John Graves, author of 'Goodbye to a River,' dies

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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On Wednesday morning, Texas photographer Wyman Meinzer was walking along the Brazos River with his dog when he received the news in a telephone call from his wife. His close friend, John Graves, the man who venerated that river and nature with his prose and who was revered as the dean of Texas letters, had died at the age of 92.

“It was a surreal experience,” Meinzer said later Wednesday. “I just shook my head and looked across the flood basin and said, ‘My goodness. What a sad day.’ It just makes me want to clutch his books to my chest and hold them. I don’t want his words or his adventurous spirit or his literary talent to slip away.”

Mr. Graves was best known for Goodbye to a River, the iconic 1960 book that chronicled his long canoe trip on the Brazos. He also wrote 12 other books and scores of magazine articles, and continued to work until his health began to fail in recent months. He died shortly after midnight Wednesday at home on his small farm near Glen Rose, where he lived with Jane, his wife of 54 years.

“It just kept going downhill and last night it just stopped,” Jane Graves said. “What’s the word? Lonely. If I had to pick one word that would be the one. He was just such a presence. You knew when he was in the house.”

By reputation, Mr. Graves stands with other legendary Texas writers like J. Frank Dobie, Walter Webb and Roy Bedichek.

“I think he did care what his legacy will be, though he wasn’t haunted by it in any way,” said his daughter, Helen Graves. “I think he cared hugely about the craft of writing. He was known as a writer’s writer, and I think he was very proud of that.”

Friends and family also remembered a quiet, kind man and consummate gentleman.

“John was exactly what you saw,” said Billy Wittliff, a longtime friend, screenwriter and author. “He was never trying to be anybody but what he was. And he was a good, good man.”

John Graves III was born on Aug. 6, 1920, in Fort Worth, the oldest child of John Graves Jr. and Nancy Kay Graves. The family was descended from Capt. Thomas Graves, who came to the New World in 1608 as an early settler of the Jamestown colony. John Graves Jr. owned a clothing store on Fort Worth’s Main Street.

His son’s childhood was spent pulling catfish, bass and perch from the West Fork of the Trinity River, or smoking possums from hollow trees, fishing or hunting. When he wasn’t chasing through woods, Mr. Graves huddled with O. Henry stories, and other books, an avid reader in an era for reading, with only radio for diversion. Later, at Rice University, he enrolled in creative writing workshops.

Mr. Graves’ writing career, however, would have to wait. He went into the Marines after graduating from Rice, rising to the rank of lieutenant in an artillery battalion, and commanding a select group of soldiers on the front lines of the Pacific. In 1944, Japanese soldiers attacked Mr. Graves’ battalion headquarters and the firefight left him wounded in the face and blind in one eye. He rarely discussed the experience afterward.

After the war, Mr. Graves seemed destined for a noteworthy career in fiction. In 1947, while he was a graduate student at Columbia University, he had a short story published in the prestigious pages of The New Yorker.

Mr. Graves’ stories were published in Esquire and in anthologies collecting the best American short fiction. In 1959, Atlantic Monthly magazine published The Last Running, a short story about a Buffalo hunt staged in the 1920s.

During the years of his literary apprenticeship, Mr. Graves also roamed about Mexico and cloistered himself in a mountain shack in New Mexico, agonizing over early work. For three years in the 1950s, Mr. Graves chased the ghost of a young Hemingway on a big motorcycle, another bullfight-loving expatriate in Spain.

“He did that young writer thing in Spain and France,” Wittliff said. “Then he came home and said, ‘No, I’m John Graves. This is what I’m interested in. This is what I’m going to write about.’”

Most prominently, that included the Brazos, a river he had known as a boy. Mr. Graves wanted to travel its winding course before a series of proposed dams ruined the waterway forever.

Dams were essential, Graves later conceded in the river book’s early pages.

“But if you are built like me, neither the certainty of change nor the need for it, nor any wry philosophy will keep you from feeling a certain enraged awe when you hear that a river you’ve known always, and that all men of that place have known always back into the red dawn of men, will shortly not exist … A piece of river, anyhow, my piece … What I wanted was to float my piece of river again. All of it.”

He embarked on Armistice Day 1957, a strapping, dark-haired man whose only companion in a heavily loaded canoe was a dachshund puppy named Watty, who took his name from the Mexican word for peanut, cacahuate. They paddled 175 serpentine river miles in three weeks through chilling rain, bitter blue northers, and warm, radiant, yellow-winter afternoons. Mr. Graves scribbled in small notebooks all the while, seeing, remembering, feeling.

His prose, full of philosophy and melancholy, swept readers into his aching meditations. Goodbye to a River was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1961, losing eventually to William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

“His place in Texas literature is assured,” said Don Graham, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “In that book he combined the best of J. Frank Dobie, the folklorist; the nature observation of Roy Bedichek, and the western history of Walter Webb. He combined those three strands. He was probably the most revered living Texas writer, and has been since that first book came out.”

But then, at a time when most writers would have scurried to follow one literary success with another, the enigmatic author paused to scratch another itch.

“I never managed to purge myself of the simple yeoman notion, contracted in childhood from kinsmen looking back to a rural past, that grass and crops and trees and livestock and wild things and water mattered somehow supremely, that you were not whole unless you had a stake in them, a daily knowledge of them,“ Mr. Graves later wrote.

With the first proceeds from Goodbye to a River, he purchased an empty, weary, 400-acre tract of Somervell County land an hour southwest of Fort Worth that would become a place called Hard Scrabble, the title of his second major book published in 1974. There he would build a farm, listen to the screech owl’s song at night, and he and Jane would quietly raise two daughters.

“This place was such a gift to me and my sister,” Helen Graves said Wednesday. “He not only built it, but engaged us in it all along the way. We rode our horses. We walked. We swam. It was an extraordinary way to grow up. It was a labor of love for him, for the land, for literature. The writing was always there, even when he was fencing. It wasn’t something that he saw as separate. Everything was very much apiece.”

Friends and family said his devotion to his farm and a wide variety of interests that included beekeeping cut into his literary output. Mr. Graves himself conceded as much.

“I’m supposed to be a writer but an awful lot of time went into this place, “ he said in 1995. “I do think that when it came time for me to write something, I wrote it. Other things just kind of stopped where they were.”

“From a purely selfish standpoint, I wish John had written more,” Wittliff said. “But John didn’t want to just write. He wanted to do all these things. He wanted to do a garden. He wanted to raise bees. He wanted to tie flies. He wanted to have a vineyard.”

Over time, a legend sprang up around the brilliant writer who spent so much of the prime of his literary life piling rock upon rock in blazing summer sun to build a house, harvesting honey, raising cows and goats, growing vineyards, making wine or growing oats. In a 1979 PBS documentary about Mr. Graves, journalist Bill Moyers dubbed the writer the “Head Varmint of Hard Scrabble.”

From a Limestone Ledge, essays on Mr. Graves’ varied interests and country experience, was published in 1980. His later books included a book on Texas Rivers, and the 2005 memoir, Myself and Strangers, in which he recounted his early wanderings as an aspiring writer with high literary ambitions.

Those ambitions eventually gave way to a quiet life on his farm, a life for which he had few regrets.

In 1995, as he stood by a stream on his property, Mr. Graves was reminded of a passage from the river book, where, early in the Brazos voyage, he and his dachshund companion were huddled inside their tent against the rain.

“Passenger, you watch, “ Graves told Watty then. “It’s going to be a good trip.”

Remembering, Mr. Graves smiled broadly. He turned to study a still pool in the stream.

“I’m glad I got the chance to put down in a half satisfactory fashion how I felt about all this, “ Graves said. “It’s been a damn good trip. Yeah it has.”

In addition to his wife and Helen Graves, Mr. Graves is survived by a second daughter, Sally Graves Jackson, and four grandsons. Funeral arrangements were pending late Wednesday.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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