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Goodbye to John Graves

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Today brings the news that John Graves, the quintessential man of Texas letters, has died.

From Kip Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters:

Dear TIL Members:

I have received the sad word that John Graves died at his home, Hardscrabble, outside Glen Rose, either last night or early this morning. He was 92 and, of course, a giant of American letters, as well as a past TIL President and a TIL Fellow and Lon Tinkle Award winner. I’ll send along more details as I receive them.

This is a dark day.

Kip

Graves, of course, authored Goodbye to a River: A Narrative, one of the undisputed classics of Texas literature, published by Knopf in 1960 and in print ever since. Though lesser known, his short story “The Last Running” is widely lauded as an epitome of the form. Several books of essays (Hardscrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land and From A Limestone Ledge), a couple of memoirs (Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship and My Dogs & Guns), collaborations with photographer Wyman Meinzer (Texas Hill Country and Texas Rivers) and the retrospective John Graves Reader round out Graves’ narrow but deep bibliography. Works about the work include John Graves, Writer, and John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960.

Graves never wrote for the Observer, alas, but the magazine has reviewed some of his later published work. To mark his passing, we’ve collected some links to those reviews:

John Graves, Writer

Myself and Strangers

And then of course there’s Larry McMurtry’s famous Observer piece, Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature, wherein McMurtry wrote:

… Graves has to some degree been made heir to the Dobie-Webb-Bedichek tradition, with the surely unwelcome responsibility of keeping that branch of Texas letters vital.

That he is quite restive in this role is constantly apparent in his writing; one of his most frequent rhetorical devices, used almost to the point of abuse, 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.

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.

Graves’ longevity, along with the unremitting canonization of his work (former First Lady Laura Bush frequently tagged Goodbye as her favorite Texas book, which was a solid choice, if a safe one) also led to some gentle ribbing. McMurtry bemoaned Graves’ apparent preference for farming over writing, and Don Graham, poking fun at the seemingly static state of the Texas-lit pantheon in an Observer piece titled “Deathless Prose,” imagined a future in which Graves’ Olympian reputation only continues to grow:

In 2043, Texas literature was much the same as ever, only more so. John Graves was still living off the fame of his first book, and devotees of the Lone Star State’s greatest writer were still making treks to his hardscrabble ranch to record the latest shavings from his sageness, or taking little homage canoe trips down the still undammed stream that flowed through his beloved book. Texans could not bring themselves to say goodbye to that book. Graves had won all the awards that Texas had to offer, and the awards-givers had started over, giving him all the awards a second time, making him a revered pioneer again. All the schoolchildren in the state (those who could read, and that number was falling) were required to read one book, Goodbye to a River. It took some of them years to finish it.

Still, it was the reputation that came in for mockery, and the reputation is a readerly creation. About the work itself, it would be hard to find an unkind word. As it should be.

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.

  • zigzaguant

    Graves inscribed my uncle’s copy of “Goodbye to a River” as follows:

    For Estus Polk, the prairie sage, whose eyewitness accounts of old Indian
    fights, and trail drives were of inestimable help. With (genuine) affection–
    John Graves
    T.C.U.
    5 Oct 1960

    (My uncle was teaching at TCU at that time, and I believe that Graves was a colleague.)

  • quellepotat

    The writer’s writer, a Homeric Texas figure. (Homer only wrote TWO epics, by the way).