John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, like the slow rolling Brazos River itself, is always winding and, as it rolls its way through the 20th century, its finding its way into the Western canon. Goodbye to a River began as one man’s provincial farewell to the river of his childhood, as a series of dams threatened to create “a pearl string of lakes” filled with the “electric tinkling of portable radios” along the shores of Graves’s beloved Brazos River. The book’s style and format is one of the greatest, and most eclectic, aspects of the fictional/non-fictional narrative. John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960 gives insight into the care and idiosyncrasies Graves’s pours into his writing and for which his writing has become so beloved for.
Letters opens with the genesis of Goodbye in the form of a query letter to John Schaffner, Graves’s literary agent at the time. The original idea for Goodbye to a River began as a travelogue for Sports Illustrated; however, as the editors of SI read over the first manuscript, they wanted to change the tone and feel of the piece and turn into “more of a hunting and fishing” narrative. The SI editors wanted Graves to leave out some of the literary and history terms that transcended the typical writing styles of authors’ works in the magazine. Graves stuck to his guns, refused to make the changes, and SI passed on the idea. Soon, though, Schaffner placed the piece in Holiday Magazine in 1957. As they say, from there the idea took a mind of its own and Graves began to envision the article as a feature length book.
The editor of Letters, David Hamrick, constructed Letters from the archives of John Graves at Texas State, Alfred A. Knopf’s and J. Frank Dobie’s at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Carl Hertzog’s at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Letters captures the nuances and reasons behind Graves’s use of the ellipsis and em dash rather than the comma. He also explains the structure and style of Goodbye and successfully defends his reasons behind the eclectic, Strunk & White style shattering of such against famed editor, Harold Strauss. In fact, after reading Letters, one is more impressed with the style of Goodbye and the writing conventions Graves is known for.
Letters is a must as a companion reader for Goodbye. But, beyond the use as a companion reader, a wise book publisher will one day include the two in a compendium of Goodbye to a River and introduce a new generation to the erudite and reflect reading and writing of John Graves.