News and Culture Notebook
10:09 am
Sun August 4, 2013

John Graves: The soft-spoken master of Texas literature

W.K. Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters, shares his thoughts on Texas writer John Graves, who died July 31 at his home near Glen Rose.

Graves' most famous work was "Goodbye to a River," a story of a canoe trip down the Brazos River in 1957. He took the journey because plans to dam up much of the river gave him an urgency to experience the Brazos that he had loved so well for so long.

Only three of the 13 proposed dams were built. But Graves' masterful narrative - a powerful and elegant journey through the natural and social history of the region - ensured him a place among 20th-century Texas writers.

Stratton, himself a writer of historical nonfiction, spoke with KETR about Graves' work and his legacy.

Here are two representative passages from "Goodbye to a River," selected by KERA's Jerome Weeks:

If a man couldn’t escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But, if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen. The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant. The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man.

Of all the passers-through, the species that means most to me, even more than geese and cranes, is the upland plover, the drab plump grassland bird that used to remind my gentle hunting uncle of the way things once had been, as it still reminds me. It flies from the far Northern prairies to the pampas of Argentina and then back again in spring, a miracle of navigation and a tremendous journey for six or eight ounces of flesh and feathers and entrails and hollow bones, fueled with bug meat. I see them sometimes in our pastures, standing still or dashing after prey in the grass, but mainly I know their presence through the mournful yet eager quavering whistles they cast down from the night sky in passing, and it makes me think of what the whistling must have been like when the American plains were virgin and their plover came through in millions. To grow up among tradition-minded people leads one often into backward yearnings and regrets, unprofitable feelings of which I was granted my share in youth-not having been born in time to get killed fighting Yankees, for one, or not having ridden up the cattle trails. But the only such regret that has strongly endured is not to have known the land when when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh, and the plover that whet one’s edge every spring and every fall. In recent decades it has become customary- and right, I guess, and easy enough with hindsight- to damn the ancestral frame of mind that ravaged the world so fully and so soon. What I myself seem to damn mainly, though, is just not having seen it. Without any virtuous hindsight, I would likely have helped in the ravaging as did even most of those who loved it best. But God, to have viewed it entire, the soul and guts of what we had and gone forever now, except in books and such poignant remnants as small swift birds that journey to and from the distant Argentine and call at night in the sky.

Graves' passing was noted by NPR, The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News.

Finally, here's a 12-year-old video clip of an interview with Graves by KERA's Rob Tranchin: