In October 1957, John Graves dipped his paddle into the Brazos River, embarking on a three-week, 150-mile journey in homage to a hardscrabble wilderness he feared would soon be submerged behind new dams. Ripples from his canoe’s wake on that trip south from Palo Pinto County to Somervell County, recounted in the classic Goodbye to a River, still undulate in the imaginations and hearts of Texas readers. Graves’ unique narrative mixture of naturalism, folklore, and philosophical rumination won the Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas institute of Letters in 1961 and established Graves as a writer. Goodbye to a River has been in continual publication since.
On the 50th anniversary of his trip, the University of Texas Press has released John Graves, Writer, a tribute divided into three sections-“Talking with John Graves” (two interview transcripts), “Friends” (six reflections on Graves by other writers), and “Works” (nine critical essays on his works).
“We wanted to have essays that celebrate Graves’ life and work, but also … analytical essays that offer insight into his life and career by writers who may or may not have ever met John Graves but who have examined his work carefully,” co-editor Mark Busby explains in the preface. This hybrid of interviews, tributes, and critiques elevates what could have been a superficial hagiography to a dynamic, thoughtful, and accessible read on the man and his work.
In a transcript from an entertaining 2002 conversation between Graves and writers Sam Hynes and Dave Hickey, Hickey says, “John writes about the natural world, and I write about art. Nothing could be more different … but the fact remains that the discipline of writing about things that are not going to go away, that you cannot lie about, whose color you cannot change, whose shape you cannot change, seemed to me an inspiring discipline.”
Throughout their careers, Hickey and Graves have worked largely in nonfiction, a craft requiring thoughtful analysis of the world, be it a Picasso on the wall or an early morning fog lifting from the Brazos. For Graves, a lifelong devotion to writing about rural Texas came in a roundabout way, following service in World War II, an unpublished novel, and years of living abroad.
In 1957, when his father was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer, Graves came home to Fort Worth to care for him. Dealing with grief, Graves’ thoughts turned to the Brazos River of his youth, a place “still there, touchable in a way that other things of childhood were not,” he wrote in Goodbye to a River. After his father died, Graves undertook his canoe trip down an upper-middle section of the river that would soon be inundated by a reservoir. Goodbye to a River interwove Graves’ ruminations on the scenery with tales of the land’s history, an ecologically literary model he would successfully continue in Hard Scrabble and From a Limestone Ledge.
In the second part of John Graves, Writer, author Rick Bass explores Graves’ talent for sifting universal relevance from the land along the Brazos: “Graves’ world of dirt, bone, blood, stone, fires, floods, ice, wind, stories, horses, deer, goats, and always, our tiny but vital living relevance amidst the motion and history of these other enduring nouns … are stories and sentences that provide a direct map from the heart into the world-any world-and provide us instruction on how to move with passion and yet as much intelligence as can be mustered, through the wonderfully beguiling and paradoxical terrain of our lives.”
Graves’ eloquent musings on his personal relationship with the land inspire readers to look inward and reflect. As photographer and screenwriter Bill Wittliff notes, Graves’ “ability to reach beneath the surface of things into those deeper currents that run through us all as fellow members of the human tribe” ultimately allows the readers to see their own reflections in the waters of the Brazos.
In “Works,” the collection of scholarly essays on Graves and his writing, Alex Hunt analyzes the effectiveness of Graves’ writing: “Graves is uniquely important for his understanding of the role of stories, as a sort of ecological haunting, in shaping our flexible reactions to place,” Hunt writes. Instead of merely describing flora and fauna, Graves recounts tales of the land he travels, often involving bloody battles between the Comanche and white frontier settlers. The stories instill his books with page-turning thrills and hammer Grave’s larger point, that land should be respected as the bed of our common history, for better or worse, and therefore has intrinsic value.
In his essay on Goodbye to a River, Terrell Dixon writes, “John Graves deliberately chooses to build a quieter book for his reader, one that uses description, story, and historical anecdote to coax, rather than preach, the reader toward acknowledging the value of the natural world.” Compared with the angry social criticisms present throughout the works of Henry David Thoreau or Edward Abbey, Graves’ subtle contemplations are more effective because they allow readers to reach their own conclusions on how to live well with nature, to connect their own dots.
The third section of John Graves, Writer touches on the author’s less examined aspects, from his love of dachshunds and brief stint with Texas Monthly to accusations of sexism. Though interesting for die-hard Graves fans, most of these essays amount to scholarly debate. Yet the book is made stronger by including critical examinations of Graves’ perceived pros and cons, giving fans new fodder to ruminate, a strategy in line with the author’s own writing technique.
Undoubtedly, Graves’ greatest legacy will be his ability to subtly insinuate conservationist ideals into good storytelling. Readers who might initially shy away from anything “environmental” can enjoy Graves’ books for the prose, and perhaps be swayed to look at their own backyards anew. With water conservation, air quality, and urbanization at the state’s political forefront, Graves’ books, with their suggestions for natural attunement, should be required reading for the Texas Legislature.
That notion isn’t too far-fetched, considering the author’s commission by Stewart Udall’s Department of the Interior under Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to write an ecological critique on pollution and mismanagement of the Potomac River. For people interested in learning more about Graves’ thoughts on the natural world but lacking time to read his books, John Graves, Writer is an ideal option, its essays lending themselves to quick reading when schedules permit.
Despite flirtations with Hollywood, (director Sam Peckinpah and actor-director Tommy Lee Jones both optioned, but never filmed, his short story “The Last Running”) Graves’ legacy ultimately lies in his abilities as an ecological writer. Published two years before Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, Goodbye to a River stands as a quietly effective advocate for Texas river conservation. In a booming state looking again at building dams to resolve water shortages, paddling the deep backwaters of John Graves, Writer is a trip worth taking.
Stayton Bonner is a freelance writer living in Austin.