World of Books

The Fifth Annual Texas Book Festival

John Graves in front of Hard Scrabble, his longtime home, in 1996 (top), 
and in 1961.
John Graves in front of Hard Scrabble, his longtime home, in 1996 (top), and in 1961.

Goodbye to a River: Behind the Scenes

When Austin Barnes & Noble executive Dave Hamrick announced that he was leaving the bookstore chain back in August, Texas writers paid attention. For years Hamrick had worked hard celebrating their work, always going a step further for them than anyone else in the book business. Attending an event planned by Hamrick and his staff always had about it a sense of occasion -- his Texas Writers Month parties at the Central Market Bookstop and elsewhere appeared to genuinely create a sense of community among writers who as a group are not particularly known for their gregariousness.

Now Hamrick has joined a new company, TaylorWilson Publishing, as acquisitions editor, and his expanded talents as a Texas bookman are revealed in the company's inaugural book, John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960. The occasion this time is the Texas Book Festival, where Graves is being honored with the annual Bookend Award for lifetime achievement. Not coincidentally, this year is the 80th anniversary of Graves' birth and the 40th anniversary of the publication of Goodbye, his classic that led some readers to call him "the Texas Thoreau." To commemorate Graves' place in the literature of the state and to jump-start TaylorWilson, Hamrick edited and produced this handsome compilation almost overnight.

The Brazos is the river in Goodbye to a River, and the stretch that Graves planned to look at closely was threatened by an upstream damming project. Graves had worked up a fully developed pitch for a magazine article by the time he wrote his literary agent John Shaffner on September 12, 1957:

What I want to do for the article is to take a canoe trip down that stretch of the river -- all or part, preferably alone -- and get it down on paper. Get down what it looks like, how it sounds, the birds and animals I see, how duck-breasts taste broiled over mesquite coals, what a leathery rancher says to me from the bank where he's trying to untangle an Angora goat from the wire, and the Comanches and the stolen horses and the two little red-headed boys scalped and murdered always behind it all. What I mean is that I'd like to set my feelings about that river down now, before they drown it, and the framework for setting them down will be the trip. ... I'd like to do it during the next month or so while the bird migration is on and before winter's bleakness descends. The river has a fine cool melancholy quality in the autumn.

The article, published as "Drifting Down the Brazos," in the travel magazine Holiday, was the kernel of Goodbye to a River, published by Knopf in 1960.

The rest of the correspondence in the book traces the writing, editing, design, and reception of Goodbye to a River, and it is a story that is artfully told. Graves was in his fortieth year by the time Goodbye was published and had a small reputation as a writer of short stories. What this book reveals is not only that Knopf realized quickly what a good book they had on their hands, but also that Graves, as a debut writer, was totally confident in his convictions about the book. Alfred A. Knopf himself took an interest in the book and became friends with Graves and his wife Jane. In a footnote to a Knopf letter, Graves tells a good story about dropping off America's most distinguished publisher at his posh Dallas hotel after they had been exploring the city in his old VW pickup. Graves is a meticulous stylist and at one point the Knopf editors turned the manuscript over to a young copy editor who made a number of changes, committing the sin of adding commas. Graves changed most of it right back, delivering a firm but friendly lecture to Knopf editor Harold Strauss on the art of "open" vs. "closed" punctuation.

For those interested in book design, Graves' letters to Carl Hertzog, Texas' greatest designer, demonstrate both Knopf's eagerness to give the book an authentic feel and Graves' seriousness about Goodbye's look as well as its content. The very look of this elegant little volume is an homage to the tradition of finely designed books in Texas, bringing to mind the tradition of Hertzog, and closer to home, that of Bill Wittliff's now-defunct Encino Press.

The last section of the book is made up of letters that trace Graves' growing friendship with J. Frank Dobie. In the late 1950s, Dobie still ruled the roost in Texas letters; the correspondence between the two reveal both Graves' happiness that Dobie liked his book but also that the two men shared an instinctual like for each other. Graves furnishes footnotes to the letters in the book from a present-day perspective that illuminate much about his own past, what Texas literary life was like during the Dobie era, and what it meant when Alfred Knopf believed in your work. At the very end, Graves furnishes an annotated bibliography of his own work.

Hamrick spent many hours transcribing these letters from the files of the Ransom Center at UT (the Southwestern Writers Collection at SWT contains the remainder of Graves' archive), and something of the romance of literary research is conveyed in this smart selection. That Hamrick is now in a position with TaylorWilson to produce books of this quality is very good news for the future of publishing in Texas.

John Graves will be presented with the Bookend Award on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 10:30am in the House Chamber. That evening, there will be an Authors Party, 7-10:30pm, at the Four Seasons Hotel that is also a tribute to Graves. The tribute is scheduled to begin at 8pm.Tickets are $35. Call 320-5451 for more information. Dick Holland was the founding curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection.

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More by Dick Holland
2003 Texas Book Festival Preview
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Nov. 7, 2003

The Johnson Treatment
The Johnson Treatment
1,167 Pages about Lyndon Johnson's tenure as a Senator

May 3, 2002

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