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Mark Busby examines a literary genius in ‘John Graves, Writer’

By Marc Speir
University News Service
July 18, 2007

Celebrated for Goodbye to a River, the classic environmentalist narrative calling for greater appreciation of the outdoors, author John Graves gained legendary status in Texas after its 1960 publication.

Known for his eloquent composition and prose, Graves and his naturalist works have had surprisingly little analysis afforded them outside of the author’s own largely autobiographical works.

The gap in the scholarship and study of Graves was recently satisfied with the February hardcover release of Terrell Dixon and Texas State University-San Marcos English professor Mark Busby’s John Graves, Writer. 

The authors fill the hole with 312 pages of interviews, appreciations, and critical essays that entertain many new insights into the man himself, as well as the themes and processes that animate his writing.

Busby, director of the Southwest Regional Humanities Center at Texas State and co-editor of the book, says that understanding the 86 year-old Graves and his motivations are important because of current challenges in the environment.

“We have a national and international consensus on global warning with the U.N. concluding that humankind has had an effect,” said Busby. “I’ve seen our graduate students turning more environmental with an interest in following the Thoreauvean (inspired by naturalist author Henry David Thoreau) tradition, and Graves is one of the best to have done so.”

The book scrutinizes Graves’s stature not only within Texas letters, as witnessed by his long and sometimes contentious relationship with Texas Monthly, but also in American environmental writing. Although Graves has accolades from national media outlets such as The New York Times, Busby says he deserves more recognition.

“One of our purposes was that we wanted to get his name out there,” said Busby. “He’s the unofficial dean of Texas letters but too often seen as a regionalist outside the state, despite being a master stylist.”

The style Graves is credited for exhibiting is subtle persuasion, examining one side followed by the other, often contradicting himself through rhetoric. Graves drops clues along the way to let the reader know where he stands on issues, but leaves enough room for them to make their own decisions.

“Our best writers create a recognizable trait, like Faulkner or Hemingway,” Busby said. “Graves definitely has that…centered in a world of balance and complication. He doesn’t paint things in black and white; it’s more of a paradox.”

Busby argues that Graves’s technique of subtle persuasion is the mark of a genius. As an example, Busby puts forth this paragraph from Goodbye to a River:

In a region like the Southwest, scorched to begin with, alternating between floods and droughts, its absorbent cities quadrupling their censuses every few years, electrical power and flood control and moisture conservation and water skiing are praiseworthy projects. More than that, they are essential. We river-minded ones can’t say much against them—nor, probably, should we want to.

“The clue to his real position here is the placement of water skiing in the last and emphatic position and saying, tongue firmly in cheek, that it is ‘essential,’” Busby said.

As an authority on Graves’s collective works, Busby was asked to be a part of promoting Goodbye to a River as the core text for the 2007-08 “Common Experience” at Texas State, a year-long initiative designed to facilitate thoughtful discussion on an issue of major importance. This year’s theme is, “the water planet: a river runs through us.”

“I think it may be the perfect book for incoming freshmen to read,” Busby said. “It takes them into a new world of weighing and questioning the balance and varied sides of different issues, something that any educated individual should have.”

This fall will mark the 50th anniversary of Graves’s trip down the Brazos that inspired him to write Goodbye to a River, his most successful book and the narrative most critiqued in John Graves, Writer.


Mark Busby

Busby introduces the book with a critical overview of Graves’s life and work, and a transcript from a symposium moderated by Busby in 2002 at the Southwestern Writers Collection, where Graves is a major donor of literary materials.

In the candid and humorous discussion of the author and his works, Graves responds to comments and stories from Busby, Sam Hynes, professor of literature emeritus at Princeton University, and world-renowned art critic Dave Hickey. The transcript is followed by a formal interview of Graves by writer Dave Hamrick, pressing the author’s motivations and how they relate to each of his major works. Graves’s friends and contemporaries Bill Wittliff, Rick Bass, Bill Broyles, John R. Erickson, Bill Harvey, and James Ward Lee also speak to the powerful influence that Graves continues to have on fellow writers.

In addition to these personal observations, nine scholars examine Graves’s stance as an environmentalist, prose stylist and literary author, rather than a conflict-driven polemicist. Don Graham, professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin, concludes the book with homage to Graves’ literary conquests.

“The book is a mixture about a great writer. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a reminiscent piece by his friends celebrating him, but an eye for his style…storytelling and philosophy,” Busby said. “Graves would say, ‘If a place disappears, then the history, stories and human connections of the place disappear as well.’”