The Washington Post

Texas writer John Graves dies at 92


John Graves, the celebrated Texan author of “Goodbye to a River” and other books, died July 31. He was 92. (Bill Wittliff/Courtesy of the Wittliff Collections, Texas State University, San Marcos)

John Graves, whose 1960 book “Goodbye to a River” and authentic depictions of rural Texas made him one of the state’s most celebrated writers, died July 31 at his home near Glen Rose, Tex. He was 92.

The death was confirmed by W.K. “Kip” Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters. Stratton did not know the cause of death but said Mr. Graves had been in declining health since breaking his hip several years ago.

Mr. Graves was best known for “Goodbye to a River,” a memoir of a canoe trip down the Brazos River that chronicled nature in masterful language and used history and philosophy to capture a sense of place. It has endured as one of the most acclaimed books about Texas.

One of the opening passages reads:

“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day’s work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind.”

Mr. Graves also wrote “Hard Scrabble” in 1974 and “From a Limestone Ledge” in 1980. The books became known as his “Brazos Trilogy.”

Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote “Lonesome Dove” and “Terms of Endearment,” lauded Mr. Graves’s talents in a 1981 essay for the Texas Observer.

“He is popularly thought to be a kind of country explainer, when in fact he seems more interested in increasing our store of mysteries than our store of knowledge,” McMurtry wrote. “He loves the obscure, indeterminate nature of rural legend and likes nothing better than to retell stories the full truth of which can never be known.”

John Alexander Graves III was born in Fort Worth on Aug. 6, 1920. He graduated in 1942 from what is now Rice University in Houston and later that decade received a master’s degree in English at Columbia University.

During World War II, he served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific and lost sight in one eye during fighting on the island of Saipan. After various academic and writing jobs, he returned to Texas in 1957 to tend to his ailing father and became a creative writing instructor at Texas Christian University.

It was about that time he took his voyage on the Brazos that made his legacy. Mr. Graves was supposed to write an article about the trip for a popular magazine, but the piece was rejected.

He returned home to try his hand at fiction, but never felt like he was good enough at it, said Mark Busby, a professor at Texas State University who wrote a 2007 book about Mr. Graves.

Three years after the canoe ride, “Goodbye to a River” was published.

Survivors include his wife, the former Jane Cole; two daughters; and four grandchildren.

— From news and staff reports

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