John Graves, legendary Texas writer, professor, son of John Alexander Graves, Jr., and Nancy Mary (Kay) Graves, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on August 6, 1920. He had one sibling, a younger sister, Nancy Ann (Graves) Wynne, who was the head librarian at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth for twenty-three years. His lifelong religious affiliation was Episcopalian. Graves spent his first eighteen years in Fort Worth. However, he frequently spent time at his paternal grandparents' home in the small South Texas town of Cuero. These two places of his childhood greatly influenced his literary career by giving him a sense of history and regional identity. After high school he moved to Houston, where he attended Rice Institute (now Rice University). He graduated from Rice with a B.A. in English in 1942.
Military service occupied the time between his educational endeavors. During World War II Graves enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps and completed Marine Officer Candidates School. He obtained the rank of first lieutenant and served in the Pacific Theater where he was wounded by a Japanese grenade in Saipan in 1944. The injury resulted in blindness in his left eye. Graves received a Purple Heart for his combat service and was promoted to the rank of captain. He was discharged from military service in March 1946 but continued to serve in the Marine Reserves for many years.
After the war Graves spent a brief time in Mexico before using his G.I. Bill benefits to attend graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. He received a master's degree from Columbia in 1948. His writing career began while at Columbia when his first short story, “Quarry,” was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1947. With his graduate degree in hand, he came back to Texas and taught English at the University of Texas in Austin for two years. He was briefly married and divorced during this time.
From 1950 to 1957 Graves experienced an interlude of restlessness. His wanderlust carried him overseas to Europe—in particular France, Spain, and the Canary Islands. During this time he wrote articles for various publications, including Holiday and Town and Country. He wrote a novel titled A Speckled Horse but found no publisher for it and abandoned it. After his adventures overseas, he returned to the mainland, first briefly to New Mexico, then back home to Texas in 1957 to take care of his ailing father. This part of his life later served as a reflective memoir which he entitled, Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship (2004).
Returning to Fort Worth, he joined the English faculty and taught creative writing at Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1958. Graves also married the former Jane Cole of New York, a fashion designer for Neiman Marcus, that same year. They had two daughters, Helen and Sally. He left TCU in the mid-1960s after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship Award for Creative Arts in 1963. Graves took government employment in the U.S. Department of the Interior under Stewart Udall. His writing projects stemmed from his research as a water consultant. His government career ended in 1970 when he returned to Texas.
Graves’s literary career spanned his adult life. His writing was substantive, regional, and personal, and Graves said that he was "a writer about things that mattered to me." He contributed articles to various magazines, such as Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and regularly to Texas Monthly. He was a recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1972. From 1999 to 2001 Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine published his observations on Texas rivers, and in 2002 the articles and other essays were published in his book Texas Rivers. He was a frequent lecturer on topics such as Texas literature and the environment. But he secured his reputation as a literary voice of Texas through the publication of three books. Over a score of years Alfred A. Knopf published Goodbye to a River (1960), Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land (1974), and From a Limestone Ledge (1980). These three major works became known as “The Brazos Trilogy.”
He is best-known for his first book, Goodbye to a River, a narrative of Graves’s more than 170-mile canoe journey down a portion of the Brazos River in the fall of 1957. In response to the proposed construction of a series of five dams on the Brazos, he undertook his river trip as a personal observation and farewell. Accompanied only by his six-month-old dachshund Watty (referred to as “the passenger” in the book), Graves chronicled his three-week journey through "a combination of personal experience, history, folklore, nature, and philosophy." Initially, Sports Illustrated assigned Graves a contract to write a feature about his trip, but ultimately the magazine rejected the article because of its heavier focus on philosophy rather than sport, and it was published in Holiday. He expanded this work into a book. As writer Bryan Woolley later commented in an obituary on Graves, "The book is an elegy for the old, wild Texas as it is being absorbed and homogenized into a pallid modern world." Literary scholars have heralded Goodbye to a River as a classic in American literature. The book has never been out of print. Graves received the 1961 Carr P. Collins Award for Nonfiction from the Texas Institute of Letters for Goodbye to a River. He was also named a finalist for the 1961 National Book Award. One of his published stories, “The Aztec Dog," was selected for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (1961).
By the early 1960s Graves had purchased almost 400 acres near Glen Rose in Somervell County. He affectionately called this piece of ground “Hard Scrabble” and built a house with his own hands. After spending part of the time on his ranch for a number of years, he and his family moved from Fort Worth to Somervell County permanently in 1970. Graves became a member of the Texas Institute of Letters in 1969 and served as its president in 1972–73. In 1975 he won his second Collins Award for Hard Scrabble. His third book, From a Limestone Ledge, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1981. He won the Barbara McCombs/Lon Tinkle Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Texas Letters in 1983 from the Texas Institute of Letters. Some of his short stories, essays (some previously unpublished), and selections from his Brazos Trilogy are found in his anthology entitled, A John Graves Reader (1996); a book among the inaugural works published in the Southwestern Writers Collection Series established at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University).
Critics and scholars praised Graves as a unique writer who was able to combine history, geography, and folklore into a personal narrative that deeply communicated to his readers. While sometimes identified as a regional and environmental writer due to setting and subject matter, Graves’s style defies provincialism. His last book published was My Dogs and Guns (2007). During his years in Somervell County, Graves enjoyed such pursuits as farming, beekeeping, winemaking, and stonemasonry on his ranch.
John Alexander Graves III died in his Hard Scrabble home in Glen Rose on July 31, 2013. He was ninety-two and was survived by his wife and two daughters. His body was cremated, and the ashes were spread over his Hard Scrabble ranch.