Giant and Gentleman: John Graves, Remembered

This week, we said goodbye to a Texas literary icon and former UT faculty member. Author and journalist, Jan Reid, MA ’72, remembers the life and unforgettable work of John Graves.

Giant and Gentleman: John Graves, Remembered

John Graves, the most admired Texas writer of any time, died yesterday at Hard Scrabble, his beloved “patch of ground” in Somervell County. He was 92. Graves won wide acclaim for the publication in 1960 of Goodbye to a River, when he was 40. The book is a wise, lyrical, heartfelt account of a man’s journey in a canoe with his dog down a stretch of the Brazos River below Possum Kingdom dam. It’s a conservationist’s rebuke of society’s obsession with damming and taming such streams, and a great storyteller’s visitation of the people who dared settle along that river during the frontier war with Comanches and Kiowas. There were passages of rich humor, such as the scenic spot where John pitched their camp one night. The tree above them proved to be a buzzard’s roost. Buzzards have terrible indigestion, and the results fell like rain. Goodbye to a River ranks in the literature of nature with Thoreau’s Walden.

He was a perfectionist and did not punish himself with yearning to be prolific.

Born August 6, 1920, Graves grew up in Fort Worth. He spent long days hunting and fishing in the Trinity River bottom and on uncles’ ranches near Cuero—knowing also the hard work and meager wages of hauling hay and mending fences. After graduating from Rice, he was a marine lieutenant in World War II.  On the island of Saipan, a grenade blast cost him sight in one eye. He wrote more than once about the field hospital and a Southern boy on the next cot.

… after a while the boy said, “Listen.  Hold my hand, do you mind?”

I reached out under the mosquito net and found it, a thin dry rifleman’s hand that clenched mine hard.  The boy said, “You want somebody that knows what you’re talking about.” I said, “That’s right.”

“Thanks, mac,” the boy said, and clenched my hand harder still, and died.

After the war Graves found that settling down didn’t suit him. He spent 1946 in Mexico, then headed to New York and graduate school at Columbia, held a brief job teaching English at The University of Texas, then spent 1953 and 1954 in Palma, Madrid, and the islands of Spain, where he sailed a sloop, enjoyed some romance, and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, A Speckled Horse, that he put away as unworthy. He was a perfectionist and did not punish himself with yearning to be prolific.

Success that came his way with Goodbye to a River enabled him to give up teaching at TCU and buy 400 acres near Glen Rose. Hard Scrabble, published in 1974, was another marvel of style in which the Head Varmint, that being Graves, reflected on creeks, grasses, goats, and “fictional” Mexican laborers who found their way to his place and friendship year after year. In the dedication to his wife, Jane, in the 1980 book of essays, From a Limestone Ledge, he wrote that “without her I might never have stopped in one place long enough to recognize the profundity of such archetypal metaphors as chickens and fences and chewing tobacco.”

He took great joy in their two daughters and worked at his own perfectionist pace, whether it was beekeeping or crafting a paragraph. One critic called The Last Running, in which he conjured up a poignant faceoff between an old frontier rancher and old Comanches, the best short story in the English language. Graves inspired and mentored dozens of gifted writers. A bronze statue of Graves stands in the lobby of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. It captures him in his later years, in work khakis and boots and a cap. It’s 11 feet tall. John Graves was that—a rumpled, gentle giant.

 Above: John Graves in a Madrid café, ca. 1954

Jan Reid is an author and frequent contributor to Texas Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Slate, Men’s Journal, and the New York Times. John Graves welcomed and befriended Reid when he became a member of the Texas Institute of Letters in 1979. Reid’s first reading of John’s work was when he was a UT Dobie Paisano fellow on J. Frank Dobie’s old ranch, a perfect place to start.

Several of Graves’ papers—including drafts of Goodbye to a River and Hard Scrabble—are housed at UT’s Harry Ransom Center.


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