By Will Burden
In the Summer of 2013, I was a junior in college when I came across an obituary in the pages of Texas Monthly. A writer named John Graves had passed away. The author of the obituary heralded Mr. Graves as an elder statesman in the Texas literary world, and highlighted Mr. Graves’ book Goodbye to a River, a narrative detailing a canoe trip down the Brazos River, as the work that had put him on the map. The obituary ended as follows: “It’s an introduction long overdue: Mr. Hemingway, meet Mr. Graves.” Because I had recently completed my summer coursework and had a break before Fall classes commenced, and because my parttime job at the time was as a security guard who spent his weekends alone in a bank, I decided to take a stab at reading Graves’ hallmark work. While a detailed review of the book is beyond my ability, talent, and time, I only wish to convey a small part of what the story meant to me, how those meanings have changed over the years, and how we can continue to find meaning in ordinary places.
As detailed in the obituary, Goodbye to a River is ostensibly a story about a man taking a canoe trip with his dachshund down the Brazos River in the 1950s. The Brazos River is soon to be dammed, and the narrator, Graves, is determined to take one last trip down the river in its wild state. The trip itself is not some grand expedition across the State of Texas. Instead, Graves travels through several counties south of Fort Worth over the course of about a week in late-November. Along the way, Graves discusses topics that range from the history of the region, local flora and fauna, and the superiority of the dovetail joints used in the construction of the cabins that dotted the landscape in the decades preceding his trip. The one consistency through it all is that Graves is an observer of place and people, and his narrative carries the force that it does because he knows of the places and people that he speaks of.
The first time I read Goodbye to a River, it opened my eyes to a world that I had never appreciated. I grew up in what most people would call rural poverty, though I didn’t know it until well into my twenties since East Texas isn’t all that wealthy of a place to begin with. While we didn’t have many luxuries, we did have space. And we had quiet. When I was a kid, both passed without me noticing either because it never occurred to me that these things were special or unique or fading. Sure, my buddy from the house on the other side of the pasture and I would ride four-wheelers, shoot at snakes on the pond, and trudge through the creek on rainy days just for the sake of doing it, but these things were just sort of what you did to occupy yourself out in the sticks. They were wholly unremarkable activities, and I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of poetry in shooting blue-jays with pellet guns when I was 11. John Graves opened my eyes to the land that I had roamed the surface of, but never saw the beauty in the local creek, felt the weight of the history that the land carries with it, or appreciated the complexity of my corner of the South.
In the years since I first read Goodbye to a River in 2013, I have probably re-read it eight or nine times. I’ve carried my same copy from College Station to Anchorage to Austin to Memphis and countless stops in between. I have read it on my bed, in a work-truck at a job site when things were slow, and even packed it into my rucksack for an airborne jump to read while on a field-training exercise. While some readings have been just for the purpose to revisit it, more often than not, a rereading was a refuge.
On subsequent readings, I’ve found myself appreciating the book for more than just Graves’ ability to describe a stream. When I lived in Austin, for example, I came to appreciate Graves’ own silent resignation towards what seems to be the unstoppable march of “progress” as it uproots places I’ve known and the traditions that once bound us. For someone who grew up in a town where it seemed time stood still, I embraced Graves’ observation that “impatience is a city kind of emotion” as I failed to grasp the rage-filled faces of people fighting traffic on a city’s interstate system. Further, I couldn’t help but be dismayed at the site of pristine hill-country ranch land being put under the bulldozer’s plow in order to meet the insatiable needs of a growing metropolis. But these are the same sort of complaints those of a bucolic persuasion have always had, just listen to John Prine’s “Paradise”. Indeed, Goodbye to a River was written in the shadow of this progress seventy-years ago. As Graves wrote, all must go “like the breed of people, like wild things along the shorts, like autumn . . . What is, is. What was, was. If you’re lucky, what was may also be a part of what is. Not that they often let it be so now.”
As Southerners, it’s easy to wax poetic about kudzu and good dogs and sunsets in open pastures once you have a drink by your side and Faulkner in front of you. When taken out of the pages of a book, however, these things are often utterly routine and ordinary, especially to those of us who grew up surrounded by country places and people. They weren’t characters or settings in a novel, they were just your reality. Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s wet, the people of the country may go their entire lives never thinking just how remarkable their surroundings are until we’ve left and returned. And while we may feel that the places we’ve known are changing for the worse, stories like Goodbye to a River show that these are old feelings in a nation as dynamic as ours. While John Graves may not have been able to keep the Brazos undammed, the river as it existed then is still alive thanks in part to his writing.
John Graves wrote about a place like the one I came from. It didn’t have high mountain peaks or sprawling landscapes. But he knew of where he spoke, and he did so in a way that gave me a vocabulary to appreciate my own space. That’s what Goodbye to a River did for me.