Texas author and Rice alum John Graves ’42, whose book about a canoe trip down the Brazos River in the late 1950s is regarded as a classic, died July 30 at his small farm outside Glen Rose, Texas. Described by the Houston Chronicle as “the dean of Texas letters,” Graves was 92 and had been in declining health for several years.
He was born in Fort Worth on Aug. 6, 1920, and grew up there and on his grandparents’ farm near Cuero, Texas. He entered the Rice Institute in 1938 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.
A spring 1995 profile on Graves by Director of Multicultural Community Relations David Medina ’83 in Rice’s alumni magazine recounted Graves’ initial hopes to major in petroleum engineering. “Everyone was thinking about getting a job at that point,” Graves recalled. His aspirations were cut short by registrar Samuel McCann, who quizzed him about his interests. “At the end of 15 minutes, McCann told Graves he would be ‘miserable’ in engineering,” Medina wrote.
Instead, Graves signed up for general academic courses and pursued his interests in English and history. He developed close ties with three professors who mentored and inspired him: English professors Alan McKillop and George Williams and historian David Potters. In the magazine profile, Graves remembered living an almost idyllic life at Rice and described life on campus as “pretty, fit for dreaming and ignoring strife.”
After graduating, Graves joined the Marine Corps; as a first lieutenant in the Pacific, he was injured on the island of Saipan and lost sight in one eye. After the war, he received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1947 and then taught at the University of Texas at Austin for two years.
He lived in other parts of the U.S. and abroad before returning to Texas in 1957 to care for his father, who was ill with cancer, in Fort Worth. He took a job teaching creative writing at Texas Christian University.
In November 1957, Graves and his dog completed a three-week canoe trip along the upper Brazos at a time when he feared that dams would destroy the river as he knew it. His description of the trip was first published as a magazine article in Holiday. With the addition of old settlers’ tales, Indian stories and musings about life past and present, Graves turned the article into “Goodbye to a River.” The book attracted national attention and critical praise and won the 1961 Carr P. Collins Award of the Texas Institute of Letters and was nominated for a National Book Award.
In 1970, Graves and his family moved to a rundown farm outside Glen Rose, near Fort Worth, that Graves named Hard Scrabble. His account of restoring the farm and his observations about rural life became “Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land” in 1974. Other books include “From a Limestone Ledge” and “Myself and Strangers.”
“John Graves is widely regarded as the finest writer Texas has ever produced,” said Lisa Slappey ’01, a lecturer in Rice’s English Department who has written about and taught Graves’ books. “He is a literary giant, especially within the American environmental movement. His work, much of it about life along a relatively unknown stretch of the Brazos made famous in ‘Goodbye to a River,’ teaches readers the importance of our relationships to our home places. Whether we embrace or reject our origins, whether we behave as stewards or antagonists toward the land and its inhabitants, we are heirs to our physical places and we bear the marks of this inheritance throughout our lives.”
Graves’ books enjoy enduring popularity at Rice’s Fondren Library, said Assistant University Librarian for Research Services Kerry Keck. “The circulation of his books is notable, especially for contemporary Texas history, culture and the environment,” Keck said. “That level of use customarily is seen only with literature ‘core course’ authors such as Shakespeare, Melville and, as (to whom) Graves is sometimes compared, Thoreau.”
Survivors include his wife, the former Jane Cole, and two daughters, Helen and Sally, who graduated from Rice in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and English.
Editor’s note: Graves wrote an article called “Rice University: The Pangs of Change” for Holiday magazine in 1964. Centennial historian Melissa Kean has posted the article on her “Rice History Corner” blog at http://ricehistorycorner.com/2013/08/07/john-graves-42.