Those who read the best books about Texas will know this one inherently, with no need of even a title. It’s where I at least would say modern Texas letters began, with McMurtry soon to follow, and a host of others after him.
But without John Graves’ marvelous voice, the grace of which catches you from word one, without his narrative using journey as story structure, part memoir, part history, the door for the next Texas authors wouldn’t have been opened nearly so wide.
A native Texan who had long since moved around the world, Graves learned in 1957 that the Brazos River would be dammed in several places—a river he had grown up fishing and canoeing and hunting on. So on assignment for Sports Illustrated, he took a 3-week trip down the part of it that had been “his,” from below Possum Kingdom Lake to around Glen Rose, to reclaim what would purportedly be forever changed.
Sports Illustrated rejected the article (man, would I love to see that rejection letter!). Holiday Magazine eventually published it. But of course, the river itself, like all of Texas, and his ode to the beauty of it, as well as the harshness of the land and the violence that took place around its shores, couldn’t be contained in only such a short piece.
So in 1960, Goodbye to a River was published by Knopf. Huge critical acclaim followed, and still today writers and readers speak of it with no small measure of reverence. Including me.
The late historian A.C. Green, in a review for the Dallas Times Herald, said it was “as fine a book as has ever been written about Texas.”
And John Graves became known as the Dean of Texas Letters.
As he’s paddling down the Brazos (named by the Spanish, meaning “Arms of God”), showing us places where a bald eagle could still come “flapping easily down the wind,” he relays stories of the clashes as settlers began homesteading the area. Most of that brutal history spans about a twenty-year stretch from the late 1850s to the ‘70s, with some beyond.
Because this was as bloody a piece of Texas history as it gets.
We didn’t just have regular Indians. Texas, during that time, was part of the Comancheria, which stretched from the vast lands of West Texas to New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas. For 2 centuries the Comanche had ruled this area, going from pretty much the dregs of Indian society to the fiercest, meanest of the mean, once they figured out the proper use of the horse wasn’t for barbeques.
When they did, though, becoming master horsemen and fierce fighters, nobody could best them.
So, thinking the land was theirs (as it had been for centuries), they played blood sport with the incoming early settlers, most of whom were Southern, fleeing the War to come and the one they lost if they stayed. They were, as Graves said, “sharp around the edges, not tender . . .” And once the War Between the States ended, here came the cavalry and the Texas Rangers too.
A bloody time indeed.
Graves relates stories of Charles Goodnight and Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-white son Quanah, and of famous massacres of settlers by Comanche warriors.
But he also tells the ones about the not-so-famous, like Jesse Veale, the last man killed in the county by the Comanche in 1873, at Ioni Creek. He and his friend had stolen some Indian ponies, and the warriors came at them. When Joe yelled, “What the hell we gonna do?” he thought Jesse yelled, “Run it out!” Joe did. But when he looked back, Jesse was on the ground shooting and trying to club the warriors with his pistol. To no avail, of course. And for probably a thousand times throughout his life, Joe must have wondered what if he had said, “Fight it out.”
The book is peppered with these vignettes, at the spots where they happened. As Graves said, “No end. No end to the stories . . .”
And funny thing, Texans being Texans, once the Comanche were finally contained, including Quanah Parker, who became not only a great chief but traded quite prosperously with the white man. Well, the new settlers turned a bit on each other. Sometimes they even dressed up as Indians to go attack one another.
Of the mostly Southern folks who settled here, Graves said, “They were cattle kings and horse thieves and half-breeds and whole sons of bitches and preachers in droves and sinners in swarms.”
No wonder with that mix peace didn’t come quickly!
As Graves said, “Law and order . . . were fairly faint ideals.”
But this is also in its essence, an ode to the love one man has for “his” part of the river, and for being upon it, with it, letting the stories and remembrances slowly rise to the surface.
“The river’s aloneness was on me and I liked it and was going to hold onto it while it lasted.”
The depths of meaning bubble up slowly through the long well-constructed passages, so that many quotations don’t capture the essence, sort of like how one piece of the river doesn’t express the whole thing.
In today’s world of rushing books, where plot turners are king, what a beautiful breath of fresh air it was reading this again. I first read it at 17, and have reread it countless times since. The voice. That’s what modern books have lost, with some exceptions of course, but to read prose from a writer with such mastery, ahhhh. Heaven. And of course, as many folks know, I’m just a fool for such a voice.
Full disclosure: I knew Mr. Graves. He ultimately settled with his wife and children near Glen Rose. There he wrote Hard Scrabble and From a Limestone Ledge about the land. We have a farm in Bosque County, not far from there, and for 7 glorious years I lived and tended cattle there, mended fence, cut and baled hay. The usual farm stuff. The best living and the best place to write.
We’d run into one another now and then, and at literary events. He was a quiet, thoughtful man, with a playful sense of humor. And so gallant. He never missed asking how my writing was going.
The heart of this wonderful book is knowing who you are, the part of the place from which you come, how important that is to the person you became.
“If a man couldn’t escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. 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.”
We’ll go from here to more “modern” books about Texas, but to understand Texas Letters, and the best books about Texas, The Wind from our last discussion, and Goodbye to a River from this one, provide the foundation upon which those letters stand.
Ah, the richness of them. And it always makes me think, as Graves said about the river:
“The point was to be there.”