Sunday, June 05, 2011

"My own louts": An excerpt from John Graves' Goodbye to a River

Having grown up in Texas, and grown up hearing his name, it's hard for me to gauge how well known John Graves (b. 1920) is outside Texas. The fact that he's been nominated twice for the National Book Award, though, would suggest that he has a reputation in some circles. Anyway, while I was in Austin, the Barnes & Noble I visited happened to have a copy of the book which established Graves' reputation, Goodbye to a River; I don't think I'd ever even seen a copy of it before, so I grabbed it. It's been my bedtime reading for a few days now.

The book's plot is a simple one. In the 1950s, the government proposed a series of dams along 200 or so miles of the Brazos River south and west of Forth Worth, a stretch of river that Graves grew up along and knew well as a boy and a young man. Graves wants to see that stretch one last time, before the impounded water floods the canyons and sand bars and still-untouched stands of oak and elm, so in November of 1957 he loads up a canoe with provisions (more than he really needs--he occasionally uses Thoreau to reproach himself) and a "not very practical" six-month-old daschund and heads downstream. As he relates the incidents of travel, the changing weather and the folks he meets along the way, he also tells the stories he knows about the flora and fauna (both presently there and long gone), the bends and crossings and landmarks.

That's the plot. Here's the book's ethos in a nutshell (the ellipsis is Graves' own):

Nothing that happened in this segment, [during the time of the Comanche raids] or later, made any notable dent in human history. From one very possible point of view, the stories tell of a partly unnecessary, drawn-out squabble between savages and half-illiterate louts constituting the fringes of a culture which, two and a half centuries before, had spawned Shakespeare, and which even then was reading Dickins and Trollope and Thoreau and considering the thoughts of Charles Darwin. They tell too--the stories--of the subsequent squabbles among the louts themselves: of cattle thievery, corn whisky, Reconstruction, blood feuds, lynchings, splinter sectarianism, and further illiteracy.

Can they then have any bearing on mankind's adventures?

Maybe a little. They don't all tell of louts. There was something of a showing-through; meanings floated near the surface which have relevance to the murkier thing Americans have become. It didn't happen just on the Brazos, certainly, but all along the line of that moving brush fire. There's nothing new in the idea that the frontier had continuing impact on our character, or that one slice of that frontier, examined, may to some degree explain the whole . . .

But in truth such gravities were not what salted the tales I could read, looking off over the low country from the point atop the bluffs. Mankind is one thing; a man's self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts, they were my own louts. (143-144)

Only three of the dams were built--due in large part, many say, to this book.


R. Sherman said...

I'm at my office reading this. Immediately behind my monitor is a framed, shaded relief map of the 48 contiguous States and Texas is at eye level. I can pick out the Brazos, and can see very few impoundments. (It's a big map -- I needed to cover a lot of wall space.)

I've crossed it a few times on my travels as well as other Texas rivers outside the Mississippi watershed and always wondered about canoeing recreation there. Through in a little "Wendell Berry of Texas" musing, and I'm sold.

(BTW, the EMBLOS is really going to hate you, given that half my Amazon wishlist at the moment consists of John B. book recommendations.


Your problem and not mine.)


John B. said...


I'm glad you like what you've read of Graves. Prior to this, I'd read a short story of his and a collection of essays, From a Limestone Ledge, in which he writes about life on his ranch in Glen Rose County (also in the Brazos watershed). He's worth seeking out.

I'm sorry to be the cause of your friction with the EMBLOS. I'll try to write about something really lousy next time.

R. Sherman said...

Sorry to be self-referential, but Texas and Austin makes an appearance at my place.