In 1957 John Graves — World War II veteran, onetime expatriate, and TCU professor — put a canoe into the waters of the upper Brazos River for one last look before it was to be dammed. He took a dog with him and not much else, and he floated downstream, camped out, watched the fall turn cold, and more than anything else, observed. He wove those ruminations into a philosophical narrative called Goodbye to a River. Upon its publication in 1960, J. Frank Dobie told Graves it was the book “I’ve been waiting for.” It became an instant Texas classic and has remained in print ever since.
The appeal of the book is threefold. It combines history, folklore, and nature, as though the triumvirate of Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek were incarnated in one volume. The first half of the book concentrates on the river’s history, the rich and bloody doings along its banks and the surrounding countryside. Famous names from the violent frontier past parade before us: rancher Charles Goodnight, Kiowa chief Satanta, Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker. Much of this section recalls the turmoil brought forth in the clash between the Anglo Ams, as Graves calls the white settlers, and the People, as Graves calls the Comanche. Probably the most memorable sequence is the tale of Mrs. Sherman, whose feckless husband placed his family in harm’s way by bringing them to a godforsaken wilderness without a single firearm. Mrs. Sherman pays an awful price for her husband’s stupidity, dying after having been brutally raped and peppered with arrows.
In the second half of the book Graves turns his attention to more contemporary times. Here the narrative falls off a bit; modern folk don’t seem all that compelling compared with the old days. Graves is aware of this, and in passage after passage he laments the softening of America. The main reason for this, Graves believes, is that Texans are cut off from nature, they’re denizens of suburbia, they’re fat with the comforts of the fifties. At this point the book becomes something of a flight from the feminine and reminds us not so much of Thoreau, as one might expect, but of the counterculture masculinity of the Beats, who otherwise would seem to have little in common with a Texas naturalist.
In a long-unpublished note that discussed his reasons for writing Goodbye to a River, Graves explained that the book resulted from the fact that he had “never managed to rid himself of an underlying, dozing, provincial consciousness of shotguns and fly rods and cedars and live oaks and mesquites and redbirds and Hereford cattle and people who speak with quiet nasal flatness from their palates.” That rural imprint goes a long way toward explaining the revered place that Graves, who is now 79 and lives on a ranch near Glen Rose, holds in the hearts of old-time Texas readers.