The Austin American-Statesman is reporting that John Graves has died in his home, Hard Scrabble, near Glen Rose. Charles Ealy writes: “Details were not immediately available, but W.K. “Kip” Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters, sent an email to members on Wednesday morning, announcing Graves’ death.”
Graves’ 1960 book, Goodbye to a River: A Narrative, was his memoir and reflections about a final canoe trip he took down the Brazos River — before new dams would change the river he’d known since his childhood. The book was quickly recognized as a classic and later became an influence on Texas writing about Texas and the Texas landscape as well as on environmental thinking. If nothing else, the book anticipated many of the later techniques of literary non-fiction. A. C. Greene in his 1998 book, The 50 Best Books on Texas, wrote:
Goodbye to a River contains folklore, history, irony, classic references and dollops of natural philosophy, combining to work literary wonders … The river is the Brazos, and the sad prophecy of the title has, more than partially, been fulfilled. But the book goes far beyond the river and its history. It contains the basic humor, the rawness and old earthy wisdom — along with the hardheaded stubbornness — of a rural Texas society still to be found in certain not too remote crevices of the state…. Only a handful of American books have reached its masterly level.
Graves was born in 1920 in Fort Worth and grew up on his grandfather’s ranch in Cuero. He graduated from Rice in 1942 and served as a captain in the Marines during WWII until he was wounded by a Japanese grenade. After the war, he earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and wrote fiction until Goodbye to a River came out in 1960. It was his first major book — and still his best-known by far — and was nominated for the National Book Award. After moving to Hard Scrabble, Graves continued to write about ranching, farming and rural life with Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land (1974) and From a Limestone Ledge (1980), which was also nominated for a National Book Award, as well as his last book of short stories, My Guns and Dogs (2007).
Two passages from Goodbye to a River that show Graves’ melancholy wisdom, mellow lyricism and his thoughtful observations about nature:
If a man couldn’t escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But, if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen. 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.
Of all the passers-through, the species that means most to me, even more than geese and cranes, is the upland plover, the drab plump grassland bird that used to remind my gentle hunting uncle of the way things once had been, as it still reminds me. It flies from the far Northern prairies to the pampas of Argentina and then back again in spring, a miracle of navigation and a tremendous journey for six or eight ounces of flesh and feathers and entrails and hollow bones, fueled with bug meat. I see them sometimes in our pastures, standing still or dashing after prey in the grass, but mainly I know their presence through the mournful yet eager quavering whistles they cast down from the night sky in passing, and it makes me think of what the whistling must have been like when the American plains were virgin and their plover came through in millions. To grow up among tradition-minded people leads one often into backward yearnings and regrets, unprofitable feelings of which I was granted my share in youth-not having been born in time to get killed fighting Yankees, for one, or not having ridden up the cattle trails. But the only such regret that has strongly endured is not to have known the land when when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh, and the plover that whet one’s edge every spring and every fall. In recent decades it has become customary- and right, I guess, and easy enough with hindsight- to damn the ancestral frame of mind that ravaged the world so fully and so soon. What I myself seem to damn mainly, though, is just not having seen it. Without any virtuous hindsight, I would likely have helped in the ravaging as did even most of those who loved it best. But God, to have viewed it entire, the soul and guts of what we had and gone forever now, except in books and such poignant remnants as small swift birds that journey to and from the distant Argentine and call at night in the sky.
The interview below was made by KERA’s Rob Tranchin on Graves’ ranch twelve years ago: