The Uncertain Sage

March 1994By Comments

A cool, brilliantly blue day in early February found me driving north from Austin on a sort of pilgrimage. I was going to see John Graves, the writer and gentleman farmer, now 73 years old, at his place on four hundred acres of rocky blackland prairie near Glen Rose.

My visit was prompted by the impending arrival of March, which the governor has officially declared Texas Writers’ Month. There will be talks, readings, exhibits, and various other celebrations of Texas writers and writing. Not so long ago, such an official event would have seemed almost a self-parody. Now Texas has a large enough writing community to make it both appropriate and possible. But for all the writers who seem to have accumulated among us over the years, an old question remains unanswered: Is there really such a thing as Texas writing? Do we have even the beginnings of a recognizable tradition, as there is in Mississippi or in Ireland, which our writers must either embrace or reject wholly or in part?

I did not expect John Graves to answer these questions directly. But I thought he might be illuminating in spite of himself if only by example. It is a matter of personal opinion whether John is the best living Texas writer, although there are many who would argue that he is. But he is undoubtedly our wisest living writer and perhaps our wisest ever. Here is an observation he made in an essay on beekeeping:

Individual bees amount to little even in their own scheme of things, being in a sense just replaceable cells in the real biological unit, the tribal colony. When you come to see this clearly you tend to wince less at the occasional crunch of small bodies as you move hive parts about.

And this is his answer to whether he was overprotective of his daughters by raising them in the semi-isolation of a farm:

Anyone who has been shown clearly that natural and rural basics contain a good measure of irrationality and violence and injustice and pain and lust and greed has at least a start toward comprehending adult social and professional life when the time comes to face it. And even if it does turn out that the world as it gives them some knocks, as the world as it surely will, who would want to cheat them of someone to blame for trauma later, when it hurts?

Despite John’s many gifts, his career as a writer is something of an enigma, even to himself. He started out as an international author of literary fiction. In the decade following World War II he lived in New York, Spain, the Canary islands, and Mexico, writing short stories and novels. But in the late fifties he realized that without intending to, he was becoming something quite different, a nonfiction writer rooted in Texas. He has found some satisfaction in that, without apparently being completely satisfied, as the consistently plaintive note in his writing suggests. “Certainly,” Larry McMurtry wrote in the Texas Observer in 1981, “he is not looking forward to becoming the Sage of Glen Rose.” Yet that is how he is often regarded today, mostly because he has simply stayed put. He is not in the least self-mythologizing or self-promotional, and his writing, as McMurtry observes, is based on doubt rather than a sagelike certainty: “The persona he adopts most frequently is that of the man who considers. He may choose to consider a goat, a book, an anecdote, or some vagary of nature, but the process of considering is more important to the texture of his books than any conclusions that may get drawn.”

John’s influence on younger writers is far less than one would suppose, given his skill, his accomplishment, and, at least in these parts, his long eminence. There are several reasons, but the most important is that for the last 35 years or so he has written almost exclusively about rural life in Somervell County, approximately fifty miles southwest of Fort Worth. His Texas is neither the Texas of ranching and cowboys, nor the Texas of oil towns and wildcatters, nor the urban and suburban Texas we see growing rapidly about us today. His is the difficult, unromantic, and largely unheralded agrarian Texas of small farms nursed along with great labor and difficulty by tough, generally poor farmers and other rural folk whose lives are deeply meaningful to John. With a few exceptions, such as the historian Walter Prescott Webb and the novelist George Sessions Perry, no other Texas writer of stature has embraced this particular subject matter. Certainly no writer now in his or her thirties or forties has. It is probable, with small farms disappearing and our writers gravitating quite naturally toward cities, that no other writer will come along who knows enough about rural matters to continue the tradition or who cares enough to want to try.

Then, too, John has published very little during those 35 years, and writers of influence generally have a substantial body of work. Goodbye to a River, a great book based on a canoe trip down the Brazos just before the Brazos River Authority changed it forever, appeared in 1960. My description may accurately describe the focus of the book, but it does not convey either its depth or its prescience. John understood the danger of man’s incursions into nature long before the environment became a popular political cause. Hard Scrabble, published in 1974, is a series of connected essays about the land he lives on—how he came to it, built a house, and raised his family there. The title comes from the grudgingly affectionate name he gave his farm. From a Limestone Ledge, a series of essays on country life, versions of which first appeared in Texas Monthly, was published in 1980. Since then, there have been only a few essays here and there, nothing more.

Hard Scrabble lies at the end of a country road that turns into two ruts just beyond John’s fence. Inside his property, the road winds between empty fenced pastures. He has kept cattle, goats, and a few horses over the years, but now his livestock consists of a single donkey, which hating all canines, was supposed to have prevented coyotes from preying on the goats. Finally, the road hooks around a small hill to the back of John’s house. Nearby is a wide, roomy barn, a pump house, and a few other buildings. During this visit, the one thing he said with unconcealed pride was, “If you see it, I built it.” The house has big, comfortable rooms, stone floors, and high ceilings. John works in a large office off the living room that is filled with bookshelves and paraphernalia for tying fishing flies. A Macintosh computer sits on an old wooden desk, a surprising concession to modernity, I thought, since for decades he had worked on a manual typewriter. Beneath the desk, neatly placed on a sheet of paper, is a tin can for spitting. John likes to chew tobacco.

We talked in that office. John is still a physically arresting man with a blocky head covered by thick white hair, a blocky chest, and stout arms and hands. His left eye is blind and immobile. With his right he peers over black horn-rimmed trifocals. He is, although reticent, legendarily friendly. As a gentleman of the old school, he is patient to a fault and seems to regard people so as to judge them at their best. “I often think of myself as an amateur writer,” he told me, not so much as if were endorsing that condition as simply stating a fact. “A fellow writer once said a professional writer was one who wrote every day whether he felt like it or not. That ain’t me. The damn things have to come to me. There is a building sense of guilt if I haven’t written for a few days. But that guilt comes less frequently as you get older. I’ve gotten good mileage out of what little I’ve done. With that little bit done, the compulsion is not always the same.”

He was raised in Fort Worth by “a standard American businessman with a store.” He went to Rice because he saw it as a potential escape from small-city provincialism. He then went to war and afterward returned to Fort Worth. “I felt like I was sinking back in,” he said, “so I took off wandering.” He studied English literature at Columbia and began to write: “Pure literature, fiction—that was the big aim then and that aim stayed with me for years.” Those were the days when many magazines depended on fiction. John was published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Esquire, and others. “I wrote one story for the slick magazines,” he said, “and one for me. Except that now I think that the ones for them weren’t that bad and the ones for me weren’t that good. They weren’t lost years in that I learned what I learned. But I read my journal from that period recently and was amazed at my own bullheadedness.”

He wandered around Europe and Mexico, finished a long novel, sent it to his agent, and returned to Fort Worth to hunt and fish and to see after his ailing father. “The agent hated it,” he said. “Then I got to thinking about it and decided I hated it too.” And, after ten years of effort, that was it for John Graves and fiction. He lingered with his father, took a teaching job at Texas Christian University, and met Jane, to whom he has been married since. Without ever making a conscious decision to stay in Texas, he found himself floating down the Brazos and writing about it, then buying a farm in Glen Rose, building house there, and moving his family in. “I wasn’t much suited for fiction, particularly long fiction,” he said late that morning in his study. “But I still regret not making fiction work. There is a greater possibility for achievement with fiction, but also”—he shrugged and grinned, looking at me over the top of his glasses—“a greater possibility for a flop.”

Was he dissuaded too easily back then by a single agent’s scorn? Who can say? For all the writing done in Texas in the hundred years since the closing of the frontier, there is finally no Texas tradition. We have not yet been blessed with a genius whose imagination is so great that it exerts a kind of gravitational pull on everything before and after it, as Faulkner did in Mississippi or Yeats’s did in Ireland. Without that we will remain a region of individual writers who happen to work in the same neighborhood but without much other connection. Perhaps in time we will see that powerful imagination to be Larry McMurtry’s. He is the only writer who can work with equal ease in contemporary Texas and the Texas of the frontier. But, unfairly, his success has undermined his literary reputation at the moment. Or perhaps that imagination will turn out to be that of Cormac McCarthy, the transplant to El Paso for whom the violence of the West forms its romantic beauty. Or perhaps it could have been John Graves’s.

After lunch, we took a walk around the place. A sheepdog bounded ahead of us, and the donkey followed warily at a distance. We saw the barn and various pastures. We walked down to White Bluff Creek and along its banks to a wide, curved waterfall. And then we went back near the house and stood talking by my car before I left. “Jane doesn’t want to leave,” John said, “so I guess I won’t either. But I could. For all the work I’ve put into this place, I could just walk away. When the girls were here, there were a lot of things we did together that were fun, harvesting grapes for one. But they’re grown now. I look around and I think, ‘I’ve done it.’” Then he told me a joke about a farmer and his hogs, slapped me on the shoulder at the punch line, and turned to go inside.

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