From an Early Graves

by Steven G. Kellman
by Published on

I write for myself and strangers,” wrote Gertrude Stein.

Is there anyone else? Aren’t we all strangers, to others as well as ourselves? John Graves borrows Stein’s line, from the beginning of a chapter in The Making of Americans, and adapts it as the title for his memoir. Concentrating on the years 1951–1956, when Graves, who was born in Fort Worth in 1920, was abroad and adrift, Myself and Strangers offers contrasting perspectives on a man estranged from his country and himself. He alternates between entries from a contemporaneous journal and the current perspective of a seasoned octogenarian. Somewhat the way, in his final novel sequence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, the narrative voice of 89-year-old Henry Roth comments on an earlier version of himself, Graves inserts bracketed remarks in which wise “Old John” chides callow “Young John.” After transcribing a diary entry that proclaims: “I will go to Madrid and will write a book and it will be good,” Old John notes: “All this sad optimism turned out to be quite premature. You hadn’t made it yet, kid.”

Graves made it into the canon of Texas literature with Goodbye to a River, his majestic account of a final solo canoe trip down the Brazos River. Published in 1960, the book is a Lone Star Walden, in which one stubborn man’s encounter with nature serves as pretext for rich meditations on the self and the world. Though Myself and Strangers concludes with a brief description of how he came to write Goodbye to a River and thereby end the literary apprenticeship referred to in the book’s subtitle, for most of the period that the memoir covers, Graves is still unknown and unaccomplished. He spends these years in Europe, primarily in parts of Spain. “Texas is not my territory any more,” Graves presumes, not knowing that in just a few years he would be settling down on 400 acres of Hill Country hardscrabble. To anyone aware of Graves’ work after his European Wanderjahren, Old John’s attempt to set the record straight is unnecessary: “This was a very major misapprehension, as things turned out, for in the long run Texas was the main territory I did have.”

After a relatively privileged childhood in Fort Worth, Graves attended college at Rice. Following graduation, he joined the Fourth Marine Division and was shipped out to the Pacific in January, 1944. His combat career was cut short in June, when, on Saipan in the Marianas, a Japanese grenade blinded his left eye. He spent an interlude in rural Mexico and then used the G.I. Bill to study at Columbia University, writing a master’s thesis on William Faulkner that the Mississippian’s editor, Saxe Commins, urged him, unsuccessfully, to expand into a book.

Armed with a new M.A., Graves moved with his wife, Bryan, to Austin, where he taught in the English Department at the University of Texas. After rejecting the academic life and dissolving his marriage, he made his way to Spain, shifting about among Madrid, Mallorca, and Tenerife. Todo hombre fuera de su país es un poco niño, quotes Graves in what had become fluent Spanish Outside his country every man is a little bit of a boy. Myself and Strangers is a reminiscence of the writer’s second childhood.

The ghost of Ernest Hemingway haunts this book, which is a kind of low-carb Moveable Feast. Graves even finds himself in Pamplona on July 7, 1953, during the annual fiesta of San Fermin that is the setting for a famous section of The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway himself is there, his first time back in Spain in 15 years, and, though Graves observes him holding court at a sidewalk table on the main square, he cannot bring himself to join the queue of admirers paying their respects to the great man. Nor does he introduce himself a month later when he sees Hemingway again, at Harry’s New York Bar in Venice. “I had not yet proved myself a writer, a real one,” he explains, “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.” But Graves participates in many of the same activities as Hemingway and his characters—drinking, fishing, attending bullfights, and, above all, trying to write. Three decades after the Lost Generation converged in Paris, Graves too seeks literary inspiration in expatriation. His ambitions as a writer define him to himself, and throughout most of his sojourn in Spain, Graves is struggling with a novel called A Speckled Horse. But the steed never gets to the starting gate. Despite several years of effort, the book was never published because an agent’s negative reaction discouraged its author from submitting it anywhere.

However, writing is the reason Graves gives himself for being both sociable and solitary. Driven by “a joy in being alive in a time when there were still so many good people to know, so many meaningful books to read, so many fine things to do,” he falls in and out of love and finds café companionship with a variety of Spaniards and fellow foreigners. One senses that he is seeking literary material more than human contact, and when he wearies of the hard-drinking idlers, primarily the Americans, Britons, and Scandinavians he hangs out with in Palma, he secretly migrates to another part of the island to spend time alone with his typewriter. Though he was eager to appropriate them for his fiction, none of these expatriates, he notes, measures up to the characters in The Sun Also Rises or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. They strike him, he recalls, “as having come to being nothing on Mallorca from being nothing elsewhere, during all their lives to date.”

Though Graves offers pointed sketches of many of the men and women he got to know in Europe, none is as talented or memorable as were members of the Hemingway crowd. “I like living with so very many people and being all alone with english[sic] and myself,” says Stein in another passage that he quotes. But not very many of the people whom Graves encounters during his European apprenticeship match the figures who showed up at her Rue de Fleurus salon. Nor are his literary observations especially acute. Graves notes the books that he is reading, a motley medley by authors including Conrad, Smollett, Gogol, Michener, Maugham, Orwell, Waugh, and Rabelais, considered most of all for their usefulness to his own writing. About William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, he reports: “Only glanced through this one and don’t want to do more than that for the moment, because it would likely mess up my own work.” He is bothered when a reading of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End causes the prose of A Speckled Horse to be “heavily infected with Fordian mannerisms.” Graves admits to feeling fatigue from Thomas Wolfe and boredom from Gustave Flaubert.

A journal entry for January 6, 1955, announces that Graves’ needs are simple: “a place in which to live comfortably, a good woman if any such shows up, some kind of regular exercise (maybe a rowboat?), and buckle down to this book.” Though his finances seem meager, he manages to live frugally on a modest military pension and occasional commissions for magazine articles. He reports paying $45 a month to rent a villa in Mallorca as well as buying a sloop for an undisclosed sum. As a practical matter, Graves divides his writing time according to the principle of “one for them and one for me,” alternating between work he does for hire (such as a piece in Holiday that gets him into trouble for lambasting Mallorca’s expatriate colony) and work he does for love. By the time Graves ends his literary apprenticeship, it is hard to separate the two. He encounters Spain a little more than a decade after the conclusion of its Civil War and during Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. He notes parallels between Franco Spain and the post-bellum American South, including Texas. A descendant of Confederates, Graves suggests that the Falangist victory was a temporary denial of what Dixie’s defeat made clear, that it is futile to resist the forces of modernity. He seems to be expressing nostalgia for an Iberian Lost Cause that has not yet even been lost: “They won one fight against the new values,” he says of the Nationalists’ success against the Loyalists, “but even then they had already lost the big fight, simply by being fated to exist in a changing world.” Graves casts his blind eye at oppression under Franco. Repelled by the dogmas of both left and right and lacking the polemical genius of Swift and Milton, he is wary of politics: “If you can’t manage partisan enthusiasm and you see advantages and disadvantages in all or most of the sides, I guess what you do is shut up and try to quit thinking about the matter.”

Permanently afflicted with cacoethes scribendi, “the writing disease in excelsis,” Graves cannot quit thinking about his literary calling. Thoreau left Walden Pond for as good and deliberate a reason as he went there in the first place: “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” Without explanation, Graves returns to the United States on July 20, 1955. His apprenticeship over, he abandons A Speckled Horse and undertakes the writing in and about Texas—especially Goodbye to a River, Hard Scrabble, and From a Limestone Ledge—that he feels destined to do. Reconciled to his place and time and talents, he concludes: “I was where I belonged.”

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.