John Graves, Texas Author (Part 2)
by John R. Erickson
(for Part 1, click here)
...But I kept looking and sending out query letters. At last, five years later, I sent the manuscript to a small press in Austin, Shoal Creek Publishers, which consisted of a young editor named Judy Timberg and the owner-publisher, Luther Thompson, a tall, dignified gentleman in his seventies. Both of them admired my book, but Mr. Thompson, like so many editors and publishers before him, feared it was “too regional,” even for his tiny operation.
I sent him a long, pleading letter, pointing out that while West Texas wasn’t heavily populated, we did have a few people who could read. We had indoor plumbing and libraries and a few bookstores in Amarillo and Lubbock. Furthermore, I had established a small reputation as a columnist for several livestock publications, and I thought we could sell enough copies to make it worth his time and investment.
With a heavy heart, Mr. Thompson sent me a contract, and the book came out in the spring of 1978, while I was cowboying on a ranch in Beaver County, Oklahoma. The following August, when he sold out his first printing and ordered another, Mr. Thompson admitted that he was shocked.
Through Time and the Valley wasn’t the first book I ever wrote, but it was the first to survive the vetting of editors and publishers who were unanimous in their judgment that any book set in the Panhandle had no relevance to readers anywhere else. The book has never been a big seller, but it remains in print today (University of North Texas Press), and, if I may say so, it’s a solid piece of work that has endured the test of time.
It’s not as good as Goodbye To a River, but it has never brought any shame to the man who inspired it.
John Graves influenced me in another way. He had perfected an approach to writing that was unique to him. After teaching several years at TCU, Graves and his wife Jane bought four hundred acres of land near Glen Rose, south of Ft. Worth. He called it “Hard Scrabble,” and it became the focus for much of his later writing.* After building a barn and a two-story house with his own hands, he set out to improve and restore his four hundred acres of rocky cedar hills, land that had been worn out by drought and poor management (over-grazing and too much cotton). He cleared cedar, moved rocks, planted grass and trees, and brought old springs back to life. (*Hard Scrabble and From a Limestone Ledge.)
He raised chickens, goats, and cattle, and kept hives of bees, and began to notice a feeling of kinship “with Sumerian farmers working in fields beside the Tigris and hearing from far off the clash and clang of mad kings murdering one another…Old reality survives, blinking at you there, lizard-eyed. Survives and will prevail.”
Hard Scrabble became the drop of water into which he gazed and saw an entire universe, describing simple objects and events with prose that caused professional wordsmiths (often a hissing, jealous lot) to gasp in awe. Here Graves describes the changes in the seasons:
The seasons roll by toward wherever it is that they go: tawny wind-fanged winters give way to long lush springs, and summers with (perhaps) small sheeplike clouds riding above the southwest shove of searing Chihuahuan air finally yield to moist and melancholy and exultant falls with northers and high skeins of big birds trumpeting overhead.
Writing and reading in the early morning hours and doing physical labor the rest of the day, Graves created a balanced tension between book-knowledge and the practical wisdom that accrues to human beings who dig, sweat, build, observe growing things, and participate in the slow rhythms of animals.
I was impressed by his ability to maintain this balanced tension between two worlds that were moving in opposite directions: city-country, urban-rural, university-agriculture, liberal-conservative, Texas Monthly-Livestock Weekly. I think Graves felt that a fully-educated man should know both worlds.
He lived among country people, dressed as they dressed, was fluent in their blue-collar dialect, and could talk with them for hours about drought and range conditions, but he was anything but a redneck writer. His country neighbors might not have even read his books. The people who did read his books belonged to the college-educated, upper middle-class, and lived in leafy suburbs that Graves had chosen to escape.
To say the least, that was an interesting approach to the craft of writing. Somehow, he was able to maintain his sense of equilibrium. Literary Texans adored him and showered him with honors, but he never quite belonged to their world. Environmentalists saw him as a champion of their causes, but Graves had an understanding of nature that went much deeper than politics, and included death as well as life, decay as well as growth.
That was the man I met in the fall of 1973, when I dared to drop in on him, unannounced, at Hard Scrabble. (I tell of this visit in Prairie Gothic). He was unique. I’d never met anyone like him. Four months later, I took a job managing a ranch in Beaver County, Oklahoma, and began a seven-year odyssey, writing in the early morning hours and then doing my work as a ranch cowboy. It is a routine I have followed for forty-two years, now on my own ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
I had been offered the cowboy job before I met John Graves, so this turn in my life toward physical labor and solitude wasn’t entirely an imitation of his example, but there is a striking resemblance between the path I chose and the one I’d seen Graves pursuing at Hard Scrabble. I don’t think it was a coincidence.
- By John R. Erickson