1995 profile - Still waters: Texas dean of literature is a man of few, but fine, words

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(This article was originally published on March 26, 1995.)

What began for John Graves in a rustic Fort Worth neighborhood seven decades earlier had come to this: a fete in downtown Dallas that in the world of Texas literature was tantamount to Oscar night in Hollywood. Tony-award-winning playwright Larry L. King arrived from Washington, knelt and kissed Graves' hand before presiding over what King wryly termed the canonization of St. John. A dozen other writers congregated from Montana and Austin and New York, paying homage to the man they called the dean of Texas letters, author of Goodbye to a River, celebrated by some as the best Texas book ever written.

But on the day of the singular outpouring, Graves himself seemed nearly invisible. He was the white-haired, slightly stoop-shouldered man seated inconspicuously in the audience with his wife, Jane, and their two daughters, Helen and Sally. He listened quietly through the day, smiling in embarrassment, signing books and John Graves Day posters while peering out at admirers over wire-rimmed glasses that continually crept down his nose.

In truth, the intensely private author would be glad when the hoopla was done, and he could retreat with Jane to the country, to his Hard Scrabble Ranch near Glen Rose. There he could remove his tie and blue blazer and put on his country clothes and cheap white socks that drooped around his ankles. There he could yank his bent-billed white cap down over his eyes to slog around rocky land with his old sheep dog named Hodge, listening to birds and studying the ground for ancient arrowheads.

Once Graves had wandered the globe, a young and ambitious expatriate, dreaming of the more obvious literary successes of a Hemingway or a Faulkner. Now those successes seemed destined to forever elude him.

But the writer, who will soon turn 75, long ago reached an age of acceptance about that. And for nearly four decades now, he had been most at home not in the glittering, bohemian world of the popularly acclaimed artist, but with the quietest, gentlest things of life so often forgotten today, rivers and birds, cows and goats, trees and grass and history. Ultimately, these were the things from which his literary genius flowed.

For Graves, as the orgy of tribute in Dallas seemed to suggest, that was quite enough.

The river book: Since its publication in 1960, book-loving Texans dutifully passed copies of Goodbye to a River to newcomers as if to prove there was more to the state than bolo ties and big hair, gaudy wealth and provincial bluster. John Graves' chronicle of a voyage down the Brazos River was like roadside bluebonnets or the Hill Country, like Padre Island or the Big Thicket or Big Bend, something that redeemed the place in a beautiful, transcendent way.

The "river book," as Graves would call it, was the creation of a restless ex-Marine who lost an eye to the Japanese in the Pacific, a writer who in the fall of 1957 was just completing a tortuous, self-imposed, decade-long literary apprenticeship.

He had studied literature at Rice and as a graduate student at Columbia University. He had lived in New York for a good while afterward, writing. He had roamed about Mexico, and cloistered himself in a mountain shack in New Mexico, agonizing over early work he derisively called trash. For three years in the 1950s, Graves chased the ghost of a young Hemingway on a big motorcycle, a bullfight-loving expatriate in Spain.

"John's left again. He's gone to Majorca," Graves' father, the Fort Worth clothier John A. Graves Jr., told a friend after his son had vanished to the Spanish island in the Mediterranean. "When he left I said, 'John, where you going to go when you find out you don't like it there?'"

Home, it eventually turned out, to travel a river he had known as a boy, to trace its winding course before a series of proposed dams would ruin 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."

The writer 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. Graves scribbled in small notebooks all the while, seeing, remembering, feeling, and when the trip was done, the writer possessed much more material than could ever be squeezed into the magazine article he subsequently wrote.

The years after the river trip proved eventful. Jane Cole, a tall, dark-haired designer for the department store Neiman Marcus, had seen Graves off on the river trip, worried about him while he was gone, and married him not long after he returned. The couple's oldest daughter was born in 1959. And in the course of a year, in the servant's quarters of his father's home in Fort Worth, Graves hammered away at his beloved Corona typewriter and a classic was born.

It was a book in which Graves wrote of wildlife that continued to thrive on rugged land largely forgone by humans, glorifying what remained of the natural order.

Humans and their ghosts were equally abundant. For Graves, nearly every twist of the Brazos summoned forth another tale of the proud but savage Comanche - The People to an obviously admiring author - and of equally proud European immigrants who arrived to claim the land as their own.

His prose, full of philosophy and melancholy, swept readers into his aching meditations, such as those of the day he stumbled upon a deserted homestead on the banks of the Brazos.

"What music had they made in their stark shelter? What salt-rimed spot had been there in that bare yard where a man, heavy-eyed in the clean predawn, had emptied his bladder morning after morning, year after year, yawning gratefully at the goodness of Creation and the certainty of coffee, biscuits and bacon. ... Where had he gone - to aircraft factories? To farms less tired? or, more probably, considering their leavings, each to take his thanatoptic chamber in the graveyard?

"... Some days load themselves with questions, " Graves wrote then, "whose answers have died, and maybe never mattered hugely." New York publishing legend Alfred A. Knopf was immediately taken.

"I have just read a hundred and sixty odd pages of John Graves' manuscript on the Brazos," Knopf wrote in a 1959 letter to a Texas friend. "It's magnificent stuff, though of such a very special kind that I doubt very much that a large or even very profitable sale could be looked for. Nevertheless, it's the kind of book we could never say no to."

Published under the Knopf imprint, Goodbye to a River was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1961, losing eventually to William Shirers' The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The river book, today in its 15th printing, nonetheless became a staple of high school and college English classes, and prompted the first comparisons between the Texas writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Some critics later predicted Goodbye to a River would survive for readers of other centuries. Graves was mentioned in the same breath as the Texas writers J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb and naturalist Roy Bedichek, novelists Larry McMurtry and Billy Brammer. With Graves and his book taking much of the credit, most of the proposed new dams on the Brazos were never built.

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," Graves later wrote.

With the first proceeds from Goodbye to a River, Graves purchased an empty, weary, 400-acre tract of Somervell County land an hour southwest of Fort Worth that would become Hard Scrabble. There he would build a farm, listen to the screech owl's song at night, and he and Jane would quietly raise two daughters. It would be 14 years before the world of literature would hear from him so forcefully again.

The roots of the writing: The two old friends lingered as the sun receded behind Somervell County's limestone cliffs. Within a few hours on that brilliant afternoon a few years ago, both Mickey Schmid and John Graves had bagged their limit of doves, a dozen apiece, no small achievement, they figured, for men now in their 70s and one of them hunting with only one good eye. The day's shooting done, the afternoon still pleasant, conversation turned to another time and place, and eventually to the uncommon notion of 60 years passing since they first took up guns together and sallied forth into the wilds.

Those virgin lands of boyhood existed then just down the street from the West Fort Worth neighborhood where Schmid and Graves were raised.

Schmid's father was in oil; Graves was the oldest child of a man raised in a hunting and fishing family in rural South Texas. Graves' father, John Graves Jr., had met a Fort Worth schoolteacher named Nancy Kay while stationed at Camp Bowie in World War I. The couple settled in the growing North Texas city after marrying, the elder Graves eventually coming to own a men's clothing store on Fort Worth's Main Street.

On Saturdays his son, Schmid and other boys pulled catfish, bass and perch from the West Fork of the Trinity River, or trekked off into what they called The Woods, a dense, undeveloped patch of green just north of River Crest Country Club. Days were spent smoking possums from hollow trees, fishing or hunting, the pop of their shotguns echoing in empty land situated inside the Fort Worth city limits.

"In retrospect, it seems we spent more time there than we did on pavements, though maybe it's merely that the remembrance of that part is sharper," Graves wrote in the river book, recalling his Fort Worth childhood. "There were rabbits and squirrels to hunt, and doves and quail and armadillos and foxes and skunks. A few deer ran in the woods, and one year, during a drought to the west, big wolves."

One day, a squad car approached as Schmid and Graves downed doves, and officers, apparently alerted by the crack of their weapons, piled the trembling boys into the back seat. They were dropped off a few blocks away with a stern scolding about disturbing the peace, but the officers kept the doves for evidence. Graves and Schmid gathered themselves and continued their hunting, undeterred.

When he wasn't chasing through woods, Graves huddled with O. Henry stories, and other books, an avid reader because it was an era for reading, with only radio for diversion, and because of people like Dr. Joe White, a bachelor who lived two doors down on Hillcrest Street. Dr. White's nose was forever in a book - Shakespeare or the King James Bible - a cloud of pipe smoke hovering about his head as he sat on his porch. The young Graves admired Dr. White's ability to pull a quote out of thin air, usually one that made people laugh.

English teachers at Arlington Heights High School helped stoke the literary fires, too, but it was a registrar at Rice University who might have had as much influence on the course of Graves' life as anyone. It was 1937, and the Depression lingered, motivating college students to seek degrees offering the best chance to find jobs afterward. Graves thus planned to pursue petroleum engineering, at least until the registrar asked the incoming freshman about his interests. Books, the outdoors, the student replied.

"You'd make a miserable engineer," the registrar surmised. "You'd better enroll in general studies."

Graves deferred to the Rice official's wisdom, soon discovering the poetry class of renowned writing teacher George Williams. He later enrolled in Williams' creative writing workshop, which required the production of 1,000 words of prose a week on topics of his students' choosing.

The fledgling writer from Fort Worth was not above a ribald tale, such as the story of a high school love triangle in which Graves emerged the loser. But Graves' real promise lay in serious, thoughtful stories and essays about things he knew best, the land, Native Americans, country things, his teacher recalled more than 50 years later.

"All of it was consistently good and original, " said Williams, now 92 and living in retirement in Houston. "By the time he graduated from Rice, I knew 'This guy's good.' It was an honest writing, not flamboyant or imaginary, just a picture, just an honest picture of the world as he saw it."

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 Graves' battalion headquarters, spawning a firefight that left Graves wounded in the face.

Graves rarely discussed the experience afterward. By his own reckoning, his later attempts to write about the war most always failed to capture its essence, and for the most part remained unpublished. A short passage from Hard Scrabble, his second major book published in 1974, about his life in Somervell County, was an exception.

The passage concerned a vivid war memory that generally came to him outdoors, he wrote then, "seated slanchwise on the tractor and looking back as the tandem disk slices mellow trashy earth in autumn, or crumbling a clod of garden dirt between my thumb and fingers, or laying stone, or clambering on boulders up the creek."

It was the recollection of another wounded soldier with an attachment to the land, deep like Graves' own. The other man's place was Alabama, and as Graves lay by him in the same hospital tent, Graves' mind clouded with morphine and his face covered in gauze, he listened to whispered tales from the next cot of Alabama watermelons, and bounteous summer fish taken from Mobile Bay.

There was more talk, and silence, and 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 who knows what you're talking about."

I said, "That's right."

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

Early flash: Many who knew him in the early days of his literary apprenticeship assumed Graves was headed toward a noteworthy career in fiction. In 1947, while still a student at Columbia, a Graves story about the urban hunt for a mouse in an apartment was accepted for publication by the prestigious New Yorker.

"We thought he had died and gone to heaven," remembered Columbia University classmate Samuel Hynes, a retired professor of English at Princeton University and still a close Graves friend.

Graves' stories were published in Esquire magazine, and in anthologies collecting the best American short fiction. In 1959, Atlantic Monthly magazine published The Last Running, the masterful short story of a fictional Buffalo hunt staged in the 1920s by an old Texas rancher for former antagonists, Comanche Indians clinging to final vestiges of their heritage.

Graves also completed a novel during his apprenticeship, a work the writer rarely discussed later other than to say it soared in some places, but fell flat in others. It and another unfinished work of fiction remain unpublished today, and some quietly speculate about the disappointments of a literary career that produced only three major works - Goodbye to a River, plus two other acclaimed works, Hard Scrabble in 1974, and From a Limestone Ledge, essays on Graves' varied interests and country experience, that was published in 1980.

One popular and prolific Texas novelist, noting the rather slim output, recently wondered whether Graves was hamstrung by the regional, naturalist genre in which he worked.

"You write one or two beautiful, meditative books, but after that, what else is there to say?" the novelist wondered.

To his friends and admirers, however, those intervals between books were explained by his refusal to write unless he had something important to say, and by a bewildering variety of interests.

"John didn't want to just write about life," said one of Graves' closest friends, screenwriter Bill Wittliff, whose credits include the television series Lonesome Dove, and the recent box office hit, Legends of the Fall. "He wanted to live it."

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 Graves, journalist Bill Moyers dubbed the writer the "Head Varmint of Hard Scrabble."

More recently, at John Graves Day in Dallas, Wittliff and Larry King were joined by bestselling western novelist Elmer Kelton, noted historian A.C. Greene, New Yorker magazine writer Lawrence Wright, and a handful of other noted writers for a tribute that, in length and passion, was probably unmatched in the history of Texas letters.

The tribute was sponsored by Dallas Arts and Letters Live, whose producer, Kay Cattarula, started hearing about Graves immediately after moving to Dallas from New York a few years ago, and meeting other Texas writers.

"It was perfectly clear who the great hero was," Cattarula said. "It was John Graves."

Maybe one more book: Blacktop roads leading from the town of Glen Rose give way to caliche, then to a bone-jarring gravel path leading through tall cedars. There is a barn and outbuildings, cattle pens and fences, and a sprawling 2-story house with cedar siding and a screened porch.

"I'm supposed to be a writer but an awful lot of time went into this place," John Graves said, looking around him on a warm cloudy afternoon. "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."

The door from the porch leads to the small study, a dark, cluttered space, with a fireplace and a clock on the mantel that has ceased to keep time. Built-in bookshelves contain volumes of Robert Frost poetry and works by Dante, next to Principles of Animal Ecology and The American Grass Book. A tape player rests on a table, amid cassettes of The Music of Mexico and Mozart's Wind Symphonies, and a round tin of Skoal and fishing tackle.

He writes occasional magazine articles and book introductions now at the computer that five years ago supplanted his trusty manual.

"I may have another book in me," Graves said. "I might not. It'll have to come to me. ... That sort of compulsion dwindles a bit as you get older. But I don't ever intend to stop writing. I think that's the direction that senility lies."

He soon rose and pulled on his cap, setting out with Hodge through the back door and across an empty pasture. The land was quiet now. The daughters had grown up and moved away long ago, and about the same time, cows and goats disappeared from the land. Graves walked slowly across the rocky soil, less from arthritic aches in his hips and knees, perhaps, than from lifelong habit.

He toed a broken bottle, partially buried in the soil, stooped to retrieve a rusty piece of wire, pointed out mussel shells on the ground, evidence of an Indian encampment long ago, he said. The walk led through a gate in the fence, down a steep, rocky path through cedars and spindly shin oaks, toward the sound of falling water.

The waterfall on White Bluff Creek is a striking spot. Graves lingered there, surveying the falls and the still pool beneath it where his children and the children of visitors had frolicked for decades, his words wandering from the Comanches ("they were kind of magnificent, you know") to the environment ("I don't think there's much of a chance for an awful lot of the natural world") to birds he identifies "mainly by the noise they make, nowadays."

As he stood by the stream, he was reminded of a passage from the river book, one found early in the Brazos voyage that told of Graves and his dachshund companion, huddled inside their tent against the rain.

"Passenger, you watch," Graves told Watty then. "It's going to be a good trip."

Remembering, the dean of Texas letters smiled broadly. He turned to study the still pool beneath the falls where perch leapt.

"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."

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