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 claims about works of artthat 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 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 af fairs, usually with a sprinkling of notables from the fashion world or the arts. At some such function we met us how to do this, and more public arguments about why writing matters. /t 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 haps 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 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 dyedin 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 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 hundred acres of rough limestone hill coun try, partly covered with cedar and hardwood brush and partly open pasture.” From a Limestone Ledge ens, 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 UTAustin, 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 Gravesgathered from Hard Scrabblethat 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 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 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 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.” 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 22, 2000
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