In Memoriam: John Graves, Texas Author, 1920 - 2013

Thursday, August 01, 2013 | By John R. Erickson

Cowboy illustration


Dear Hank-Fans, 

    For those of you who haven't heard of John Graves: You've been missing out, until now. Sadly, this legendary Texas author died yesterday at the age of 92. But, to commemorate his life's work, his beautiful writing, we've decided to post (in two parts) an essay written by our very own John R. Erickson about this amazing man:


John Graves, Texas Author (Part 1)

by John R. Erickson


    In the early sixties, a young English professor set out on a canoe trip down a two hundred mile stretch of the Brazos River in north-central Texas, and used the trip as a narrative thread that connected a number of stories about local characters and events of historical interest. 

    It was an odd book in that it jumped from present to past, and from history to fiction.  It was neither a novel, an outdoor adventure story, nor a piece of historical scholarship.  It was none of them, all of them, and more besides.  The title page called it simply “Goodbye To a River:  A Narrative by John Graves.”

    I can imagine that the first editor who read the manuscript wondered, “What is this?”  My own experience with the publishing world leads me to suspect that Graves received some rejection slips that said, “This is too regional for us,” or “We like this but don’t know what to do with it.”  But he found a publisher, a good one, Alfred A. Knopf in New York, and Goodbye To a River is often mentioned as one of the best books ever written by a Texas author.  I would say that.

    I read the book in 1969, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me.  On a personal level, it introduced me to a distant relative my mother had told me about when I was a boy, a great-great grandmother who was killed by Indians.  When Mother told the story, she had no dates or details about location, not even the woman’s name.  I found those in Graves’s book:  Martha Sherman, killed by Comanches, December 1860, in eastern Palo Pinto County, Texas.

    On a more professional level, Goodbye To a River provided me with an example of how “regional writing” can transcend its region.  “The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant.  The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man.” [Graves 1964:144]

    By the time Graves wrote the book, he had traveled far beyond the Ft. Worth of his youth.  He served in the Fourth Marine Division in the battle of Saipan and lost an eye to a piece of shrapnel.  By odd coincidence, my father served as a medical staff sergeant on that same island, probably around the same time.  It is possible that he was working in the hospital where Graves received his first treatment.  How strange it would be if their paths had crossed in 1944 when I was one year old.

    After the war, Graves lived in Spain, traveled across Europe, and spent time in New York City.  He acquired a degree from Rice University and a master’s in English literature from Columbia.  He was well-traveled and well-read, a man who had seen the best Europe and New York had to offer, but went back home to write a masterpiece that wore the rough garments of local history. 

    Graves never intended for his audience to be limited to the local historical society.  He created his own literary form, and found a writing voice that was elegant, ancient, and poetic. Between snippets of local history, he quoted or ruminated upon the work of Shakespeare, Veblen, Thoreau, Hemingway, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Chaucer, Shelley, Yeats, Dickens, Trollope, Milton, and Cervantes, as well as the Bible.  Graves aimed his story at readers who might not have been able to find West Texas on a map. 

    For me, an apprentice writer, this was an astonishing discovery.  Until I read Goodbye To a River, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what my heart and instincts were telling me to do.  Now, here it was!  John Graves had already done it.  He’d blazed a trail through the desert and had left a clear set of markers for those who came behind him.

    In 1970, with Goodbye To a River as my pattern, I began doing research for a book about the Canadian River valley in the northeastern Panhandle, a hundred-mile stretch of big, empty ranch country that had fascinated me when I was growing up in Perryton.  No one had ever written a book about this area, or even an article, so I had to do most of my research from scratch, interviewing cowboys, ranchers, and old-timers who supplied me with stories that very few people had ever heard before.

    In June 1972, photographer Bill Ellzey and I set out on a fifteen-day horseback trip that took us down the river valley.  A treacherous pack mule named Dobbin lugged our bedrolls, a small tent, some dried food, a few extra clothes, and Bill’s camera supplies.  This obvious imitation of John Graves’s canoe trip on the Brazos gave me the narrative thread that bound my stories together, just as Graves had done it.  At the time we made the trip, we hoped to sell the story and photographs to National Geographic magazine. 

    National Geographic wasn’t interested, so I ended up making it into a book, Through Time and the Valley.  I shopped it around to every publishing house I could think of, and collected the kind of rejection slips I had learned to dread and despise:  “Too regional.  Not quite right for us.”  I became so discouraged, I offered to give the book to the local newspaper, if they would print it as a serial story.  When they turned me down, I felt I had hit the absolute bottom... (To Be Continued)

Check back next week for Part 2!

(for Part 2, click here)


Read the The Houston Chronicle's tribute to John Graves

Read The Dallas Morning News' tribute

NPR's tribute

Tags: Famous Texans, Writing
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