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John Graves, wrote about rural Texas life; at 92

John Graves

John Graves

NEW YORK — A battered maple canoe paddle hangs on a wall at Texas State University in San Marcos, framed like a holy relic. Which, to the many admirers of author John Graves, is not far off.

The paddle, part of the university’s Wittliff Collections of papers and artifacts from Southwestern literature, was used by Mr. Graves on a trip down the Brazos River in 1957. The book that resulted from that trip, “Goodbye to a River,” established him as a giant in Texas letters and one of the nation’s more elegant prose stylists.

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Mr. Graves died early Wednesday at his home, Hard Scrabble, outside Glen Rose, Texas. He was 92.

In an article in Garden and Gun magazine, which celebrated the author’s 90th birthday, writer Rick Bass called Mr. Graves “the best-loved writer in Texas and one of the least-known beyond the state lines.”

Mr. Graves wrote about nature without being a nature writer, and about Texas and Texans without falling into bluster or cornpone, “never being puffy, never being boosteristic,” said William D. Wittliff, the screenwriter who helped bring to television “Lonesome Dove,” a novel by another Texan, Larry McMurtry.

Novelist Stephen Harrigan said of Mr. Graves’s work: “It all starts with the voice, which is so intoxicating. There’s a sense of real authenticity and authority.” He pointed to an opening sentence from “Goodbye to a River,” which is as meandering as the river itself but which conveys a sense of the place:

“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day’s work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind.”

John Alexander Graves III was born on Aug. 6, 1920, in Fort Worth. He attended what is now Rice University. In 1942 he entered the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific, where he was wounded by a Japanese grenade in Saipan. The injury left him blind in one eye.

He came back to Texas to teach English at the University of Texas, Austin, but left for New York after three years to earn a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. He traveled in Europe and wrote articles and a novel, which his agent rejected. When his father became ill in 1957, he returned to Texas and after several months got into the fateful canoe, accompanied by a 6-month-old dachshund he referred to as “the passenger.”

“Even after he was grown he wouldn’t be a very practical dog,” Mr. Graves wrote, “but he was company, too — more concrete, perhaps, than memories or feelings.’’

After “Goodbye to a River,’’ two other books, “Hard Scrabble” and “From a Limestone Ledge,” formed what became known as the Brazos Trilogy and cemented his reputation as a writer of note.

Mr. Graves “really didn’t find his voice until he went back to Texas,” said his editor at Knopf, Ann Close.

Back in Texas, he met and married a displaced New Yorker, Jane Cole. She survives him, as do two daughters, Helen Cole Graves and Sally Graves Jackson, and four grandchildren. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

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