The Uncertain Sage

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

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