Writing Around Politics

Looking for Meaning at the Texas Books Festival

Around 2 o’clock that afternoon, the protesters filed loosely up the Capitol ground’s main drive, and that’s when the Texas Book Festival started to get spicy. It was Saturday, day of rest and leisure, we were there for books, and they were mounting the Capitol steps, about 300 strong, waving signs and clapping their hands. What they were protesting wasn’t immediately obvious (the death penalty? the drug war?), and mixed among tourists, bewildered festival-goers, and men in military uniforms standing near Veteran’s Day wreaths, they seemed out of place–until I heard their chants, led by a woman with a bullhorn: “Every vote counts! Every vote counts!” After they massed in front of the Capitol, clean cut and mostly hempless, I recognized them: Despite all the sharp anti-Republican pith of their placards, they looked all the world like Nader voters hungover with guilt by association.

State troopers were soon in place. I asked one demonstrator what organization they represented. “Just concerned citizens,” he said. He’d read the call to protest on a Yahoo message board. “We were over at the Governor’s Mansion just now, but the Bush people were sticking their signs in front of ours, so we came over here,” he said. Now photographers had clean shots of the signage, which was as much a gauge of the nation’s mood as a kind of folksy punditry invented by a soundbite-savvy, media-saturated, and very sarcastic folk: “Abolish the Electoral System,” “Look in the Bushes for the ballots!” “Who put the Duh in Dubya?” and “241>19,000: Fuzzy Math?” When someone paraded through with a huge American flag, so giant he had to sprint to keep it patriotically off the ground, the crowd cheered wildly, but they reserved their volume for the arrival of the most partisan sign, which is, according to certain well-known theories of affective phonetics, also the most satisfying one to say: “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump.”

I ran into the protests on my way to the House chambers. By the time I got in, the room was crowded with people listening to Michael Beschloss, television’s resident presidential historian, who was well into a series of anecdotes about American presidents, some easy, polished stories that sounded as if they’d served a postprandial function more than once. From my balcony seat, Beschloss looked handsome and confident as he told the story about the letter he wrote to LBJ as an eight-year old boy, then found wrapped in cellophane in the LBJ library as a presidential historian. He also related how he secured access to LBJ’s tapes of private conversations when they were first discovered, adding that he listens to them “sometimes 10 hours a day.” It was hardly insightful analysis of the current situation, but Beschloss succeeded at assuring us of one thing: As long as we, the American people, expect our presidents to provide good entertainment, then the history of the American presidency is safest in the hands of entertaining historians.

As Noam Scheiber wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic, in the last 10 years Beschloss has emerged as a prominent, if inescapable, TV personality because “[he’s] figured out how to appeal perfectly to producers and hosts who want the aura of a serious historian without the substance.” That afternoon, Beschloss proved (with occasional shouts from the protests outside penetrating the windows) that he can serve up American presidents, though not without a substantial helping of Michael Beschloss on the side. To let us know the presidency was stable and remained important, he told us about standing up with three ex-presidents et al. at the White House’s 200th anniversary dinner and singing “God Bless America.” He also confided that he feels sometimes as if he’s the only person who believes that Oswald acted alone. By the end, he did talk about the 2000 election: “In a year,” he said, “We’ll be amazed at how small a blip this is, and how we all found courage in crisis.”

Meanwhile, in front of the Capitol, the demonstration had swelled into a raucous, less joyful kind of thing. When I came outside, I found the pro-Gore army, now a larger group, on one side of the street. Many of them wore bandages on the sides of their faces (in reference to George W.’s post-election boil), and some of the bandages featured slogans like “Democracy is infectious.” Behind black, official Bush-Cheney signs, on the other side of the street, stood a phalanx of Bush supporters who were so well-groomed for a Saturday they made even the DPS officers look rumpled. The two groups were locked in a scrum of shouting, chanting, and sign-waving, and if it weren’t for the dozen officers between them, they seemed ready to launch at each other.

Suddenly, I noticed Beschloss, a tall, slim figure in a dark suit, haunting the edges of the demonstration, bemused at the din. When I approached him, I realized he was wearing makeup, his hair dyed–in other words, that serious, scholarly aura he exuded from the dais is really a thin layer of spritz. I wondered if he jigs offstage before a public appearance; he doesn’t seem the type, but neither did Al Gore. Beschloss craned his head around, scanning for a TV camera. He did not see one. “Looks like democracy is working,” he told me pleasantly, before hopping into a golf cart, which whisked him away to his book signing.

The morning after the election I’d felt gray and choked and a little shaky, as you might if you’d mixed beer, cigarettes, and election returns at the Horseshoe Lounge, though only when I went to get the newspaper did I realize bigger headaches than mine had blossomed overnight. At 1:20 a.m., when they called Florida for Bush, I’d gone to bed, hoping that sleep would soothe my heart and make it its own thing again, something I’d recognize–only to wake up and discover that sleep had undone the stitches of the world. It was cold and rainy; the day felt like Christmas Day gone awry. Where the hell is Santa Claus?

The puzzlement and uncertainty prepared me to be satisfied by what this year’s Book Festival offered: The feeling that books, writing, and writers still matter–not in the sense that reading a book is a good use of time until Florida settles down, but that writers of truth and integrity and what they give us can and does persist, and that we can return again and again to find ourselves changed by them. True, all the political writers were pestered for analysis or prophecy. At a Saturday morning panel, Nick Lemann (a political writer for The New Yorker and one-time editor at Texas Monthly) deflected the questions by pointing out if he could call the future, he’d be a stockbroker, but by Sunday afternoon’s panel with Larry Wright and Stanley Crouch he’d grown more promiscuous. Still, the Book Festival was the healthiest, safest place to be, a place with room for reflection, beauty, integrity, negotiated ways of speaking and reading, the work whose products endure. Democracy was simple arithmetic, as events in Florida were proving; literature solves for x.

I liked how poet Edward Hirsch expressed a similar idea in his reading from How to Read a Poem: “Poems add up to a certain kind of spiritual information we cannot get otherwise.” To a crowded room in the Capitol Extension, Hirsch spoke gently but passionately, a man with an intellectual immediacy that made the most fragile abstractions seem like polished creekbed stones in his pocket. Poetic forms such as the sonnet evolve “not because people like them,” Hirsch argued, “but they live on because they are vessels for those things we cannot get at otherwise. A poem is a certain kind of argument; a poem makes a certain kind of case.” What Hirsch espouses seems obvious, and it differs little from what art critic Dave Hickey (who was in town for another conference) claims about works of art–that they are “sites for the adjudication of value.” Yet such sheer, naked enthusiasms aren’t widely shared, particularly among professional academic readers, and discussions of value are frequently controversial. As Rosa Eberly writes in Citizen Critics, works of literature matter most for the types of public conversations they can sustain, and the health of such conversations is crucial to democracy. What’s important is that such discussions take place, but we need more books that tell us how to do this, and more public arguments about why writing matters.

It helped my mood most that John Graves was honored at the Festival. I admire him greatly, because Graves is a writer who has built arguments and only elegant ones about what matters. Even this formulation, about what “matters,” is distinctly his. “The sky matters greatly to people, of course, and has always mattered,” is how he began his introduction to Wyman Meinzer’s book of photographs, Texas Sky (1998). Forty years ago, in his first and perhaps most famous book, Goodbye to a River, he argued for the Brazos River, its ecology, and the value of the history of the land and people on its banks. His next book, Hard Scrabble (1974), stands up for “four hundred acres of rough limestone hill country, partly covered with cedar and hardwood brush and partly open pasture.” From a Limestone Ledge (1980) collects essays on chickens, fences, dogs, and bees, among others. These books and essays make a particular case we could not get any other way, the case for what we should keep around, preserve, and protect, what needs our attention, and what we like. Graves is not shy about this cause.

The hard work of being a writer such as Graves is evident in a new Graves-related book, John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960, edited by David Hamrick and annotated by Graves. Using letters from the Knopf Archive at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT-Austin, Hamrick assembles a portrait of the artist as warm and consistent, as well as a noble stickler for the details of his own vision. It’s also a portrait of Goodbye as a labor of love. Making changes some ideas I had of Graves–gathered from Hard Scrabble–that he hewed to his work and his work alone, and let the world come to him; also that he’s isolated and curmudgeonly. (“I have only scant understanding of the quirk that has made me need to find out so many things in life the hardest way, by doing them or being done to by them, myself alone,” he writes in Hard Scrabble.)

As Making makes clear, it’s indisputable that Graves has his own image of his work and will stubbornly fight for it. Many of the letters are models of how to explain your ideas, your stylistic choices, and most of all your judgment respectfully yet with force to an editor in New York who holds your career at the whim of his regard. But the notion that Graves isolated himself at his Glen Rose ranch turns out to be wrong. He also displays a finely turned courtliness. He didn’t live in Terlingua, after all, but relatively close to Fort Worth and Dallas. And because he circulated among urbanites, his own fortunes rose. In this regard, because it is so telling, Graves’ own annotation of a letter from John Schaffner, his agent, is worth quoting: “My wife Jane was a designer at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and we were occasionally invited over to dinner at Stanley and Billie Marcus’s home. These were rather grand affairs, usually with a sprinkling of notables from the fashion world or the arts. At some such function we met the publisher Alfred Knopf, a formidable figure whose face registered great reserve when he found out I was a writer…But when I mentioned that some work of mine was in the hands of his editor-in-chief [Harold Strauss] he pricked up his ears and turned affable, and after returning to New York he obviously talked with Strauss about the book.”

At a Saturday morning session at the Books Festival, Graves was introduced first by former Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles, then by nature writer Rick Bass, who bravely attempted to have an amplified “conversation” with Graves as both of them sat on the dais of the House Chamber. But the conversation was too stilted, the questions too meandering, to be consistently interesting. If I’d been Bass, I’d have asked Graves how he became so attached to the topics he writes about and, more crucially, where he discovered and decided to employ that intransitive yet peculiar, powerful verb, matters. Looking the word up in the dictionary, I notice that as a verb, it has fewer senses than as a noun, in fact only two: “to be of importance; signify” and “to form or discharge pus; suppurate.” I’d hesitate to have this interpretation run by Mr. Graves lest he call it nonsense, but you don’t have to be a semiotician to see how signs and suppurations are related. For one thing, a wound signifies where someone has been as well as what dangers he has faced; for another, the presence of pus is a positive sign that a body is working as it should. Abstractly speaking, arguing about what’s important is the sign of a literary (and artistic) immune system at work on a damaged (or damageable) social body.

In this way, Graves’ writing marks both crisis and solution, and “matters” distills his whole project. The crisis is what you might expect: the state of the land, the landscape, the integrity of people’s attachments to it. The solution isn’t as straightforward. Instead of specific prescriptions, Graves often makes room in his writing for the situation as a whole. In general he is not an activist, and he abjures the polemic, for reasons he explained to Rick Bass when they spoke together on Saturday morning: “If you put a lot of force into an argument, that’s great. But if you win, you make your argument immediately obsolete. If you lose, you make your argument obsolete.”

When writing about John Graves, it is easy to focus on his language, particularly if you don’t have the terms for evaluating his moral compass. Graves writes beautiful sentences, hard and uncompromising but not brutal. (“I myself live on the edge of that big country, have spent about half my life in a part-time effort to renovate a patch of rocks and cedar brush–steeply rolling prairie when virgin–for use as a stock farm, and do not even now have the grace to regret the time and effort thus squandered,” he writes in Texas Sky.) But Graves matters most not for his language, in fact, but for the way he makes plainly visible the choices before us. Around the Book Festival I heard laments that we do not have enough of his writing. Even Graves himself is apologetic that he’s wasted so much time (and some out there might be surprised to find Graves a theoretician of time: “My theory seems to have been that if you write some decent prose about the ways in which you have wasted time, you have to some extent justified doing so.”) One writer should always wish another a long and happy productivity, but I wonder if the laments are only polite wishes. To the degree that “mattering” is hard work, taking place as it does on the hard scrabble of public attention, as much Graves as we have is exactly what we need.

One way in which Graves makes plain our predicament is to acknowledge the threats to what matters, often extending poetry even to it. This is clearest in Chapter 19, the last (and shortest) chapter of Goodbye to a River. If you can read no other John Graves, you should read this scene, all 100 or so words. After picturing him in a canoe, on sandbars, in hermits’ shacks, suddenly he’s at a party, having finished his 1957 trip. Talking to a woman, he’s also conscious that “far far up above all of it in the unalive silent cold of space some new chunk of metal with a name, man-shaped, was spinning in symbolism, they said, of ultimate change.” She asks if on his trip he was lonely. As he answers, he thinks of the satellite called Sputnik (which means in Russian “travelling companion”), then: “‘Not exactly,’ I said. ‘I had a dog.'” And this is the book’s last line. Where a polemicist might only assert the dog’s value, Graves sets the dog and the satellite next to each other without commenting. This opposition suggests others: warmth and chill, fur and steel, simplicity and system, organism and technology, human connection and human escape. Having
provided reasons throughout the book in support of the dog and what she symbolizes, Graves lets the reader swing the way she will. By the end of Goodbye, you should swing to the dog. The party feels claustrophobic; you wonder where Graves is going to light to next. But he leaves the choice open. No matter how many times you return to the book, it’ll remain open. Warmth or chill? In 100 years, maybe readers will prefer the satellite, knowing something about “the stark pleasures of aloneness and unchangingness” that we don’t, or want to just yet.

After the Bass-Graves conversation, I spoke with the person sitting next to me, a tall, solid man in a suede jacket named Wells Teague. He turned out to be an antidote to the protests, the prognostication, and the anecdotal histories; Teague is something of an anti-Beschloss. You get the feeling that if he had anything to hide, he’d be honest about it sooner than go looking for pancake makeup. A writer, until recently Teague has been away from the page, though this year Wildcat Canyon Press is publishing his book, Calling Texas Home. We sat until people began filing in for the next reading while he told me about meeting Billy Lee Brammer, a Texas writer whose novel The Gay Place is also 40 years old this year, while Teague was writing a magazine article about Austin’s Driskill Hotel in 1974.

“The meeting didn’t last very long,” Teague said. “I was interviewing whoever I could find there in the restaurant. I’d interviewed the manager, but I had the run of the place, so I talked to whomever was around. When I went back in the kitchen, there was a fellow with this big rack of ribs. He had on a white coat and one of those big hats that cooks wear, and he was just a real nice fellow.” It would be Brammer’s last job. “We chatted a minute about the operation. When he told me his name, I said, ‘You gotta be the writer. I’ve read some of your stuff.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And that’s all he said. He was very mild, and a nice guy. Last time I saw him, he disappeared into the innards of the kitchen.”

The working writer easily could have taken advantage of the writer/chef’s situation to advance his own fortunes. He could have told an anecdote about how quick he was to recognize Brammer. He could have pursued Brammer into the innards of the kitchen, asked him about his real-life acquaintance with LBJ or his fictional Texas politician, Arthur “Goddam” Fenstermaker, who owes much to Johnson. Instead Teague gave Brammer a cameo appearance in the article, which ran in an inflight magazine called Texas Parade. “At four o’clock…Chef Bill Brammer heads upstairs to deep-fry several pounds of Port Lavaca breaded shrimp and a box of meat and shrimp egg rolls,” he wrote.

His mention of Brammer is brief, he explained to me, because any more detailed mention “I didn’t think was fair. I figured out who he was, and it was real apparent he wasn’t too proud of what he was doing. So–I just left that out.”

Michael Erard is a writer living in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST