We first published John Graves in Texas Monthly in 1974. It was a selection from Hardscrabble, his book about his life on the place he and his wife Jane and his daughters Sally and Helen carved out of, and into, the limestone and scrub brush of the Upper Brazos country.
That’s what he called it, not his “ranch,” but his “place.” And that’s what it was, his place in the world, the piece of it that belonged to him, to his family, the land he walked and fished and hunted and worked every day, just as stubbornly and carefully as he wrote about it.
Not too long after we published that first excerpt I went up to Glen Rose to see him. The magazine was young then, barely a year old, and so was I. I wasn’t yet thirty and John was in his fifties, and he was already the crusty, sly, and courtly self-described old coot he remained the rest of his life. That was some forty years ago, and today I’m much older than he was then, and it’s a wonder to me that he took me seriously.
I flattered myself in thinking we had some things in common. We’d both been marines and had fought wars on the shores of the Pacific. My grandmother had taught school a few miles up the road back in the twenties and met and married my grandfather there. John had gone to Rice, and so had I, and so had my parents. John had been my mother’s teaching assistant in biology class before he went to war.
We walked the land with the dogs, we worked a little on a rock wall, then we sat on the screen porch and I asked John about writing a column for Texas Monthly.
“What about?” he asked me.
“This,” I said, “just keep writing about this.”
“I said it all, I’m not sure I really have anything more to say about it. And you don’t want me anyway. I’d be like an armadillo who wandered out on an Interstate.”
I stammered something about he’d written what he’d done yesterday, but he hadn’t written about what he was going to do tomorrow, and the next day, and that’s what I was interested in. And I said, yes, we really did want him, and nothing would make me prouder than to have his writing in our new magazine. I knew that all of us at Texas Monthly, young kids really, needed a literary godfather, a real writer whose presence could anchor and inspire us.
John said he’d see what he could come up with, and he ended up writing a lovely column through the rest of the seventies. Those pieces later made up the book From a Limestone Ledge.
Back in 2000, I introduced John at his eightieth birthday celebration. I tried to express what John and his writing meant to me. Here’s what I said:
The man has been to war and been wounded in terrible combat. The wound has taken half his sight and he sees less but also perhaps he sees more. Anyway he has already seen too many people die and before his first book is finished will see his first daughter born. When his wounds heal and they give him a new eye he wanders the world and lives in places with names that sound like music and whose history is written in every building, centuries of it. That man returns to a part of Texas where history has rested lightly and left not a trace.
He takes a canoe and points it into the current of a river that is about to be dammed and changed forever, the way the man and his world have been. Small wonder that after so much turmoil he is drawn to quiet, after so much history and so many crowds he yearns for solitude, for something that could be his and his alone. A piece of the natural world. A piece of Texas.
Ernest Hemingway never mentions World War I in his classic story Big Two hearted River, but it is there, up in the thickets, beneath the surface, back in the deep water. In Goodbye to a River John Graves doesn’t dwell on his war, either, may even claim that he’d laid those demons to rest in his wanderings through Mexico and Europe, but for any one who has also seen combat it is there on every page. The brief fleetingness of life, the savoring of it, the love for what small fragile piece of it is yours, that gratitude just for life, for living: the combat veteran has all that buried in him like shrapnel working its way to the surface. That too is with John when he sets his canoe into the current of the Brazos and heads downstream.
And when he steps out he goes home and then, with the tools of his trade, words crafted together, one by one, he takes that stretch of land and the people—-Indians, Anglos, Mexicans–who coursed over it and of course himself too, and sets them down on his pages. Part colloquial, part literary, like all his work, the book is robust and rural and deeply aesthetic, all at once. His tools bring a vanished past and a vanishing present to robust life.
The strong young man who paddled his canoe down the Brazos is 80 now. A genuine old coot, still full of beans and listening for the sand-hill cranes flying overhead, but feeling his age.
The river flows on, like time, sweeping all its sons away. But John’s book is forever. It will be read as long as books are read. It is his gift to life. To all of us.
I will miss you John. I loved your writing, but I loved you even more.