John Graves

John Graves passed this week at the age of 92 on his ranch called “Hard Scrabble” near Glen Rose, Texas. Graves was a writer, best known for “Goodbye To A River,” a book that has been described as one of the finest works of Texas literature ever written. I’m not sure whether calling something “Texas literature” is meant to describe it or apologize for it. Or maybe it’s used in simple enjoyment of the novelty of having the words “Texas” and “literature” in the same sentence.

Graves could be considered in many ways the literary offspring of the revered Texas Triumvirate – writer & folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek and historian Walter Prescott Webb – his writing distilling the craft of all three into one man’s words.

I was lucky enough to have my photography linked to those words when Texas Monthly hired me to make a photograph for an article about the epidemic of Oak Wilt Disease which was rapidly devastating the Texas live oak population. At that time there were just a few pockets of widespread Oak Wilt and Texas A&M wasn’t exactly sure what it was or how to stop it. I took my old 4×5 up to a ranch not terribly far, in Texas terms, from Graves’ Hard Scrabble and photographed a single majestic oak standing naked against a patented Texas sunrise. When the article, titled “Dead Oaks,” came out I was proud to see the byline “by John Graves” next to my photograph.

I never knew John Graves and I have a horrible confession to make as a Texan educated back when Texas cared about education: I never read “Goodbye To A River.” Oh, I’ve read things that Graves has written, many things, but it’s been a while. On the occasion of his death somebody posted a link on some social media site – that ephemeral medium that is instantly gone and never yours – to another article in Texas Monthly, much more recent, about guns that Graves had written. I looked it up and started reading.

My god, I’ve sure been reading a lot of crap in the last several years. The best make it look so easy and effortless, like watching Eric Clapton play the guitar. The first sentences of “Great Guns” are simple, evocative prose that connects and constructs, and reminds you of the power of language in the hands of a true artist. And then it gets better.

Are there literary offspring of John Graves’ generation of Texas writers? I’m sure there are. Name your favorites in the comments. In the meantime I know what book I’m reading next.

Great Guns

by John Graves

The author John Graves, photographed on August 22, 2006, holding a Winchester Model 97 shotgun outside his home in north-central Texas. Photography by Michael O’Brien
I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.
But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.

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