Harold Strauss and Ashbel Green at Knopf and some editors at various magazines, including Texas Monthly.

In terms of the anthology itself, I sincerely thank two persons—my dear friend Bill Wittliff to whom the book is dedicated for excellent reasons, and Shannon Davies, a most perceptive and sympathetic editor.

John Graves
Hard Scrabble, Somervell County, Texas

In philosophical terms of "being" and "becoming" there is not much question that life at Hard Scrabble, with so much always still to do and the problem of whether it will ever all get done, has leaned strongly toward the latter, kinetic state. Unstatically, the house sprouts new rooms, barns and sheds grow out of nothingness, fields change from briery tangles to expanses of worked soil furred with tame greenery, and grassed stretches of new pasture lie where only a year or so ago old cedar used to brood on past human error.

Yet now that there is a house which though small can shelter us through the year, and some growing sense that the place is moving toward function, life here has a tinge of "being" too. The seasons roll by toward wherever it is that they go: tawny wind-fanged winters give way to long lush springs, and summers with (perhaps) small sheeplike clouds riding above the southwest shove of searing Chihuahuan air finally yield to moist and melancholy and exultant falls with northers and high skeins of big birds trumpeting overhead. New generations of cattle and goats appear in their time, and frolic in fresh life-joy and are admired and sometimes named, and the recurrent work with them and with the soil takes on a known and welcome pattern. Children find out for themselves, rummaging afoot or horseback, the cedar's secret places and what kinds of birds build what kinds of nests and how dark hills nose out into green and winding valleys when viewed from the high Booker, and by finding out these things they take on ownership too. Seeding and harvest, heat and cold, rain and drouth, birth and death, lushness and dormancy, earth and air and fire and water are with us closely all around, year by rhythmic year.

That this is an archaic and sideline sort of existence in a pulsating technological time is obvious. That it bespeaks no hot noble desire in the Head Varmint for immersion in twentieth-century humanity's rub and stink and clamor, the Varmint readily admits. This is not, however, sour Weltschmerz. I have moved about a good bit in the world, if in an uncontemporary sort of way. And while finding much that seemed sorrowful and wrong and reaching stout disaccord with some main forces of the age, I have been barred always from glumness by the rather ridiculous fact that I've liked so many people I've known and have always been so bloody glad to be alive. The only truly philosophical question, as Camus noted, being suicide....

But it strikes me as more than a possibility that archaism, in times one disagrees with, may touch closer to lasting truth than do the times themselves—that, for instance, the timbre and meaning of various goat-bleats may be at least as much worth learning as the music and mores of the newest wave of youths to arrive at awareness of the eternal steaming turmoil of the human crotch. Therefore, having at least the illusion of choice, one chooses for the moment at any rate isolation and an older way of life.

Not that isolation itself is more than relative now, or that we have sought it fully. Like most other people these days, we have in us much that is urban, and contemporaneity comes at us through sometimes complex kinships and friendships in cities fifty or eighty or two hundred or two thousand miles away, through magazines and newspapers and electronic boxes in the helter-skelter house, through influences on children in school, through the fact that both Madame and I have work we do and like that relates to the world outside, through highlines and fuel companies that feed energy to the machines and gadgets on which we depend in lieu of the hired help and draft animals another age might have required for the less than truly simple life we lead, through raiding dogs and sonic booms and cruising helicopters and the faint groan of big trailer trucks fighting a grade on U.S. 67 two or three miles away, on quiet nights with a slight drift of southerly air.... Most of the time at Hard Scrabble you can feel yourself remote from the world and its moil if you want to, and one city friend of ours says that on getting out of his car here he always experiences "culture shock." But isolation and simplicity are not what they used to be.

Other prospective intrusions loom. A nuclear power plant is scheduled for construction on Squaw Creek a few miles east, with whatever titillating possibilities for malfunction and dire leakage there may be inherent in the state of that art. Its output is intended to satisfy new demands to arise in the 1980s in a "metroplex" of losangelization on erstwhile excellent farmland between Fort Worth and Dallas, sixty miles from us, which speculators and other boomers are prophesying will grow up in the environs of a new regional airport. . . . And the indefatigable Army Engineers, rumor says, keep nosing quietly up and down the Paluxy valley with some sort of big dam in mind. I am told that outcrops of the porous Trinity Sand upstream would prevent a reservoir from holding water, and hope this may be so, for otherwise we might end up either submerged or part of one of the shrill suburban playgrounds that are promoted around such lakes.

Isolation, indeed. Bells still toll for one and all—and, God knows, for the land.

Relative isolation, then.

There is always the question of whether or not you are doing your children a favor shielding them even this much from the world as it is—whether you may just be setting them up for trauma when they barge out into its jostle, as barge out they will. I tend to think otherwise. Anyone who has been shown clearly that natural and rural basics contain a good measure of irrationality and violence and injustice and pain and lust and greed has at least a start toward comprehending adult social and professional life when the time comes to face it. And even if it does turn out that the world as it is gives them some knocks, as the world as it is surely will, who would want to cheat them of someone to blame for trauma later, when it hurts? At any rate, life at Hard Scrabble is providing them with some time to build up strength, some responsibility for living things, some awareness of biological and natural truth—and, perhaps wrongly, I suspect that these are among the more meaningful things you can furnish a child in any era.

If this were a different sort of book, the reader would have been getting warm glimpses along the way of the Happy Homestead Family, of John and Jane and Helen and Sally and dog Blue and cat Kitty and goat Door Bell and ponies Ladybird and Penny and the other personified members of the place's population, laboring and playing and producing in honest rustic joy and fulfillment. Well, we do so labor and play and produce, more or less, and we do find rustic joy and fulfillment, but somehow in the process we do not manage greatly to resemble the families in back-to-the-land magazines and books or to exhibit constant hearty unison in regard to our common goals, if indeed they are common. For just as the world is often with us, so is individuality, and the voice of genial Lord Hard Scrabble is sometimes heard to swell quite loud in speaking of such matters as whose turn it may be to feed the horses, or who left what gate open endangering the heifers' virtue, or what set of small hands and feet shall go forthwith in search of kindling wood, or how he intends callously to carry the beloved pet Nubians off to auction at Meridian if someone doesn't get hot and clean their shed....

But it isn't that sort of book....

If it fitted into still another category, that of Triumphant Returns to the Land, now would likely be the time for a few wind-up pages of ringing affirmation and a proud recital of the universal principles symbolized by one's years of labor and rumination amid the Tonkish hills. But when you come down to it, the main idea in truth seems to have been not so much triumph as comprehension, though I suppose there is a certain minor degree of triumph in what little has been accomplished here and in the fact that it all still seems worthwhile. And if some universal principles are truly very much involved—how could they not be, with the land?—I am sure I have pointed a bony finger toward them a bit too often already.

You have the power to make a choice, or at least from long habit you think you do. And when the time comes to choose land you choose, against all good sense, a patch of rocky rough cedar hills with a few tired little fields and pretty water flowing past them over ledge limestone. In the short, disastrous, backwater history of its use by men of your race, its swift decline from primal richness, you come to see that there is a summary of the relationship between men and land on all parts of this planet, in the ages succeeding a golden time of harmony between men and the natural order that may or may not have ever been, anywhere. Because there is in you a need to know certain things—though why the need is there you do not at first discern—you undertake this bit of land's uneconomic restoration to what you hope is gentler human use, with no certainty at all that those who come after you will be gentle with it too or that in long time what you do here will matter a mote for good or bad, these being needful illusions as is land ownership itself, existing only in your head.

Yet out of the work and the illusions come in time some scraps of understanding—tardy and incomplete perhaps, but there were other things to do before, and maybe for that matter it was only now time to learn about scrub brush and rhizobia and goat-bleats and all those other things. And through the understanding comes abruptly and at long last a glimpse of old reality, indestructible, hiding among the creatures wild and tame and the stones and the plants, and in the teeming dirt. Without having known fully till now that it was what you sought, you see it there as clearly as does any battered ancient pensioner who leans on a hoe and picks his nose beyond the fringes of suburbia, contemplating the rituals of bantam hens that are not even all the same color, uncontemporary, at one with vanished medieval peasants in his fundamental thrusts and rhythms, at one with Sumerian farmers working in fields beside the Tigris and hearing from far off the clash and clang of mad kings murdering one another.

You see it and it sees you. Old reality survives, blinking at you there, lizard-eyed. Survives and will prevail.

That is perhaps enough to know. Yes.



“John Graves' writing is invaluable; his voice is both worldly, in the good sense, and local, also in the good sense. His work is informed by a kind of grace, much experience, and some hard experience, reflected upon by a questioning, tolerant intelligence. The reader who misses him will have missed much, which makes this Reader all the more valuable.”
Larry McMurtry