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HE DESCRIBED HIS LETTER to me as “an inquiry from the fringe of things,” a turn of phrase every bit as elegant as I would have expected from its author. He informed me that, at 86, he didn’t write much anymore, at least not for public consumption, but that as one of our contributing editors—albeit a “seldom contributing” one—he thought he should send me an essay he’d “come up with.” It was okay if I didn’t want to publish it. “I probably should advise you of its existence and describe it,” he wrote, “so that you can reject it out of hand if you wish, engendering no hard feelings at this end.”
Hard feelings would have been understandable. The last time his name appeared in our pages, John Graves was the subject rather than the author of a story, and not a favorable one. In May 2004 one of our writers-at-large, Don Graham, panned John’s memoir, Myself and Strangers, pronouncing it, in so many words, boring. One tries to avoid burning bridges in this job, intentionally or otherwise, especially with a man widely considered one of the greatest writers this state has ever produced. At the same time, there can be no sacred cows—not ever. So it was with a mix of regret and resignation that I steeled myself for an end to our relationship with a longtime friend of the magazine’s.
And yet no end came. Indirectly, from mutual acquaintances, I’d heard he was angry, but he never conveyed that to me himself. (Rarely if ever do I get a response from writers when we negatively review their work. Well, there was that time Mary Karr’s friend got up in my face at the Governor’s Mansion, as Karr stood there smirking, after another of Don’s pieces ran.) Nor did he seem at all hurt when I saw him this spring at a gala fundraiser for the Southwestern Writers Collection. I spied him and his sweet wife, Jane, in the corner, and I went over to pay my respects. “Hello, Mr. Graves,” I said, in a rare moment of my-momma-raised-me-right. He smiled and said hi back—not that he was especially warm. Not that he had to be.
Then, a few weeks later, the letter arrived, the envelope addressed in his own hand. I didn’t have to think for very long about whether I wanted to read his essay, and I called him to tell him so. He couldn’t have been kinder or more self-effacing, even as he fumbled a bit with his computer to send me the piece electronically. (John Graves on e-mail!) I told him how lucky we’d be to have a crack at it, and, once I’d read it, I effused over every aspect of it, as did everyone else on our staff.
In the course of our working together this month, something occurred to me. John’s canon-defining classic, Goodbye to a River, was published 46 years ago, in 1960. I wasn’t alive then; nor was more than half of our editorial staff and three quarters of our art staff. Our youngest office mate, editorial assistant David A. Herron, could be, if you do the math, John’s great-grandson. I dare say that there are people out there, regular readers of Texas Monthly, who have never heard of him or haven’t the foggiest idea why he’s held in such high esteem. The lesson is that time passes. But talent endures, as you’ll see when you read every last word of “Great Guns.”
Thanks for writing, John.
Texas A&M’s change agent, saving violent teenagers, the best mail-order food in Texas, life and death at a border checkpoint, Speedy Gonzales in Coppell, and Sarah Bird at the movies.