Goodbye to a literary lion as beloved Texas writer John Graves dies at 92

Photo courtesy of The Wittliff Collections, Texas State University

Photo courtesy of The Wittliff Collections, Texas State University

[Editor's note: John Graves' memorial service will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, anyone who would like to make a memorial gift can do so to the Friends of the Brazos nonprofit group, The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, where his papers are housed, or the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth.]

By Kathryn Jones


John Graves, one of the state’s most loved writers and whose book Goodbye to a River became a “must read” for generations of Texans, died early Wednesday at his home outside Glen Rose.

He was 92 and had been in declining health for several years.

Graves was born in Fort Worth on Aug. 6, 1920, and grew up in that city where his father owned a men’s clothing store downtown. He graduated from Rice University with a bachelor’s degree in English where, according to his 2004 memoir Myself and Strangers, he “soaked up literature and history and friendships….”

Graves served in World War II in the Pacific, but an exploding grenade damaged his left eye and took him out of combat. After the Marines, he went back to Fort Worth and then traveled around Mexico in 1946.

Later that year he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in New York on the G.I. bill and married his college sweetheart. The marriage didn’t last long, however, and Graves next headed to Spain and lived there for several years. He continued to write fiction and non-fiction, sailed and fished and traveled to France and England.

Back in the states, Graves met Jane Cole, who was a designer for Neiman Marcus in Dallas. The couple married in 1958.

Photo by Kathryn Jones/GR Current

Photo by Kathryn Jones/GR Current

Goodbye to a River was a homecoming book of sorts. Graves hadn’t been back in Texas very long when he started repairing an old high-ended wooden canoe. During the wet autumn of 1957 that broke a long drought, he took a three-week trip down the Brazos with his dachshund puppy, identified in the book simply as the “Passenger.”

Graves was most interested in the stretch of the Brazos from Possum Kingdom Dam in Palo Pinto County to the cedar-covered hills of Glen Rose. He had been hunting, fishing and camping on that part of the river as a child and decided to visit it again after he heard about plans to convert the Brazos into what he called a “necklace-string of lakes for electrical power, flood control, moisture conservation and water-skiing.”

In his 2004 memoir Graves recalled the trip as cold and wet and “a complete pleasure….The personal memories, the stories from bygone times, and the birds and other richnesses of nature were with us all the way.”

Graves published an article in Holiday magazine about the journey, but realized “so much fine material was left over that a book began to write itself.” Goodbye to a River, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960, is an eloquent elegy to the Brazos. But it also is about an individual’s connection to a place.

“If a man couldn’t escape where he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels,” he wrote in the book. “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,” he continued. “The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were connected with him withers into half a man.”

When the book came out, The New Times Book Review described it as creating “a world of its own.”

“Seldom has a river come to life so vividly in a book as does the Brazos in John Graves’ narrative,” reviewer Wayne Gard wrote.

Graves called Goodbye to a River a “liberation” because after years of writing, he had finally found a subject matter that suited him. He had found his voice as a writer. By the way, government plans to build five dams along the Brazos were abandoned, but Graves’ book struck readers’ hearts and minds and has remained in print ever since.

Graves’ other books include The Water Hustler (with T.H. Watkins and Robert Boyle), Hard Scrabble about the rugged 400-acre piece of land outside Glen Rose where he lived and the house he built with his own hands, The Last Running, Texas Heartland, From a Limestone Ledge, Blue and Some Other Dog, Self-Portrait, with Birds, A John Graves Reader, John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River, Texas Rivers – which pairs his text with nature photographer Wyman Meinzer’s pictures — Myself & Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship and 2007’s My Dogs and Guns, a short story collection.

As a writer, Graves enjoyed a long run of fame and received grants from prestigious foundations such as Guggenheim and Rockefeller. He was a president of the Texas Institute of Letters and his writings appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly and other national and international magazines and literary journals.

“The kind of writing I’ve done has never made me rich, or even prosperous as prosperity goes these days,” Graves wrote in his 2004 memoir. “But at this late point that doesn’t bother me much, because most of the work still seems to me to say more or less the things I wanted it to say when I wrote it, and says them in my own way.”

Graves is survived by his wife, Jane, of Glen Rose, and their daughters Helen, who lives in New York, and Sally, who lives in North Carolina, and four grandsons. No funeral service is planned, but a memorial service is expected to be held at a later date in Fort Worth.



6 Responses to Goodbye to a literary lion as beloved Texas writer John Graves dies at 92

  1. Larry P. Smith Reply

    August 2, 2013 at 4:36 am

    I did not really know John Graves,so I will merely say,”Goodbye”,to a man who had a profound effect on his community, his state, the entire literary world and,ofcourse, his beloved Brazos River.

    As I read Kathryn`s piece, it occurred to me that he had found the meaning of his life and had lived it to its fullist. We mourn this loss but, celebrate his many contributions.

    • Kathryn Reply

      August 5, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Thanks so much for your comments, Larry. John Graves will live on in so many ways and it is up to us all to carry on his work.

  2. Suzanne Gentling Reply

    July 31, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Thank you, Kathryn, for your lovely, sensitive tribute to John Graves. We have been enriched by his gift to us.

    • Kathryn Reply

      August 1, 2013 at 9:15 am

      Suzanne, thank you so much. He’ll live on in others who will carry on his work.

  3. Nancy Willis Reply

    July 31, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    We have lost a great author, a real gentleman
    and a treasured friend.

    • Kathryn Reply

      August 1, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Thank you, Nancy. I recall seeing him at a book signing at your shop some years ago.

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