The Long View
John Graves' 'Myself and Strangers': wisdom as a work in progress
Forty-six years ago and change, in the winter of 1957, John Graves paddled the Brazos for 21 cold days, alone with his dachshund Watty. He wanted to visit for a final time certain cherished places of his youth before the building of dams that would submerge them. He tells the story of that trip in his first book, the deeply endearing and elegiac Goodbye to a River. Far more than a simple chronicle of the time he spent, it ranges widely back through the past to tell stories from boyhood, stories of Comanche raids and frontier settlers on the river, and above all the story of his own measured melancholy about this fading space. It is a hymn to lonerism and to the disappearing places where solitude is possible.
The book was an instant and continual success, beloved by readers in Texas and beyond. In the 44 years since its publication, it has not once been out of print. With money from the early sales, Graves bought 400 acres of rough and remote ranch land near a piece of the Brazos as the river passes through Somervell County. At the time, he had a new family, but the land was nonetheless another place for solitude. On it, he built a house, cleared cedar, and raised small crops, sheep, goats, and bees. He and his wife Jane reared two daughters, now grown and moved away. He worked the land and studied it. He taught himself its recent history and its distant geology. He called the place Hard Scrabble and gave the same name to a book about it, published 14 years after Goodbye.
The two books (together with later books, essays, and introductions) present a picture of a man at peace with the land and with himself, willing to go slow, be distracted, observe, learn, and relearn. Over the years, he's made himself an expert on the people and nature of his patch of Texas, and an expert on Texas rivers and Texas lore. (He will cringe to hear himself called an expert of anything, but let him cringe; he is an expert by his love and memory more than by mere scholastics.) Expert and eulogist. He's watched and borne witness for the Texas countrysideas progress and forgetting moved across it like a mop.
His study is a mess. His desk spills with magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and binders of family history. The bookshelves are crammed, and the walls are cluttered with mementos and gifts. Above the fireplace, balanced on a clock, sits a 2-foot-long, hand-made model of the Goodbye canoe.
He sits across from me in a swivel chair the same deep green as the perched canoe. At 83 now, though hunched and slow-moving, the strength of a broad man still lingers in him. His hair is white and fine, combed back from the forehead. In 1944, a Japanese grenade blinded him in the left eye; it rolls in keeping with the right, but they never quite line up. He wears a brown corduroy jacket over a light yellow shirt, open at the collar, and khaki slacks. He crosses his left leg over his right, leans in, and waits for me to speak.
For any enthusiast of Texas letters, the prospect of sitting with John Graves for an afternoon would feel as it did to me like being granted an audience with the hermit king. For more than 40 years, Graves has lived, more or less holed up, on Hard Scrabble. He does what he can to avoid visits from strangers in particular, those intent to admire him. I finagled an invitation mostly by the intervention of a mutual friend. I'm here ostensibly to ask about his new memoir, Myself and Strangers, set for publication in early May. We come to that eventually.
The day is cloudless and breezy. It's March. At this time of year, he says he'd normally have winter grain out and be rotating the animals to keep them from eating it too far down. "And fixing fences which is always...That's eternal." He says he's too beat up now, especially in the legs to work on the place any more, and slowly the land is going back to nature.
"But weren't you trying to bring it back to nature?"
"Well," he says, "I was trying to bring it back to productivity. And it's not gone back to nature as nature was originally, but nature as I found it here. It's gone back to cedar brush which supplanted the old prairie environment around here. These hills were all covered with good grass at one time and the cedar was confined to the ravines by periodic prairie fires which killed all the roots before they could grow up. I have sometimes thought about those hills behind the house. If I could stand there in one spot and say, ok, it's 1850, I'd be up to here in dirt." He holds a hand to waist height. "That's all been lost."
"Do you regret the work you did on it?"
He answers without hesitating. "No. It was something I wanted to do, needed to do, and I'm glad I did it. But there's no point dragging your tail around when you're 83 years old to keep it up."
In his writing and in person, Graves draws a line between pessimism and cynicism, a line as clear to him as it is elusive to most of us. One of the great pleasures of his writing is watching as he nudges up against that line and never crosses it. Always, instead, he finds perspective, typically in the messy churn of history human, biological, and geological. In one portion of Hard Scrabble, he gazes back ten thousand years to imagine spear-weilding mastadon-hunters roving on his land, and then goes one better:
... if you squint back through the haze that far, you inevitably look back farther still, into the unhumanly mindless, unimaginably long eons of geological time when over and over again the restive earth would wrinkle itself or shake or rise and subside, and the rains and winds and rivers and frosts and questing roots would carve it, and the wide shallow seas would creep in and recede, and the galaxies of living species would thrive and change and perish or migrate, to make room for others still.
For any reader prone to outrage and dejection, Graves provides a wonderful kick in the pants. He waves away self-pity, not with cheeriness, but with context and consideration. He allows himself a healthy wistfulness about all that's lost, but tempers it with a love of what remains. He says again and again as we talk that he's glad to be here. His good friend, Bill Wittliff, says, "Just being in John's presence, you feel better and renewed. He's one of those people that was born being wise." Wise, and also generous, careful, and curious with an encyclopedic mind. Even so, our conversation falls sometimes into long pauses, the two of us sipping at black coffee one awkward and admiring, the other awkward, but less so, and wishing to be less admired. Between those pauses, we talk about the land, the flow of rivers, the depth of drying wells, the overpopulation of the planet, the Second World War, and the lures of nostalgia.
And, in time, we talk about the new memoir. Myself and Strangers (Knopf, $24) describes the first half of Graves' life, in particular his years in Spain after serving as a marine in World War II and before he wrote the books that made him famous. Readers will discover another side to John Graves: a wayward or as he says himself in the introduction, a "callow" young man, who whiles away the time fishing, drinking, and watching bullfights, drifting from place to place by motorcycle or sailboat, and taking up with women on the way. "I couldn't make myself stay away from her entirely because she was very good in bed," he writes on one occasion. It's impossible, while reading this piece of his life, not to think of Hemingway on the same adventures 30 years before. And like Hemingway, too, Graves struggles constantly to write, reads voraciously to study tone and form, and worries that he's insufficiently productive. In fact his journal entries from the time, which he quotes throughout the book, are often troubled by aimlessness and frustration ...
"Madrid. Back here rather empty of soul and with no idea how to refill the son of a bitch." (April 4, 1954)
and by doubt and ambition ...
"What do I really have to say as a writer or a person? This era of suspended breathing and fright in which we livehow can you say anything worth saying about it? You'd be better off ranching or farming or doctoring or in some other of the unquestionable occupations. This mood will pass but it is relevant. I would like so God-damn much to write something worth writing, and if I had the conception I am now competent enough with words to do it." (June 13, 1954)
That entry contains a curious dual prophecy. Back in Texas after his wandering, Graves did in fact take up ranching and farming, and for Hard Scrabble at least, the "conception" was to write about those very things. In general, the conception that Graves ultimately hit upon was a kind of meditative non-fiction woven with auto-biography. But the John Graves of Spain was primarily a fiction writer. The best of that fiction (along with published and unpublished non-fiction) was gathered together in 1996 as A John Graves Reader. The Reader contains masterful short stories that are at once unhurried and harrowing (The Last Running, The Aztec Dog, The Green Fly, and others), as well as tantalizing excerpts from an unpublished novel called A Speckled Horse. It was that novel that finally turned Graves away from writing fiction. He worked on it vigorously for two years, finished itand then painfully abandoned it. In an author's note in the Reader, he calls those two years "a culmination of a miserably protracted apprenticeship." As he explains in the memoir, his decision to let the novel go came not long after his decision to come home from Europe to Texas. Spain and the writing of fiction came to a close then, as Texas and writing about the natural world began in earnest. He would soon begin work on Goodbye to a River, bringing to bear the years of his attention to story-telling, craft, and voice:
Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luckof flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdomand though you may doze away the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama, you're not going to manhandle it into anything entirely new. It's limited by what it has been, by what's happened to it. And a people, until that time when it's uprooted and scattered and so mixed with other peoples that it has in fact perished, is much the same in this as land. It inherits.
I wrote earlier of Graves as the king of Texas letters. I suppose Graves himself and a few other curmudgeons would dispute that. Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy have some claim, I know. But Graves wins out because, I think, he is always both a Texas writer and a Texas participant. He paddled the Brazos, he worked the Texas land, and he thought and wrote about those things in a clear and ringing voice. If a king is a king of a place, and if the title can fall to the man who knows and loves that place the best, then Graves reigns.
One might worry that a memoir about wild, young days in Spain could itself fall prey to such sentimentality, but Graves, as always, steers clear. Still, the memoir marks an anomaly in his writing, which has always had a distinct flavor of autobiography, but never before autobiography as the main course. I ask Wittliff what he imagines motivated Graves to write the memoir. "Well, certainly not nostalgia. He views his younger self with a certain amount of admiration, but also with a certain amount of horror. I think John saw that a rich pattern goes over his life and he was curious about that. He's curious about almost everything, now including Young John."
About ten years ago, Graves began to sort through old papers, including old journals, and slowly began to piece them together. Passages from those journals, quoted directly, comprise much of the memoir. In the space between the passages, Old John (as Graves calls his present self) offers casual commentary or summary as needed, with occasional criticism of his younger self. Chapters have titles like "Mainly Madrid" and "Tenerife and Going Home" so that space and sequential time provide the structure. Within that structure John (Young and Old) can rambles as he likes. Here he spreads out an anecdote; there he recounts a bit of local lore. But unlike Goodbye or Hard Scrabble, Myself and Strangers rarely goes slow and deep through a particular speculation about the origins or consequences of things. That's not to say that Young John and Old John don't make observations throughout the book, only that those observations don't typically showcase Graves' remarkable intimacy with his surroundings and his stalwart insistence on the long view.
Admittedly, the rolling, contemplative style that marks Graves' best writing really wouldn't serve well here to tell of his fitful roaming, brief encounters, and inner struggles. The book covers too much ground, too many shifts of place and personnel, for it to rummage as the others do. Or maybe a tale told through journals and pieced together from memory decades later can never achieve the immediacy of stories about the world that is directly available. At the time he wrote them, he hadn't thought that the journals would be published; he didn't endeavor to make them complete, cohesive, or writerly. And Old John wisely lets them stand as they are rather than embellishing or speculating about motivations. Graves is a modest man, and I wondered sometimes whether that modesty prevented him from speculating as deeply about himself as he usually does about his surroundings. As he writes in one journal entry, "intense introspection ... is not my way."
I wrongly expected Graves to conform to what I have known of him already. He explains that he wants the memoir to fill a gap of his biography and, if possible, to correct readers' impressions that he has always been some sort of wise man. "They call me the Sage of Glen Rose, you know. He ain't in that book. If people want to think about me that way, that's fine, but it's not what I am." The writer Don Graham has argued that to understand Graves, readers must see that is both a regionalist and an "internationalist," a man of the world. More than that, Graves asks readers to believe that he is not only the wise man, but sometimes the fool. Throughout his writing, Graves often takes pains to insist that he is quirky and fallible, but without any real stories of the quirks and fallibility, this has always seemed like modesty. Now, in the memoir readers have the details to bear out those claims. Graves is quirky and fallible. The book lets us see him as a human being.
Many other people's memoirs seem to lead to moral justification of the author's way of life," he writes in the introduction, "but I don't seem to have that feeling about my own life, or at any rate about the memoir's particular segment of it." The comments and summaries he provides between journal entries never attempt to justify or rationalize his behavior or his choices along the way. Graves chooses instead to reveal himself, to show that it was a struggle to understand himself and to make his way in the world.
I ask him what he guesses people will think of it. Again without hesitating, "I don't really care at this point. I don't give a shit about my image anymore."
Some readers will feel disappointed that Graves was not always the sage and stoic man they thought he was. For one, I'm delighted to learn that he's the man he always claimed to be, and to know better the travels and troubles that shaped him.
If you track his movements on a map, you see a wide fling from Texas, an eventual return, and finally a settling down on one particular piece of land. After a tour of duty in the Pacific and years roving over Spain and the Canaries, he comes back to Texas and roves for a month down the Brazos. Within three years, he buys Hard Scrabble and over the decades that follow he comes to live on it permanently; here his range of motion is largely over the space of
these acres. And, finally, in recent years, he moves mostly in and near the house itself.
The scope of his contemplation, however, reverses the pattern if not toward motion, then toward breadth and openness. As the memoir shows, he was sometimes naive and profane as a young man abroad. Returning home, he sees with new eyes a world he's always known but never investigated deeply. And he investigates it.
But as his fans know well, he packs those investigations into rather few pages. He is not a prolific writer, as he readily admits. After the first two books, Graves worked primarily on essays in much the same vein as Hard Scrabble. These appeared originally as magazine pieces in Texas Monthly and were later collected into From a Limestone Ledge (1980). Beyond these three books, Graves wrote many book introductions, his handful of elegant short fiction, and a portion of a book about the use and misuse of water. And that's about it, until the memoir.
Graves explains rather neatly that he was less productive with writing than he might have been because his chosen life so frequently busied and distracted him: farming, ranching, beekeeping, stonemasonry, wine-making, and more. That explanation would be easier to swallow if the books themselves weren't so meticulous and crafted. They feel, in the best way, like books that took time to write. We know from the new memoir that Graves pores over every sentence. His writing has always reflected that diligence, not by seeming man-handled, but by its unwavering fullness and finesse.
He crafted these few books so well that they guaranteed a permanent place for him in hearts of Texas readers, not with tender (or terrifying) cowboy tales or by revisiting the revolution, but by high, heartbroken prose about the rough land and its everyday inhabitants. He saw that Texas as he knew it was ever in decline, and he chose to say so. Readers rewarded his honesty with esteem and acclaim, because, I think, he told them in a palatable way the news they didn't want to hear but which they knew was true and good for them to know.
"My work by and large has had a slightly mournful edge back behind the humor and so on, because I'm not an optimist about the things I like best in this world. They've been disappearing little by little over my whole lifetime, in particular the natural world. We're losing touch with the whole flow of human history and achievement and tragedy and violence. I hate to see that. But there it is."
A minute later I kick my coffee over, try in vain to sponge it off the rug, and then it seems time to go. I say my farewells to him and to Jane, drive out, and close the gate behind me. Dusk is closing over the hills. The sky is cloudless and wide. There is nothing worth hearing on the radio, and I roll the windows down and go over small roads toward Waco. As we talked, Graves would often point off toward some town or river. He knows the towns, how they got there, and the names they had before. He knows where the rivers meet and where they go from those meetings. Between the towns and rivers is the land itself, underneath and all around me, with its gentle hills, fences, and cedar.
I try, until night falls, to notice it.
Steve Moore is a member of Austin's Physical Plant Theater and a playwriting fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. His play Nightswim, about Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Webb, premieres in October at the State Theater.