The Old Man and the River

Fifty years ago a struggling writer named John Graves set off on a three-week-long canoe trip down the Brazos. He wrote about his experience in a book that has become a Texas classic— and one of my personal favorites. So what could I do to mark the anniversary? Try to follow in his wake.
The fall foliage near Flint Bend.
Photograph by Kenny Braun

In 1957, that year of booming, metamorphic postwar American civilization, a writer from Massachusetts named Jack Kerouac published a smash best-seller called On the Road. Its startling premise was that the soul of the nation could somehow be glimpsed by a young man driving frantically back and forth across it at 90 miles an hour in various states of ecstatic inebriation. That same year, another young writer, a Texan named John Graves, set off on his own self-consciously literary journey: He put a canoe in the Brazos River, paddled it 175 miles, and wrote a history-and-memory-laced travelogue about the trip called Goodbye to a River. It too sought to understand what was happening to the American character at the mid-century. But while both books were, structurally speaking, standard nonfiction picaresques ( On the Road is almost all nonfiction, with the names changed), Graves’s approach was radically different. Kerouac’s characters, having encountered “the end of America—no more land,” were reduced to watching the blur of American cities and towns in their rearview mirrors; Graves was moving so slowly that he could see fish jump and blades of grass go by. Kerouac was obsessed with the moment, the now; Graves was looking backward more than a hundred years to the days of the Spanish and Comanche.

Goodbye to a River never had On the Road’s financial success or its national reach. Though it was critically acclaimed and nominated for a National Book Award, Graves’s river tour was seen (and usually promoted) as a regional work, something of interest to Texans but not to readers in New York or California. That is still true. But if Goodbye to a River has been consigned to a sort of parochial twilight, it has also become one of the great, über-regional books in America, and one of Texas’ sacred texts. For many people, including me, it is the definitive Texas book, the one you give to all your friends, the one book about the place that you absolutely have to read. It has remained stubbornly in print for 47

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