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goodbye to a river
john graves
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Goodbye to a River
by John Graves


John Graves’ most significant work is Goodbye to a River—part history, part memoir, and part travelogue—based on his canoe trip down the Brazos River in 1957. He had written a number of magazine pieces for various publications at that point, and he had a contract with Sports Illustrated to do a piece on the canoe trip. (The piece become more philosophy than sport and was published in Holiday instead of SI.) Graves’ strong sense of history was inspired by summers visiting his grandfather in Cuero in South Texas and merged with his keen feelings for the natural world developed during the time he spent in the Trinity River bottom near his home in Fort Worth. He knew that if the five proposed dams were built along the Brazos, the area would be irreparably changed. The Brazos is the third largest river in Texas and the largest between the Red River and the Rio Grande. Called el Rio de los Brazos de Dios (the River of the Arms of God) by the early Spanish explorers, it flows for 840 miles from its source until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Freeport, just south of Galveston Island.

Drawing from a long tradition of nature writing about rivers, from Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack to the Rivers of America series to Paul Horgan’s Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History and from the elegiac pastoral tradition, Graves brings his own unique approach and concerns to writing, much of which reveals a deep ambivalence about his being identified as a nature writer in the Thoreauvian tradition (inspired by the work of Thoreau) or being perceived as a polemical writer, single-mindedly pursuing a transitory agenda. In a 1963 article published in College Composition and Communication, Graves articulated his concerns about hard-nosed persuasion, the article’s title revealing Graves’ persuasive strategy. In “On the Desirable Reluctance of Trumpets” Graves writes that polemical writing is “preachment, a trumpet-note for good action, an exhortation boiling up out of a vision of present wrong and possible right. It arises from a belief that something can be done about almost anything” and on “the principle of action that will produce change” (210). He then asks, rhetorically, if it follows that writers should “tootle our built-in trumpets frankly in favor of whatever cavalry charges against evil we see as desirable, encourage the conscripts to do the same” and answers by saying:

No, sir, not for a good many of us, it doesn’t. Those who like to tootle are going to keep on tootling; their number is legion and they will be with us always, and bless their good hearts one and all. But the fact that even those who don’t want to are forced by their own humanness into reluctant or unconscious music of this sort does not invalidate detachment as an ideal, any more than democracy as a concept is invalidated by the fact that it has nowhere ever quite worked, and never will.

The fact is that detachment is in spite of everything probably the best general ideal that a writer can hold to. First rank writing whatever its form is concerned with expressing human truth. All-out tootlers are apt to confuse truth with facts…. The facts of human existence are mostly obvious, and if they are evil facts they can often be changed; they are susceptible to cavalry charges. The truths the facts add up to, though, are neither obvious nor very susceptible. (212)

These comments clarify some of Graves’ basic assumptions underlying his approach to writing persuasively. Both his desire for detached rather than polemical persuasion and his acute awareness of the complexity of human truth lead him to approach writing about damming the river subtly. His trumpeting is muted, a reluctant persuasion that takes the form of presenting human truths that are attached to the history of places and objects and therefore instill in those places and objects a value beyond and beneath the surface.

The detached position Graves stakes out leads to subtle persuasion in Goodbye to a River. He adopts a rhetorical stance similar to the one Shakespeare’s Mark Antony takes in his famous eulogy for Caesar, saying he comes just to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and then sets about to move his audience in his subtle praise. That is what Graves does with his piece of the Brazos, and it is profound persuasion. As the book begins, for example, Graves seemingly disarms a reluctant reader by saying that he holds no bitterness about the proposed series of dams:

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. (8)

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.” He then goes on to announce that it is not his fight and that he is just going down the Brazos to “wrap it up” before the river and “Satanta the White Bear and Mr. Charlie Goodnight” disappear under the “CrissCrafts and the tinkle of portable radios” (9). This contrast between the high significance of Texas history and the brittle inconsequence of skiing to the sounds of portable radios heightens his position through verbal irony and allows him to achieve the detached position he seeks.

Goodbye to a River, like many Texas narratives, uses the journey for structure, and the journey takes on symbolic significance as well. This journey is a personal process, a trip to recover a wanderer’s sense of history and place. By returning to places that have meaning, the persona-narrator demonstrates how one regains a rootedness that gives life meaning. Although the narrator does not mention Ishmael’s water journey undertaken during a “damp, drizzly November in my soul” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, by leaving on a grey, threatening November day, Graves connects Goodbye to a River to Moby Dick, another work that uses the water journey of escape and return to suggest the powerful personal insights that the experience provides.

While Goodbye to a River enacts the escape and return pattern on a small scale as the writer-narrator leaves on November 11, 1957, for a 175-mile journey that ends with return to civilized life on December 2, the return to Texas after Graves’ decade as a sojourner abroad also underpins the book. Particular and general pulse like systolic and diastolic, ebb and flow, in Graves’ work, intertwining into a whole. This individual experience represents the possibility of understanding available to everyone, because “one river, seen right, may well be all rivers that flow to the sea” (254).

Still, it is the vividness and intensity of Graves’ observations presented in his recognizable style that make the book memorable. This casual and folksy yet philosophical and literate canoeist with his Dachshund pup, Passenger, spins out stories connected to the history of places like Poke Stalk Bend, Old Painted Campground, Thorp Spring, Mitchell Bend, and others. By revisiting these places and recovering the stories the countrymen and women tell and by examining the natural history of the area, Graves constructs and dramatizes how a single individual can “know” a river, understand himself, and symbolize the process of achieving awareness of self through valuing place.

With the river journey to provide the structure, Graves moves back and forth from the river to the larger world through references to his own wandering past and through epigraphs and allusions to Sir Gawain, King Arthur, Lawrence Sterne, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen, T.S. Eliot, and one of Graves’ favorite writers, the Spanish philosopher Juan Ramón Jiménez, who provides a quotation that buttresses the book: “Foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air” (254). From these and other references to the “the world’s air,” Graves shifts to stories of the homeland, recalling the times he and his friend Hale and their massive black companion Bill Briggs spent on the river in their youth (with echoes of Huck Finn) to stories about the Comanches, who called themselves “the People”; the Mitchell-Truitt feud that ended with Cooney Mitchell’s hanging in Granbury; the time the hermit Sam Sowell was almost burned up by thoughtless kids and was saved by Graves’ friend, Davis Birdsong; and the time Birdsong tried to impress a French diplomat by putting his leg behind his head. The human history is complemented by careful examination of natural history, as Graves observes the plants and animals along the trip, musing on the firewood quality of cottonwood, willow, cedar, ash, mesquite, live oak, and walnut and reproduces in hieroglyphic the birdcall of redbirds and Carolina wrens.

Along the way Graves returns to several important concerns such as his relationship to Thoreau, to hunting, and to the persistent Puritanism of the people who live along the river. Anticipating that critics would note Thoreau’s influence, Graves attempts to provide some distance between himself and his strong forebear. Graves makes it clear that he finds Thoreau too rooted in the world’s air, too transcendently “ascetic,” and consistently refers to him as “Saint Henry.” The Texan’s distance from his river-traveling ancestor is especially clear when it comes to hunting. Graves notes that even though “Saint Henry had impulses to gobble woodchucks raw,” he eventually concluded that “blood sports were for juveniles” (54). Although Graves wavers along the way, he ultimately aligns himself with “Prince Ernest Hemingway” and asserts that

killing itself can be reverent. To see and kill and pluck and gut and cook and eat a wild creature, all with some knowledge and the pleasure that knowledge gives, implies a closeness to the creature that is to me more honorable than the candle-lit consumption of rare prime steaks from a steer bludgeoned to death in a packing-house chute while tranquilizers course his veins. (167)

At one point late in the book Graves apparently decides to hunt no more—only to grab his gun when a good shot presents itself, suggesting that the persona the writer has created is inconsistent. Yet it is just such wavering that is significant. His repeated references to the country’s Puritanism reinforce his emphasis on his shifting awareness of varying positions. Nature itself confirms his point:

Sunshine and warm water seem to me to have full meaning only when they come after winter’s bite; green is not so green if it doesn’t follow the months of brown and gray. And the scheduled inevitable death of green carries its own exhilaration; in that change is the promise of all the rebirth to come, and the deaths, too…. Without the year’s changes, for me, there is little morality. (119)

Later considering the Puritan outlook of the people who live along the River, Graves makes a similar point, noting that if “wrong is sharply wrong enough, its edge digs deeper down into the core of that sweet fruit, pleasure, than hedonism ever thought to go” (191). Later he makes the same point symbolically, when he has Davis Birdsong tell a story about following Sam Sowell through the shin oak brush one day and finding a coiled diamondback rattlesnake. As Birdsong raises his axe to dispatch the snake, Sowell stops him and acknowledges the human connection to the snake’s symbolic evil. Good and evil intertwine in Graves’ world, and his trip down the river reinforces this knowledge for him in personal, historical, and natural ways.

This awareness suggests how Graves differs from some other Western nature writers. Graves’ world is one with good and evil intertwined (Manichean), ultimately a “fallen” world and unlike the innocent one that Thomas Lyon describes as the terrain of other Western nature writers in “The Nature Essay in the West.” The function of the nature writer, Lyon suggests, is “to reforge a fundamental continuity between inner and outer, so that for the reader the world is alive again, seen precisely for what it is, and the mind is alive to it.” Lyon continues:

To have known the beauty of the world, seen with unclouded eyes the sheer wonder of a clear river or a mesa or a cottonwood tree, is to be in some sense and for that time, psychologically whole. The deepest attraction of the nature essay, probably, is this basic rightness of gestalt. Good nature writing is a recapturing of the child’s world, the world before fragmentation, the world as poets and artists can see it. (221)

Although the elegiac tone of Goodbye to a River suggests nostalgia, Graves does not look back to an innocent world devoid of evil. Rather, his piece of the Brazos reinforces and becomes the vehicle for his understanding of human complexity.

In an insightful observation of Graves’ style in 1981, Larry McMurtry, who taught with Graves at TCU in the early 1960s, points out that “one of his most frequent rhetorical devices…is to undercut himself: questioning a story he has just retold, doubting an observation he has just made, twisting out from under a position. Often he simply reverses his field and abandons whatever line of thought he has been pursuing” (29). This technique highlights the complexity and mystery of human truth rather than clarifying it. McMurtry continues:

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. 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. If nature continues to stimulate him it may be because it too is elusive, feminine, never completely knowable.

Certainly he is not looking forward to becoming the Sage of Glen Rose. His best writing is based on doubt and ambivalence—or at least two-sidedness; he is not eager to arrive at too many certainties, or any certainty too quickly. The persona he adopts most frequently is that of the man who considers. He may choose to consider a goat, a book, an anecdote, or some vagary of nature, but the process of considering is more important to the texture of his books than any conclusions that may get drawn. (29-30)

Goodbye to a River demonstrates clearly the reluctant trumpeter considering, in this case the human and natural history of a small piece of the Brazos River. Through his emphasis on using the natural world to consider the human history associated with it and his own consciousness, Graves provides a clear example of the process Scott Slovic describes in Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing. Slovic notes that the tradition of nature writing from Thoreau through Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Barry Lopez reveals an emphasis on the relationship between nature and the considering writer’s mental state: “Nature writers are constantly probing, traumatizing, thrilling, and soothing their own minds—and by extension those of their readers—in quest not only of consciousness itself, but of an understanding of consciousness” (3).

Graves’ consciousness results from a combination of personal experience, history, folklore, nature, and philosophy—a unique mixture that led to numerous positive reviews. Paul Horgan in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review hailed Graves as a new talent: “This highly original book bears witness to the appearance of an excellent literary talent not previously seen in book form.” Wayne Gard in The New York Times Book Review called it “a memorable saga…a warm, moving book with many rewards for the reader.” And Edward Weeks in The Atlantic Monthly pointed out the connection between the specific and the general, saying that “as you read, you have the feeling that the whole colorful, brutal tapestry of the Lone-Star State is being unrolled for you out of the biography of this one stream.” It was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award for 1960 and won the Texas Institute of Letters Carr Collins Award for nonfiction that year.

Graves explores themes and emotions that evolve from the relationship between humans and the natural world in the context of his trip down the Brazos River: how places have meaning, responsibility, solitude and community, innocence and experience, good and evil, humanity and inhumanity, conservation. Arguably the central theme in much of Graves’ work concerns how humans relate to and find value in nature. The relationship between humans and nature, particularly the significance of rivers, offers a relevant, challenging, and inspiring theme for the 2007-08 Common Experience.

None of Graves’ books explores the theme of understanding the relationship between humans and nature from more perspectives than does his 1960 memoir Goodbye to a River. Goodbye to a River should challenge students to examine their own lives in light of Graves’ journey down the river. Students can apply Graves’ various methods of understanding the relationship between humans and nature to themselves and to the people in his book, ones they admire and ones they don’t. They may well come to understand that the central test of Graves’ relationship between himself and nature results from the way people learn to understand the importance of a place.

At 309 pages, Goodbye to a River is somewhat longer than recent Common Experience texts, but it is for most readers a lively reading encounter. Some chapters (although all are connected to the entire book) could be read by themselves. Instructors who do not wish to teach the entire book can use, for example, Chapter VII or Chapter IX, or perhaps just Part One, which includes the first nine chapters, as a briefer introduction to the theme of understanding the relationship between humans and nature.

— Mark Busby
adapted from introduction to John Graves, Writer
University of Texas Press, 2007

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