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The Writer John Graves


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Manuscripts, letters, photographs, video clips, handwritten notes, personal memorabilia, a bronze sculpture-and, of course, books-narrate the diverse story of John Graves’ writing career, in the latest exhibit from the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos. Graves, best known for his 1960 book Goodbye to a River, is one of Texas’ most revered writers, honored in 2000 with the prestigious Bookend Award for lifetime achievement by the Texas Book Festival. The Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State is the major repository of Graves’ archives, including most of his literary papers, working drafts and correspondence with editors, plus scrapbook material and personal artifacts, the bulk of which the Collection acquired in 1991 and to which Graves continues to add.

Curator Amanda Thompson designed the exhibit to illustrate the full scope of Graves’ writing career, beginning with an example of his remarkable early success: the yellowed typewritten manuscript of his first published short story, “A Rouse,” which The New Yorker accepted (and retitled as “Quarry”) in 1947 while he was still a graduate student at Columbia University. Also displayed from this period are Graves’ master’s thesis on “Techniques in the Fiction of William Faulkner,” and a Columbia report card for John Alexander Graves III showing impressive marks in seven subjects.

The presentation on Goodbye to a River is spotlighted with, among other things, personal scrapbook pages, the 1958 edition of the West Texas Historical Association Yearbook where Graves’ published the first account of his now-legendary 175-mile trip down the lower Brazos river, and the venerable canoe paddle that swept him along on his three-week journey.

Also of note is the landmark correspondence between Texas Monthly founding editor William Broyles, Jr. and John Graves, documenting how the writer came to work for the magazine in 1974. On view as well is the original manuscript of “Coping,” the first article he wrote for the Texas Monthly "Country Notes” series which would eventually become From a Limestone Ledge: Some Essays and Other Ruminations about Country Life in Texas.

Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land, The Last Running and From a Limestone Ledge are among the many Graves works showcased with accompanying artifacts-and from start to finish the exhibit is punctuated with comments in Graves’ own hand -- giving viewers a glimpse of the human presence and thought processes surrounding the famous writer's setting of words to page. One item in particular draws the eye: the well-worn Royal Standard typewriter Graves used to create Hard Scrabble, The Water Hustlers, and a host of essays and articles from the late 1960s to 1982.

Although he has only published four major books, John Graves’ contributions to journalism and literature are extensive. Three of his early short stories were collected in the O. Henry award series. He has written introductions and narratives for a number of books on Western topics, such as Cowboy Life on the Western Plains, Digging into South Texas History, and Of Birds and Texas. Two of Graves’ most famous short pieces, “The Last Running" and “Blue and Some Other Dogs,” were recreated in special-edition books published by The Encino Press. Graves has also contributed to magazines and literary collections for over four decades, and has just completed a series of articles for Texas Parks & Wildlife about the rivers of Texas. A John Graves Reader, published by the University of Texas Press in 1996, was the first title in the Southwestern Writers Collection Book Series, and John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960, published in a keepsake edition by TaylorWilson in 2000, was created in part from the Graves archives at the Southwestern Writers Collection.

Representatives of all of the above-and more-hold their place in this chronologically-minded retrospective. John Graves’ writing over the years is testimony to his native Texas: the “woods, hills, mountains, prairies, deserts, and the bays and islands along the Gulf Coast...vegetation, geological phenomenon, and beasts and birds...battles, Indian tribes, and other historic matters...towns, accents, dialects, myths, livelihoods, skills, attitudes, and local ways.” The land and people of the Southwest resonate in the breadth of his work, and continue to spur him on at the age of eighty-two.

Exhibit curated by Amanda Thompson, Special Collections Intern, with assistance from Steve Davis, Connie Todd, Mandy York, Carla Ellard, Jill Hoffman, and Tina Ybarra.