Friday, August 9, 2013

The Legacy of John Graves

 Graves, photographed at Hard Scrabble on May 31, 2010, taken from Texas Monthly

Last Wednesday, July 31, Texan author John Graves passed away. He died at his home, Hard Scrabble, outside Glen Rose, Texas. He was 92.

Deemed “the best-loved writer in Texas and one of the least-known beyond the state lines” by writer Rick Bass in an article in Garden and Gun Magazine, John Graves authored many books and manuscripts, including his most famous book, Goodbye to a River.

Goodbye to a River established Mr. Graves as a giant in Texas letters and one of the nation’s more elegant prose stylists. The book was inspired by a trip Graves took down the Brazos River in 1957.

From Goodbye to a River: “Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day’s work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind.” 

In the TAMU Press book Exploring the Brazos River: From Beginning to End, author Jim Kimmel was inspired by Graves’s journey down the long, changeable river, and followed the same stretch made famous by John Graves. His book features explanations of the ecological process and the Brazos’ characteristics as well as captivating photography by Jerry Touchstone Kimmel.

Graves grew up in Fort Worth and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University. After graduating, Graves went away to fight with the Marines in the South Pacific.

Later, he got his master’s from Columbia and taught freshman English at the University of Texas and writing seminars at Texas Christian University. In an interview by Texas Monthly, Graves explained, “I knew pretty quick I would never be happy teaching. Writing is something I’ve always had to do. I learned that when I let it take hold of me, it would somehow get up on its tiptoes and take me where I was going.”

John had always been fascinated by Hemingway, similar to other writers of his generation. In the fifties, he set out for Spain to do all the things Hemingway did, fly-fish in the Pyrenees, watch bullfights, drink red wine with expatriates, write and publish.

After returning from Europe in 1955, Graves had no intention of returning to Texas right away. But when his father was dying of cancer in 1956, Graves came back to Texas for good.

Back in Texas, he met and married former New Yorker Jane Cole, who was working as a designer for Neiman Marcus in Dallas. The two of them took over a former farm Graves bought in 1970, where Graves built their house, Hard Scrabble.

In the interview, Jane explained their family life in Hard Scrabble: “Our idea was to teach the children that you can almost exist without a grocery store. We raised our own beef, froze our own fruit and vegetables in a huge freezer, milled our own flour. Except for salt and coffee and rice, we had everything right here. The girls raised and showed goats, milked them, helped them have babies. Goats were a big part of the girls’ lives. They carried them up to the house in cardboard boxes when they were newborns, bottle-fed them every four hours, sometimes took them to bed with them.”

Hard Scrabble is where John Graves spent the rest of his life: working, writing, and being inspired. On learning how to write a novel, Graves explained, “Everything you read goes into you,” he explained. “The style goes into you too, and then when it comes back out again, in your own writing, it’s yours…”
--Madeline Loving