A goodbye to writer John Graves

John Graves (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

John Graves (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

When I heard that famed Texas writer John Graves had died at 92, I went to check my bookshelf. Sure enough, his most famous book, Goodbye to a Riverwasn’t there. I first read Graves’ farewell to the upper Brazos after it was given to me by my father-in-law. We had just returned from fishing the Brazos below the Possum Kingdom dam, and standing on those banks had invoked his own memories of the book.

I had lived in Texas for years by then but we hadn’t been properly introduced. Goodbye to a River used Graves’ canoe trip down the Brazos in the 1950s to explain to readers the uniqueness of the land and its history. It deciphers the Texas of today by showing what it was in its formative years.

Few writers understood the sense of place better than Graves. All of his books center more on land than on people. His second book, Hard Scrabblewhich is on my shelf, is a collection of ruminations about the 400 acres of cedar-choked land he bought near Glen Rose. It was there that he died on Tuesday.

At the end of Hard Scrabble, Graves wrote that the purpose of the book was not to chronicle a triumph over the land, but a comprehension of it.

I’ve often wondered if Goodbye to a River would be published today. In an era of celebrity memoirs, page turners and genre fiction, would readers have the patience for its gentle, meandering reflections on the land and its past? Goodbye to a River is a pure book. It would make a lousy movie because the joy comes from the reading, from savoring the words and slipping gently into its tale of Graves, his canoe, his dachshund and his memories of the river he grew up with, which he believed he was seeing for the last time.

The dam projects that were supposed to turn the Brazos into a chain of lakes from Possum Kingdom to Whitney never happened, but Graves’ farewell remains a poignant tribute both to the land that once was and to a style of writing that is genuine, entrancing and, sadly, antiquated.

When I lived in North Texas, my wife and I would camp with our friends and later our children at Possum Kingdom Lake, and driving out and back always brought to mind Graves and his book. Having read it, the land comes alive in ways it never would to the casual traveler.

I gave my father-in-law’s copy of Goodbye to a River to a friend years ago who liked canoeing and was leaving Texas. I bought another copy in a used book store, and later gave that one away to someone who’d never read it. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition. I buy the book, always a used copy found by plumbing the dusty stacks of an independent bookstore, and then I give it away. 

Buying it online or asking for at the counter while waiting for a latte would seem an affront to everything the book stand for. The search is part of it, a discovery through one’s own effort.

I don’t recall who the last recipient was or how long I’ve been without a copy. Like the busy suburbanite who Graves frequently chastised for failing to understand the land, I was was oblivious to its absence. Now, I stare at the empty space on the bookshelf. It seems larger and darker than before. A hole left by the passing of the man whose words once filled the space. A fitting tribute. Yes.


About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
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