If you don’t chortle or make a sneering comment about oxymorons when you hear the phrase “Texas literature,” you likely have Don Graham to thank. The longtime University of Texas English professor was more responsible than anyone this side of Larry McMurtry for convincing the world—including his fellow Texans—that Texas letters weren’t just about cowboys and Longhorns. And that cowboys and Longhorns could be the stuff of serious literature too.
Graham, who was 79, died on Saturday morning in Austin after a stroke, dealing a blow to a literary community that had suffered the loss of another local literary giant, Bill Wittliff, two weeks earlier. He is survived by his wife, Betsy Berry, a senior lecturer of English at UT.
“Don was funny, iconoclastic, and, though he never made much of it, a very responsible member of the English department,” said James Magnuson, the former director of UT’s Michener Center for Writers, where Graham taught for many years. “The students he taught loved him. He worked hard and constantly, and he had extraordinary taste as a reader. He poked great fun at some of the great figures of Texas literature—and then he went and turned into one.”
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Graham, who wrote for both academic and general audiences—he was a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly—was raised in circumstances far from the worlds of academia and big-city journalism that he eventually came to inhabit. In an interview last year with the website Lone Star Literary Life, he recounted his birth in 1940 on a cotton farm near the town of Lucas, in Collin County, decades before the county became a booming suburban outpost of Dallas. His community was, he said, a small one, “consisting of two churches, two stores, a cotton gin, and a school. My first three years of education were in that schoolhouse in Lucas, with eight grades in one room and high school in another. I learned a lot about Texas history, grammar, and perhaps less so, penmanship.” When Graham was eight, his family moved to McKinney, and then, a few years later, to Carrollton. He described his upbringing as both “rural and suburban.”
Graham went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) and then a PhD in American literature from UT-Austin, in 1971. From there he was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where he has claimed that, as a son of rural Texas, he was regarded as something of an oddity by his Ivy League colleagues. Last year he told the Austin Chronicle that at Penn he was assigned to teach a course on Western films. When he asked why, he was told, “Because you’re a cowboy.”
Graham eventually overcame whatever trepidation his new colleagues may have felt about having a genuine Texan in their midst. “For several years, Don hosted a bibulously uproarious Super Bowl party that became the must-go annual event for our otherwise rather mild-mannered faculty,” says Peter Conn, a professor emeritus at Penn who was a friend and colleague of Graham’s at the time. (It’s perhaps no accident that these years overlapped with the first glory days of the Dallas Cowboys.)
In 1976 Graham returned as a professor to UT, where he inherited the longstanding “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course that was created by the legendary Texas writer J. Frank Dobie and was eventually named the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature, a title he held until his death.
His interest in Texas literature notwithstanding, Graham followed a fairly typical academic trajectory until 1983, when he published his first book for a non-academic audience, Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (Texas Monthly Press), which extended his expertise to the realm of film, a longtime love of his. (The Penn colleague who assigned him the Western movies course wasn’t entirely off base.) Six years later he followed that with No Name on the Bullet, a biography of the Texas-born World War II hero Audie Murphy that was published by Viking. The book was excerpted in Texas Monthly, and in 1991 and 1998 Graham contributed stories to the magazine about Texas movies. But it wasn’t until 1999 that he became a fixture in our pages, when he was given a monthly column about Texas books. Graham quickly drew attention for his erudite essays on established, emerging, and long-neglected Texas authors, including hard-nosed critiques of more than a few. Sometimes he would apply both plaudits and pans to the same writer. In 2005 he penned a rave of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men that lauded the book’s “irresistible narrative hook” and asserted that “nobody captures Western spaces better.” A mere three years later he wrote a cantankerous open letter to McCarthy that the editors promoted with the cover line “Go Away, Cormac!”
Though some readers felt that Graham was sometimes too harsh in his judgments, or too obstinately contrarian, former Texas Monthly editor in chief Jake Silverstein, who was both Graham’s student at the Michener Center and, later, his editor, believes otherwise. “Don was a reader, first and foremost,” says Silverstein, who is now editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine. “His writing, which was perceptive and funny and stylish, grew out of his reading and was often a document of it. He was a fierce defender of that private thing that happens between a book and the person holding it. You could tell by the way he wrote about authors that for him the act of reading was often a magical one. That made him a great teacher—you went to the books he taught, wanting to experience what he had—and also a great critic. In the latter capacity he was often called ‘curmudgeonly’ or ‘ornery,’ but I think he was mostly just impatient: impatient to feel again what he had felt so many times reading great books. He was demanding of Texas literature, and Texas literature is the better for it.”
Graham’s longtime friend, Austin novelist Tom Zigal, believes that he was pugnacious by nature and that his nature was Texan. “Don didn’t care who you were, budding New York–anointed talent or sacred cow,” Zigal says. “He was an old-school critic like Lionel Trilling and Dwight Macdonald, and he wasn’t going to pander to trends or spare someone’s feelings. He wrote what he felt was true and necessary to say, and that sometimes made enemies. Or hurt friends and colleagues. But he expected writers and filmmakers to be grown-ups, and if you entered the gladiator arena of literature and film, you were fair game. He was fierce in his standards and sometimes petty in his slights. Don Graham wasn’t a saint, and he wasn’t a romantic nurturer of delicate souls. If you wanted to hang with Don—and hanging with him was hilarious fun at its best and often required adult beverages—then you’d better be ready to counter-punch. He was a Texas boy, born and bred, tough as nails and old as dirt, and if you weren’t ready for him, he’d rassle your ass to the ground.”
Graham’s good humor and fierce convictions come up again and again when his friends and peers speak of him. “His writing was witty and biting but never crossed a line,” says former Texas Monthly editor in chief Evan Smith, who hired Graham as a columnist and edited him in his early years at the magazine. “That’s one of the things that made him a great cultural commentator: He took his work seriously, but he didn’t take himself or his subjects seriously. Also, he was generally acknowledged to be smarter and more learned than anyone in any room—especially some smart-ass editor at a glossy magazine. But he never looked down his nose at anyone, and he was earthier, more of a regular guy, than most PhDs I know. From the first day to the last, he was easy to work with, full of great ideas and strong points of view, and grateful as hell for the work.”
During his nearly two decades as a writer-at-large and contributing editor for Texas Monthly, Graham wrote dozens of stories about subjects as varied as Katherine Anne Porter, Americo Paredes, Robert Caro, the Confederate statues on the UT campus, and Ron Howard’s Alamo movie. (Full disclosure: the writer of this obituary was his editor for a few of those years.) He also wrote a 2002 cover story about a 120-year-old family feud at the King Ranch that was a hit on the newsstands. In 2006 he won first place from the City and Regional Magazine Association in the category of General Criticism. (He had placed second the previous year.)
Though Graham pursued a writing career outside the academy, he hardly shirked his responsibilities at UT, where he was a much-loved teacher. In 2014 UT’s alumni magazine, Alcalde, named him one of the “Top Ten Professors Ever,” and he won the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2013 and the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching in 2006. Many of his students learned that Graham—who could confidently cite William Butler Yeats in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy review and whose dissertation at UT focused on the aesthetics of the California novelist Frank Norris—had expertise well outside the field of Southwestern literature.
“I had the privilege of taking Don’s ‘Australian Literature and Film’ class when I was at the Michener Center,” says the novelist Dominic Smith. “As someone who grew up in Australia, it’s safe to say I was skeptical going in. What did a dyed-in-the-wool Texan have to teach me about the literature of my birthplace? Plenty, it turns out. Don had an insatiable love of early and contemporary Australian writers, and he knew how to move between the ‘bush narratives’ of the nineteenth century and the urban fictions of the early 2000s. When he taught, Don leaned on the theater of his own personality and his vast knowledge of storytelling in all its forms—from the bar room joke to the epic poem. The highest compliment I can pay him was that he inspired me to want to teach my own version of ‘Australian Literature and Film,’ which I got to do twice at SMU as a visiting writer, always with the sound of Don’s boot heels and the benchmark of his erudition in the back of my mind.”
As a teacher, Graham also had, in one instance, a more direct influence on the trajectory of contemporary literature than most academics. One of his students at the Michener Center was Philipp Meyer, whose 2013 Texas-set novel The Son was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is widely regarded as the best Western since Lonesome Dove. “Don was one of those old-school professors who changed people’s lives,” Meyer says. “He made a very strong impression on his students—ostrich boots, silver belt buckle, Western shirt. He was a little intimidating, and he did not put up with any bullshit. He was one of those rare people who worked in the academy who had actual life experience; he’d grown up doing manual labor, picking cotton. He had a huge impact on my life. He was one of the reasons I ended up moving to Texas in the first place. A little later, when I was a student, his classes on Texas history and literature were my primary inspirations for The Son. There’s no question that if I hadn’t met him, my life would look nothing like it does today. For sure, I never would have written The Son—he was entirely responsible for that.”
Over the years, some have complained that Graham’s version of the Texas literary canon was too white and too male. In a 1989 letter that was later published in his 2007 essay collection Gritos, the novelist Dagoberto Gilb, without naming Graham, wrote that “there is not one writer of Mexican descent” represented in the “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course and noted that Graham’s colleague Rolando Hinojosa eventually started teaching a companion course called “The Life and Literature of the Hispanic Southwest.”
There is certainly something to this critique—a look at Graham’s “Life and Literature” syllabi over the past decade demonstrates that he focused almost exclusively on white men such as Larry McMurtry, Philipp Meyer, and Billy Lee Brammer. But there were exceptions—Katherine Anne Porter appeared frequently in his reading list, and Americo Paredes and Tino Villanueva each showed up once as well. And in our pages Graham wrote favorably of women such as Shelby Hearon, Patricia Highsmith, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Gertrude Beasley (a particular enthusiasm of Graham’s). He also covered the Hispanic writers Tomas Rivera and Paredes, who, he noted admiringly in 2000, “focused his whole career on the uphill struggle to assert the claims of border culture against those of the prevailing Anglo history.” Graham’s 2003 anthology, Lone Star Literature, included seventeen women and eight Hispanics, out of 63 writers. One can certainly make the argument that those numbers are too low, and that Graham’s sense of the Texas canon too often reflected the literary sensibility of an older Texas. The world is a better place because people like Hinojosa and Gilb have directed our attention to works that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by too many. But as Graham’s writings and his anthologizing demonstrate, he was hardly entirely blind to the achievements of writers who did not look like him.
Those who want to get a better sense of Graham’s sensibility—and perhaps judge for themselves his vision of the Texas canon—can turn to his books, of which there are many. (His entry on Texas literature in the Texas State Handbook is also as useful a bibliography and capsule history as one could imagine, though it’s very much in need of an update.) He is perhaps best known for Lone Star Literature (W. W. Norton, 2003), which featured writings from authors as diverse as O. Henry and the memoirist-poet Mary Karr (the subject of two of Graham’s more pointed pans). In his foreword to the book, Larry McMurtry wrote, “Don Graham is probably as familiar with Texas literature in all its protean forms as anyone now writing.” Four years later came another anthology, Literary Austin, the first of TCU Press’s series of city-based Texas anthologies. An earlier book, 1985’s Texas: A Literary Portrait (Corona Publishing), was structured as an anthology as well, though Graham’s six introductory essays (the main introduction and one apiece for each of the book’s five sections) and afterword are edifying enough on their own that they could be collected together and turned into a worthy chapbook.
Graham’s final book was last year’s Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (St. Martin’s Press), which received a glowing review in these pages.
At first glance it might seem as if there were a tension between two of Graham’s abiding impulses—on the one hand, he spent a great deal of time and energy making the case for the importance of Texas literature; on the other, he was often lacerating in his opinions of specific Texas books, even those that were celebrated by others. But for Graham, surely, the two dispositions weren’t in conflict at all. “Both outsiders and sometimes Texans themselves often seem to expect, if not prefer, the stereotypes instead of the actual complexity and diversity of Texans,” he wrote in 2003, perhaps with some exasperation. Graham, who knew the state from the cotton fields of North Texas to the ivory towers of Austin, would have none of it. If a literature was worth taking seriously, he insisted, it was worth holding to the highest standards.
A memorial service for Don Graham will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 28, at the Texas State Cemetery, in Austin. It will be open to the public.
Note: This story has been updated to acknowledge critiques of the lack of diversity in Graham’s Texas literary canon.