“It’s sad when people approach me as if I was an august creature,” John Graves said in a 1996 profile published in the American-Statesman. “Writers are by and large better read than met. They put the best of themselves in the writing.”
Graves, who died at age 92, was admired as a “writer’s writer.” We remember an enduring, American literary voice deeply rooted in Texas.
Graves’ literary reputation rests primarily on “Goodbye to a River,” his treasured 1960 eulogy for a Brazos River he thought doomed by a series of proposed dams that would have fragmented it into extinction as a meaningful stretch of water. The book documents a three-week canoe trip Graves took on the Brazos in 1957, with only a dachshund puppy for a companion.
Praised as graceful and lyrical, “Goodbye to a River” describes the landscape, people and history of the Brazos River. It’s considered not only a classic of Texas writing but also of American literature and is credited with helping spark a nascent environmental movement in the state and nation.
The Brazos was not unbroken when Graves took his trip. Possum Kingdom Dam had been built in the late 1930s near Mineral Wells, and Whitney Dam was built downstream in the late 1940s. Graves’ canoe trip was along the 175-mile stretch of the Brazos between the two dams. At the time, the federal government was looking at building several dams between Possum Kingdom and Whitney, and Graves wanted to revisit a length of the river familiar to him from his youth before it disappeared forever.
The series of dams that threatened the Brazos was never built. Thanks in part to opposition inspired by Graves’ book, the government eventually abandoned its plans.
Born in 1920, Graves was entering middle age in 1957. Nostalgia and a $500 advance from Sports Illustrated motivated the trip. The article Graves wrote was rejected by Sports Illustrated (the magazine didn’t think it “sporty” enough but it let Graves to keep his advance nonetheless, as the 1996 Statesman profile noted) so he submitted it instead to Holiday, a travel magazine. More important, the article formed the frame of the book that brought Graves recognition as a writer.
After he was wounded on the Pacific island of Saipan in World War II, and before he discovered that his career as a writer lay back home, in Texas — that is, before the canoe trip and book that would establish his literary reputation — Graves pursued the life of a mid-20th-century writer, at least as it was and is often romanticized. Travels in Mexico and Europe. Three years living in Spain. Writing magazine articles to make ends meet. Working on a novel that he eventually abandoned as a failure.
The success of “Goodbye to a River” gave Graves the means to buy a farm near Glen Rose that would be the subject of his 1974 book, “Hard Scrabble.” Another similarly themed book, the essay collection “From a Limestone Ledge,” was published in 1980.
“If there is anything left here of a golden age, varmints and nonvarmints and trees and shrubs and grasses and waters and soils and rocks have everything to do with it,” Graves wrote in “Hard Scrabble.” “They make the place work, sometimes for me but mainly for its own sake and the world’s. They were here before me and they will be here when I’m gone. There is a fair chance that even if technological bad luck hits them, as it likely will, many will still be here when man himself is gone.”
Graves let us know that the past can save the present from itself. Our worst intentions may damage a landscape, but can’t possibly outlive it.