This essay, by John Willingham, originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Southwest Review, a century-old literary quarterly published by Southern Methodist University.
I. John Graves
On its surface, the Brazos River today differs little from the murky, meandering, and unpredictable stream that it was in 1957 when John Graves and his dachshund companion canoed along its variable banks for 175 miles, from just below Possum Kingdom Dam to a point in Somervell County a little east of Glen Rose. Believing that the river as it had been would be erased by new dams, Graves set out to inhabit the stream, to retrieve and dwell in its history and lore, and to know it as one knows a person intimately over time. He saw it as inseparable from the stubborn, often violent people it encountered, and from the catfish, darting teal, and deadly water moccasins whose existence it supported. By investing the river with a long and vivid past, he honored its very endurance. The Brazos became like life itself—always changing, always there, vital regardless of appearance. Buried in the mud of the river today are the flint arrow points of tribes now departed, the spurs of cowboys drowned in the tricky currents, and the ruined tintypes of stoic settlers desperate for land. John Graves floated with and above these things, and the ghosts along its banks were a presence within him. About it all he wrote Goodbye to a River, a lament; the lament became a tribute; and the river survived.
There is much that is Faulknerian in Graves’s feeling for the past. It is never dead, it’s not even past, as Faulkner famously said. And like Faulkner, Graves admonished the present for presuming to ignore its origins and assuming that the future could do the same. Faulkner’s stream of consciousness style revealed the internal, emotional collisions of past, present, and future, with a keen awareness that the past, while not being past, is also not static: it carries forward and reaches back to itself simultaneously. To see it as static is not to see it at all but to dwell in its illusions. Where better than on an actual stream to get the feel of this process. The actual, the concrete, were important to John Graves and gave him his inspiration.
Graves and another writer, Henry David Thoreau, had this in common: they both wrote about their trips down a river, and did so with elegance, insight, and precision. Graves resisted a too facile comparison of himself with “Saint Henry,” his nickname for Thoreau, and was not eager to become a fourth at the once prominent table of Texas writers Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, and J. Frank Dobie. Graves recognized in Thoreau a man whose faith in the power and serenity of Nature grew out of “the certainty . . . that regardless of the race’s disasters the natural world would go on and on,” but Graves, more than fifty years ago, knew that “Saint Henry’s bottom comfort has been yanked from under us.” What was the path to transcendence for Saint Henry became the locus of deep concern for Graves. He wrote about Nature to warn of the dangers it faced, not to celebrate as a given its eternal regeneration.
Yet, personally, he received from the Nature whose passing he could see something of Thoreau’s transcendence. But for Graves, the idea that one’s bearing and place in the world grew out of the ground one knew best may have had its origins in the poems of Juan Ramón Jiménez, whose work Graves likely encountered during part of the 1950s when he was living in Spain.
“Foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” Jiménez wrote. When Graves’s heart and head went skyward, he never lost his sense of the land, believing that the better he knew his own real ground, the higher that knowledge would take him. All the more reason to be so concerned about the manifold threats to that ground.
Graves’s affinity with Bedichek, Webb, and Dobie certainly extended to an abiding respect for the land, and for its creatures, history, folklore, and rhythms. Don B. Graham, a longtime professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sees Graves as the direct descendant of The Three: “The appeal of [Goodbye to a River] is threefold. It combines history, folklore, and nature, as though the triumvirate of Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek were incarnated in one volume.”
Graham rightly characterizes Goodbye as “a philosophical narrative” based on Graves’s “ruminations” as he and his not so intrepid dachshund made their way down the river. At first, this might not appear to distinguish him from The Three: in Austin’s Zilker Park, near the banks of Barton Creek, is a sculpture known as Philosopher’s Rock. Depicted in bronze are The Three as they may have appeared during their frequent trips to the cold, spring-fed creek in the summertime, though Bedichek went there year round.
In that setting, and in their correspondence and other personal exchanges, The Three certainly traversed some philosophical terrain. While Graves argued for their continued relevance and recognized that he, like them, was a “nature head,” it is difficult to imagine the solitary Graves perched alongside The Three.
Goodbye is more philosophical than anything they wrote. Steeped in Texas history and lore it is, but the deepest message of the river in Goodbye suggests a kinship with another writer, far from the Llano Estacado and the banks of the Brazos, but as rough-hewn and occasionally cantankerous as Graves himself: Robert Frost.
Where Graves, and Thoreau before him, floated and paddled down their respective streams, Frost at his most philosophical created one in a poem, “West-Running Brook.” In one of the best analyses of the poem, published in 1994 in the journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Walter Jost wrote that Frost had said that “the new thing with me has always included the old.” The central image in the poem is that of “the black stream, catching a sunken rock/Flung backward on itself in one white wave/And the white water rode the black forever.” Near the end of the poem are these lines:
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.
Two writers, two streams, one imagined as a metaphor for what is “most us” and the other a real stream, whose backward reach and tenuous existence come alive in Goodbye to a River.
II. Larry McMurtry
If John Graves believed that some essence of the past was necessarily joined to the future, Larry McMurtry has regretted the past’s distorted presence, feeling that what was real in it has truly passed us by. Far from paying tribute to the past, he laments its gauzy residue. Too many Texans are only “symbolic frontiersmen,” revering the tough individualism and expansive ambitions of ranchers Charlie Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and John S. Chisum, the absolutist stance of the Alamo’s defenders, and the exploits of the old Texas Rangers. The past for them is what they want to believe, and real history an inconvenience. In an increasingly urban Texas, the symbolic frontiersmen are self-aggrandizing, cartoonish, and restless. Their ties to “the land” are likewise symbolic: it is not to raise beef or grow crops that they make claims on the land; it is to put a crown on their attainments, to combine the solitary Randian tycoon with the John Wayne (or Ronald Reagan) in their minds. Others who cannot afford such grandiose displays do not typically begrudge them, finding their own swagger in big trucks with a herd of horses under the hood, in camouflage caps or cowboy hats, or in the gun or guns of their choice.
McMurtry feels that what has been lost, is lost. The horseman has passed by; young Lonnie has left Cheyenne; the last picture show has ended. Believing otherwise is to calcify the present and shroud it in illusion. But not only is McMurtry convinced of the loss, he has felt it deeply himself, and in him the residue is an uneasy compound of pain and contempt. Growing up precocious and bookish, he was the rural intellectual, set apart in a resolute ranching family that honored hard outdoor work and the authentic cowboy heritage. Like those before them, ranching was their life and gave little time for reflection. Once in the marrow, it was a life that refused to die, even in the midst of vanishing. McMurtry must have developed early a sense of dramatic irony: he could feel what lay ahead, perhaps because he was not encased in that life. He knew that their world could not be his, and that he had to leave it, knowing also that it could not be theirs much longer. That’s a lot of emotion for a young man to carry, enough that a powerful creative life was built around it, along with a need for reconciliation that would not go away. Neither a peripatetic life nor the narrow grave to which he consigned the past would leave it behind entirely. But about leaving the dying land he had no doubts.
His influential non-fiction book In a Narrow Grave, published in 1968 when McMurtry was thirty-two, yanked The Three from their rustic pantheon and deposited them in the grave they had supposedly dug. Having escaped it himself, McMurtry—then at “an easy age to be smart at,” as he wrote later—used that smartness like a young gunfighter whose draw was quicker than that of the old hands he took down.
The Three loved Nature too well, engrafting the lore of their rural pasts onto the land as they imagined it. “Bedichek, Webb, Dobie and their disciples revered Nature, studied Nature, hued [sic] to Nature,” McMurtry wrote. “At their worst they made a fetish of it; at their best they drew on it brilliantly for context and metaphor.”
McMurtry, in 1968, felt that for his generation and the “generations that follow” the reverse would be true: “I doubt we could scrape up enough nature-lore between us to organize a decent picnic. To the Presences, that could only be a damning remark. For them, Nature was the Real. Knowledge of it made a full man, and accord with it was the first essential of the Good Life.”
In making a fetish of Nature, The Three romanticized the land and the frontier life, prolonging its distorting and anachronistic impact on the urban and suburban present. As the most intellectual of The Three, Webb might have known better, and for The Great Frontier he does receive some credit. But in The Texas Rangers, “Webb was writing not as an historian of the frontier, but as a symbolic frontiersman. While it may be possible for a novelist to remain a symbolic frontiersman without impairing his art, the same will hardly hold for the historian.”
McMurtry saw in the present and future some hope of emancipation from a past whose reach was too long, too burdensome, and in modern terms, too unreal. Focused on the symbolic frontier as the carrier of unreality, he was relatively unconcerned about Nature in the largest sense, believing that The Three often conflated Nature with the alleged virtues of the rural life in “the country” and the good old days that were not so good. On the real frontier, men used up the land as though it were as limitless as it seemed, and killed or removed whatever got in their way. Civilization was an afterthought, or something to escape. They did what they had to do, or what they could do. “For better or worse, the country has been despoiled,” McMurtry wrote, granting despoliation a possible reprieve.
Known for writing his fiction with the end first in mind, typically the present of the narrative, McMurtry discovers and invents what precedes the ending. This, too, is a form of emancipation, not to be tied to origins but mindful always of the future of the story. One of the most prolific novelists of our time, he has extraordinary drive, always pushing his fiction toward that end. In him the work ethic of his forebears is profoundly evident, applied though it is toward much different ends. Years of tending cows and mending fences from predawn till after dusk wears on muscle and bone, but no more than decades of writing five pages of fiction every day must wear on the creative spirit.
The purpose of the past he creates in his writing is not only to comport with endings; it also re-embodies a more realistic “frontier,” one peopled with characters so vivid and memorable that the West known through McMurtry has become ascendant. As the engaging ghosts of the symbolic past have refused to remain in their grave, his work has fought for and created a more authentic past, not in the writer’s own image but in accordance with the range of his vision. In his hands the frontier past has become more real and compelling, its disjunctions with the present seen now in sharper relief. But can these insights be expanded?
III. The Nature of Goodbyes
Myths and religions have their gods, though many have departed, some now so distant that they are thought to have died. The elements in McMurtry’s writing that lean toward the mythic are more resonant with reality than the myths they replace, though there was a Cowboy God, as In a Narrow Grave makes clear. Who that god was emerges with the unfolding myth, although his gender is not in doubt. “The god who abandoned Antony was Hercules—what is the name of the god who now abandons Texas? Sometimes I see him as Old Man Goodnight, or Teddy Blue, or as my Uncle Johnny—all people the reader will meet if the reader reads on, but the one thing that is sure is that he was a horseman, and a god of the country. His home was the frontier, and his mythos celebrates those masculine ideals appropriate to the frontier.”
The god appeared early on, in Horseman Pass By, the first indication as well of his departure. Homer Bannon did not leave the land as he had come to it, but left it worse off, in the Snopes-like hands of Hud. Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show died at still one more remove from the land, in a dying rural town, so dismal and bereft of dreams that even the movie cowboys faded.
One scholar suggests that in Lonesome Dove the god has become Trinitarian. Whether or not one agrees with Ernestine Sewell that the cowboy trinity is Freudian, her idea that Woodrow Call, Augustus McCray, and Jake Spoon the fallen Ranger flesh out the Cowboy God—his severe code and restlessness, his hedonism and humor, his anomie and decline—aligns with the trajectory of the novel. Starting out as one, in search of the “Eden” of Montana, their quest inevitably fails, for in Nature there is no Eden, just as the symbolic frontier never was. The sole survivor is Woodrow Call, in whom the vestiges of the Cowboy God find no translation, not to his unacknowledged son, Newt, and not to the future that imagines the god’s existence. To Newt his remote father does give a watch. It tells nothing of the time it has seen, but only the time of the present.
In writing his way to this existential point, McMurtry seems to have found that even the cowboy and frontier past made almost whole has no solid bridge to the present, because of the past’s singularity or because of its invisibility to a nanosecond world. There was that past, and now there is a compelling sociological present: the urban life, the suburban stretch of that life to the perimeter. McMurtry does not see the past—at least the frontier past—as John Graves did, or as William Faulkner did before him. He is more like Yeats, who wrote in Nineteen Hundred Nineteen that
Man is in love and loves what vanishes / What more is there to say?
Like Yeats, McMurtry points us to the poignancy, inevitability, and finality of loss. His people—Uncle Johnny—along with his best fictional creations dwell now only in our emotions and only because McMurtry the literary artist put them there. If the Brazos River had carried them down its length, they would have disappeared entirely in the depths of the gulf. And if they had encountered a sunken rock on their way, as in Frost’s “West-Running Brook,” the instant of their being thrown upward and back on the current would have left nothing of them in that place. Although Frost writes that the stream is . . . time, strength, tone, light and love / And even substance lapsing unsubstantial; it is also
The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness—and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.
Robert Frost wrote with one foot in the nineteenth century, when he was born, and the other in the twentieth century, when he lived most of his life. Like John Graves, Frost believed that “the new thing . . . has always included the old.” But from the modernist within him, Frost wrote too of the “universal cataract of death / That spends to nothingness.”
Also like Graves, he had a “foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” along with what the critic M. L. Rosenthal described as a “lyrical and realistic repossession of the rural and ‘natural . . . ’.” For Frost, however, the touch of the foot is always tenuous, the retrieval vanishing as it occurs. The only real constant is “substance lapsing unsubstantial” in every moment of life. It is that in Nature that we are from.
Frost and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead were contemporaries, and what Frost expressed poetically Whitehead presented in the philosophy of “process.” What most defines that process? “The many become one,” Whitehead wrote, “and are increased by one.” Though the process is never static, we can see how it is expressed in “West-Running Brook” by picturing the stream as being suspended for a moment. The contents of the black stream where it encounters the sunken rock constitute the “many”; the “one white wave” that arises upon contact with the sunken rock is the “one”; and the “white water” thus created, thrown back on itself and on the black water, too, “forever,” as it rejoins the stream, is the increase of the many “by one.”
Nor does the rock itself remain unchanged as the process continues. The only constant in the process, is the process itself, a function of Nature:
‘That wave’s been standing off this jut of shore
Ever since rivers, I was going to say,
Were made in heaven. It wasn’t waved to us.
‘It wasn’t, yet it was.’
(Whitehead, however, did not assert that the process “spends to nothingness.”)
In Goodbye to a River, John Graves reminds us that Nature is the fundament of our being, despite the process of change; it is that in Nature that we are from. Therefore, our relationship with Nature becomes increasingly perilous as we presume to abuse it. We do not “own” the stream, it is not ours, it “wasn’t waved to us,” it derives from Nature. Yet we are in it. If we say goodbye to the river, we are saying goodbye to ourselves. Graves retrieved what he felt was the flowing substance of Nature, which he believed the becoming “new thing” should include.
As he was the conservator, McMurtry is the modern, restless and searching, hurtling forward with the stream “lapsing unsubstantial,” feeling the loss acutely and skeptical of translations. Is he right that the frontier past, like its Cowboy God, can speak of nothing but loss, however profoundly? The man who brought books in the thousands to the intellectually arid Texas of his youth must have it within him to see Nature anew and what it portends for his home state now, regardless of rural, urban, or suburban setting. Could he not find more affinity with the state’s other great writer, the late John Graves? That the symbolic frontiersmen of today take their imagined heritage as an entitlement to say “goodbye” to Nature is evident in contemporary Texas. But it is they who now occupy the narrow grave. The Cowboy God has left them there.
Even back in 1968, Larry McMurtry did not consign John Graves to that same grave—the one McMurtry was set on escaping. While noting Graves’s kinship with The Three, he nevertheless set him apart. Driving across the state, restless as always, catching inspiration for In a Narrow Grave on the fly, McMurtry drove through Lampasas, and then
“ . . . picked up 281 again and followed it north, through Evant, Hamilton, Hico, Stephenville. The moon was high and white over the Brazos Valley . . . Soon I crossed the Brazos, its channels silvered by the moon. As always, crossing it there, I looked down, hoping to see John Graves pass underneath me in his canoe—for the Brazos is his river and one expects him there.”