BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Two John Graves Reconsidering a Writer and a Texan BY DON GRAHAM A JOHN GRAVES READER. By John Graves. University of Texas Press. “When Yankee writers began arriving in Austin in the late Seventies, the first thing they wanted to do was meet a Real Texas Writer. Dobie, Bedichek, and Webbthe old lawgivers with names linked like a law firmwere dead, and Larry McMurtry had decamped to the nation’s capital, but John Graves was here, and he was out of the old rock, he would do to ride the river with. That was how Yankees talked after they read a little Dobie and a little John Graves. Of course Yankees didn’t know diddly about Texas. They thought “hard scrabble” was a challenging board game that you had to play with your pecker tied behind you; then they read John Graves and discovered it was just a piece of sorry land. Graves made it seem like a virtue, though, and Yankees really liked that, the idea of land possessing some mythic potential. Yankees fresh from Breadloaf, male, female, and undeclared, all sang his praises. In person, Graves filled the bill, too. Kind, modest, well-read, off-the-cuff, informal, he seemed like a benign uncle. One newcomer even put him in a novel, in order for her heroine to have an affair with this Lone Star literary icon. Bill Moyers, certifier of the perfectly obvious, came down to Graves’ actual hard scrabble ranch near Glen Rose and asked him a lot of heavy questions about Life, Dirt, Art, etc. and filmed it and showed it on PBS so everybody could feel good about regionalism. So far as I know, John Graves has not written a crime novel with a clever title. This alone is enough to earn him praise in the contemporary climate of Texas \(pro if Graves needed any warrant. Since the publication of Goodbye to a River in 1960, he has occupied the high ground in Lone Star letters. Last year the poster for Texas Writers Month, an annual spring hoohaw of increasing decibels, featured Graves sitting at his ancient manual typewriter \(a besweatered, avuncular: The Writer at Work. In the world of Macs & laptops, the typewriter looked as antique as a branding iron or a wagon wheel. It signified Tradition, the Past, High Seriousness. It serves much the same purpose on the cover of A John Graves Reader, just published by the University of Texas Press. This 338-page, self-selected anthology is a very welcome addition to the corpus that Graves himself has assessed as not voluminous: a handful of books, and now this, the winnowing by the author of work that he values. About one half of the book consists of material familiar to readers of Graves: Chapter 10 from Goodbye to a River; “The Last Running,” his well-known short story based on the incident when old Kiowa chiefs, former adversaries, came down to Charles Goodnight’s Ranch near Palo Duro Canyon and borrowed a buffalo so they could hunt one last time in the traditional way with arrow and lance; several essays from From A Limestone Ledge, all originally Texas Monthly pieces, on topics ranging from the pleasures of fly-fishing, favorite dogs, modest stock-farm ranching \(in \(Graves is in favor of spirits if not carried to friends; the oddly titled “His Chapter,” a dead-on portrait of a redneck of great integrity named the Old Fart and one of the best pieces in Graves’ oeuvre \(from Hard and other bits gathered from hither and yon. The familiar image of Graves as a regionalist is not how he started out. His conversion to regionalism occurred in the late 1950s after he returned to Texas from living abroad and took a teaching position at TCU. In 1957 he made a canoe trip down a stretch of the Brazos River: it was to be both a rediscovery of Texas’ past and a valedictory to a river that he believed was soon going to be dammed and thereby forever changed \(rather like the much wilder river in James Dickey’ s Deliverance By May, 1959 Graves had completed a first draft of Part I. As he told his agent John Schaffner, “It is not to be a ‘thesis’ book; it has no particular axe to grind, though maybe a tomahawk or two as it stands just now. I think I will be able to give it a real unity apart from that picaresque unity furnished by the trip THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 NOVEMBER 8, 1996
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