Literary Texas: John Graves

Texas State University in San Marcos owns an interesting item, for an institution of higher learning, that is. It is an old, maple canoe paddle and is highly valued there. “The paddle, part of the university’s Wittliff Collections of papers and artifacts from Southwestern literature, was used by John Graves on a trip down the Brazos River in 1957. The book that resulted from that trip, Goodbye to a River, established Mr. Graves a giant in Texas letters and one of the nation’s more elegant prose stylists.” (Schwartz, John. New York Times).

If not for my husband–loyal fan, avid reader, and distant relative of John Graves, I doubt I would ever have read him, and that would have been a great loss. Often, when I read Graves, I sit again with my father and his generation of family farmers and ranchers–men whose mores rose from the land that challenged and sometimes taunted them. They were men (and women, too) whose calling was to physical work, animal husbandry, and natural conservation. Most were dedicated to family and to the spiritual command to love thy neighbor–even when a few of those “neighbors” might not be so lovable. They raised large gardens so they could “divide” the abundance with friends, kin, and kith. They turned up at neighbors’ gates when calves were coming breech. They savored nights of fishing on the river, grandparents on the homeplace, and a shade close to the watermelon patch on an August afternoon. That was quite a generation–as was, also, the one before them.

John Graves was a writer of the down-to-earth and of the lyrical, of the commonplace and of the extraordinary, and to those of us familiar with the terrain, he rarely missed a beat. Graves was born in Ft. Worth, Texas, on August 06, 1920. He grew up there and on his grandfather’s ranch near the South Texas town of Cuero. He graduated from Rice University in 1942 and fought as a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, losing an eye at the behest of a grenade. After the war, he went to Columbia University and received a Master’s in English. For a while he taught at the University of Texas.

For some years in the 1950’s, Graves lived in such places as Spain (he was an admirer of Hemingway’s writings), France, Mexico, Sag Harbor, and New York. He published articles and literary fiction in such magazines as Holiday, Town and Country, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He also wrote a novel that was never published.

In 1957, Graves went back to Texas to take care of his ill father. He did not intend to stay, but became a part of the English faculty at Texas Christian University; in 1958, married Jane Cole, originally from New York but now working for Neiman Marcus in Dallas; and later bought a nearly four-hundred-acre ranch near Glen Rose, Texas, (just south of Ft. Worth). He was never to move away from Texas again. His writing took a different direction.

Meantime, in 1957, having heard there were plans afield to turn the Brazos River area between Possum Kingdom Dam and Lake Whitney into several small lakes, Graves wanted to take the more than 170-mile trip down the Brazos River to say goodbye. So, he, canoe, and the six-month-old dachshund he referred to as “the passenger” took off. The resulting narrative of this journey became Goodbye to a River, his acclaimed “classic.” Throughout his lifetime, Graves continued to contribute numerous articles to such magazines as Holiday, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Atlantic Monthly, and Texas Monthly, among others. His three most famous books are Goodbye to a River, Hardscrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land, and From a Limestone Ledge. He won many awards and accolades including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1962 Carr P. Collins award for Nonfiction from the Texas Institute of Letters for both Goodbye to a River and Hardscrabble and was a finalist for the 1961 National Book Award for Nonfiction for Goodbye to a River and was nominated for the 1981 National Book Award for Nonfiction for From a Limestone Ledge, among many other honors.

John and Jane Graves raised two daughters on their ranch John named Hardscrabble. He built their unusual, rambling house himself, and spent considerable time working on the place. Sometimes he regretted giving up fiction and wondered how much more writing he would have accomplished had he not spent so much time on ranch work. Still, he was philosophical. That was how it was. His writings are filled with thought and ponderings, deep and poetic. Once asked in his old age if he would ever leave Hardscrabble, he said Jane did not want to, so he supposed they wouldn’t. Even a New York City girl whose mother owned a smart, New York City boutique and who herself became a designer for Neiman Marcus, can learn to love a land and a place and a home.

John Graves died on July 31, 2013, at Hardscrabble, his home. He was 92.

Work Cited

Schwartz, John. John Graves, Author Beloved by Fellow Texans, Dies at 92.


Cartwright, Gary. “Writing Life: John Graves might have published more books if he hadn’t spent so much time carpentering and raising goats. But the bard of Glen Rose’s legacy is written in stones as well as words.” Texas Monthly, vol. 38, no. 8, Aug. 2010, pp. 116+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 19 Mar. 2023.

Curtis, Gregory. “The uncertain sage.” Texas Monthly, vol.22, no. 3, Mar. 1994, pp. 5+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 19 Mar. 2023.

Marshall, Noah F., Jr. “Graves, John Alexander III,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 20, 2023, https://www.tshaonline.or/handbook/entries/graves-john-alexander-iii.

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