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John Graves

A Guide to the John Graves Papers, 1920-2006 (Bulk dates: 1946-2004)

Collection 010

Complete inventory available in PDF format.                                                                                    


Descriptive Summary

Creator:                     Graves, John

Title:                           John Graves Papers

Dates:                         1920-2006 (Bulk dates: 1946-2004)

Abstract:                    Forty-nine boxes of typescripts, galley proofs, correspondence, printed material, photographs, scrapbook material, notes, and artifacts, among other items, document almost the entire writing career of John Graves (1920-2013).

Identification:           Collection 010

Extent:                       49 boxes (33.5 linear feet)

Language:                  Almost all documents are written in English; a small number are in Spanish.

Repository:               Southwestern Writers Collection, Special Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos

Biographical Sketch/Historical Sketch

Born August 6, 1920 in Fort Worth, Texas, John Alexander Graves III grew up in that city until moving away to attend college in 1938. He graduated from Rice Institute (now Rice University) with a B.A. in English in 1942, then entered the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific theater until being wounded by a Japanese grenade on the island of Saipan. After the service, Graves traveled to Mexico for a few months then attended Columbia University, earning an M.A. in English from there in 1948. He began his professional writing career while still a graduate student by publishing a short story, titled “Quarry,” in The New Yorker in 1947.

Graves taught English from 1948 to 1950 at The University of Texas at Austin, but left academia and Texas behind to spend a year freelance writing in New York City. From January 1953 to July 1955 he spent abroad, living mostly in Spain, including the Canary Islands for some months on a resident colony of writers and artists. During these years he wrote articles for publications like Holiday and Town and Country but also worked on fiction, including a semi-autobiographical novel, The Spotted Horse. Graves concentrated on finishing the novel after returning to the United States, but his agent rejected the final manuscript and Graves soon came to realize the novel was not publishable as a whole.

In the spring of 1957 Graves returned home to help care for his gravely ill father. In November of that year, Graves completed a three-week canoe trip down part of the Brazos River that he feared was about to be changed forever by dams. His narrative chronicle of the trip was first published as a magazine article in Holiday, and later Graves added history, philosophy and folklore which resulted in his first major book, Goodbye to a River (1960). The book attracted national attention and critical praise for its original style. It won the Carr P. Collins Award of the Texas Institute of Letters in 1961 and was nominated for a National Book Award that year. In the meantime, Graves took a teaching job at Texas Christian University, married Jane Cole (his second marriage) and purchased the first of his limestone acres in Somervell County near the town of Glen Rose.

After three years assisting in and writing for a U.S. government study of pollution of the Potomac River, Graves returned to Texas and focused on converting his country acreage from a weekend getaway into a permanent home with a manageable farm and cattle ranch. In that time he also contributed to journals, magazines and books with introductions, articles, and essays—work that has continued to the present day. His observations and ruminations about his relationship with the land as a farmer and rancher led to the publication of his second major book, Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land (1974). Hard Scrabble describes both the promise and adversity of country life, touching on subjects like animals, tools, construction, weather, water, ecology, agriculture, and migrant workers.

Starting in 1976, Graves again focused on life in the country in a series of essays that were published in Texas Monthly magazine. The essays examined topics such as fences, meat, tobacco, cows, chickens, dogs, and bees, and were collected and published for Graves’ third major book, From a Limestone Ledge: Some Essays and Other Ruminations about Country Life in Texas (1980). Some essays follow up topics which he discussed in Hard Scrabble, but all focus on the “more or less country things which came to interest” Graves. From a Limestone Ledge was nominated for an American Book Award.

Although Graves has not published an extensive number of books, his contributions to magazines, books and anthologies spans over five decades. He has written introductions and narratives for a number of books and reports, often on Texas history and Texas environment, such as Cowboy Life on the Western Plains, Texas Heartland: A Hill Country Year and The Water Hustlers. Two of Graves’ most famous magazine pieces, “The Last Running” and “Blue and Some Other Dogs,” later became their own books, published first by Encino Press. Another well-received essay, “Recollections of a Texas Bird Glimpser,” written for the art book, Of Birds and Texas (1986), transformed into a limited edition book, Self-Portrait, With Birds (1991). 

In 1996 the University of Texas Press published A John Graves Reader, which gathered together fiction and non-fiction pieces, both published and unpublished, including a long, reworked excerpt from his failed novel, The Spotted Horse. More recently, Graves wrote text for the photography books Texas Rivers (2002) and Texas Hill Country (2003), and in 2004 Knopf published his memoir, Myself and Strangers, which focused on his years abroad as a freelance writer.

John Graves is one of the most important Southwestern writers. Three of his early short stories were collected in the O. Henry award series. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1963 and a Rockefeller fellowship in 1972. Numerous awards and recognitions have followed him throughout his writing career. Although he is generally considered a regional and nature writer due to his settings and subjects, his style, which incorporates fiction, folklore, autobiography, philosophy, and observation, defies provincial or topical boundaries. Perhaps the best example of this is Goodbye to a River, which has never gone out of print since first being published in 1960, and is still celebrated for its keen ruminations on the historical, attitudinal and natural worlds that intertwined around Graves as he canoed down the river.

John Graves passed away in 2013, survived by his wife Jane Cole of New York, and two daughters, Helen and Sally.


Scope and Content Note

Forty-nine boxes of typescripts, galley proofs, correspondence, printed material, photographs, scrapbook material, notes, and artifacts, among other items,  document almost the entire writing career of John Graves (1920- ). The collection has been arranged into seven series: Writings (1946-2004, n.d.), Correspondence (1943-2006, n.d.), Institutional Activities (1960-1998), Awards and Honors (1961-2004), Personal Materials (ca. 1920-2002, n.d.), Clippings (ca. 1940-2004, n.d.), and Writings by Others (1942-2002, n.d.). The author’s original order has been maintained where possible.

The collection gives an overview of Graves’ literary career, and with numerous drafts of many of his books, essays and short stories, it is particularly strong in illustrating his writing process. Another strength of the collection lies in its documentation of the editorial process, illustrated by the correspondence with publishers and agents found in both the Works and Correspondence series. Numerous letters between Graves and fans, family and friends were added to the collection in 2007, making the Correspondence series at ten boxes the second most voluminous.  Other highlights of the collection are personal photographs and journals in the Personal Materials series.


SERIES I: Writings, 1946-2004, n.d.

Boxes 1-21, 43, 47

The Writings series includes research notes, typed manuscripts, galley proofs, printed materials, correspondence, and other materials chronicling Graves’ literary contributions from his earliest short stories to his more recent essays and memoir. Materials from all of his books are included; additional document boxes contain Graves’ short stories, articles, speeches, book introductions, and notes. Many of these materials were annotated by Graves with personal comments when he donated the materials to Bill Wittliff. 

Manuscript materials relating to the books Graves is credited as writing or co-writing make up the first sub-series. Materials are arranged alphabetically by book title. Of particular interest in the files pertaining to his first book Goodbye to a River are photographs taken by Graves during his trip down the Brazos River, the plate proofs of the first edition, and two printed articles written before the publication of the book. There are also drafts of his second book, Hard Scrabble, and his 2004 memoir, Myself and Strangers. The materials relating to From a Limestone Ledge have to do with the publication of the book itself; materials relating to the essays that were previously published in Texas Monthly are in the following sub-series. Likewise, materials under Blue & Some Other Dogs, The Last Running, and Self-Portrait, With Birds have to do with the book versions of these writings, not the original versions, which can be found in the next sub-series.

The General sub-series is devoted to the many short stories, essays, book introductions, tributes, and unpublished pieces written by Graves, and spans almost six decades. This subseries is also the largest in the collection, filling eleven document boxes, plus oversize. The works within it are arranged alphabetically by title, usually according to the official published title, but sometimes by a book title if Graves’ piece is an untitled introduction, or a draft title if the piece is unpublished. Many of these files contain correspondence, notes and research as well as typescripts and drafts. Some files also include or are limited to the publication itself that published it, or a clipping or photocopy of the published piece.

Graves’ work for Texas Monthly is thoroughly documented in the General sub-series, including the typescripts, galleys, clippings and correspondence he kept in two binders, covering ten years of published essays in the magazine. The manuscript of Graves’ first published short story, “Quarry,” can be found in this sub-series, as well as one of his most famous pieces, “The Last Running,” in both fiction and screenplay formats. Note that the long essay, “Notes & Scraps from a Personal Journal, 1946-1956,” is restricted from access until five years after the death of Mr. Graves.

The third and last sub-series covers speeches that Graves wrote and delivered, arranged alphabetically by the event or occasion. Like the previous two sub-series,  these files contain drafts, correspondence, published forms, notes and other materials related to their subjects.


SERIES II: Correspondence, 1943-2006 (bulk 1959-2006), n.d.

Boxes 22-31

The Correspondence series contains letters that highlight Graves’ writing career, with letters to and from publishers, agents, fellow writers, fans, event organizers and others. Insights into Graves’ personal life and thoughts are also found in letters between Graves and longtime friends and family members. Graves kept carbon copies and later computer printout copies of many of his letters to others, so the researcher gets both sides of the letter-writing dialogue, in these folders and elsewhere in the collection where correspondence is included.

The vast majority of the correspondence is filed alphabetically by last name, though in a handful of cases by institution name, event name, or subject. Within the folders that are labeled with a range of names the correspondence is arranged and labeled in smaller folders. Folders that have just one name written on them means the volume of letters warranted its own folder (or in some cases, more than one folder.

The correspondence in the John Schaffner file is notable for chronicling the agent-writer relationship. Schaffner was Graves’ agent until 1979, and this file, covering eighteen years, highlights their personal and professional association during that time. Writers Rick Bass, Angus Cameron, Nick Lyons and John N. Cole  have considerable amounts of correspondence with Graves, as does writer and photographer Bill Wittliff, who has also been a close friend of and sometime collaborator with Graves through the years.  Though less voluminous, the letters between Graves and Cormac McCarthy reveal a respect and kinship between the two men.

Daughters Helen Graves and Sally Jackson also have a considerable amount of correspondence in this series. Fleet Lentz and Abe Rothberg each have multiple folders, making evident their important friendships with Graves. Another significant friendship documented in letters is that of Graves and Samuel Hynes, who have been close friends since their days together at Columbia University. These letters are arranged in two parts, one restricted and one not. Letters donated by Mr. Hynes himself for inclusion in the John Graves Papers are restricted from access until after the deaths of both gentlemen. There are also two other, unrelated letters placed at the end of the series that are restricted until 30 years after the death of Mr. Graves.


SERIES III: Institutional Activities, 1960-98

Box 32

There are two main parts to this series: Texas Institute of Letters, and Classes & Workshops. The former sub-series deals with Graves’ membership in and activities with T.I.L., including two folders of his 1971-73 presidency of the organization; while the latter sub-series contains syllabus information and notes related to two courses and one workshop taught by Graves. The files in these two sub-series are arranged chronologically. The last part in Institutional Activities is a file relating to the “John Graves Essay Contest,” conducted by The University of Texas Press. Graves was the judge of the final three-place winners of the contest.


SERIES IV: Awards and Honors, 1961-2004 (bulk 1975-97)

Box 33  

This series is arranged chronologically, and contains mainly invitations, programs and photographs related to awards and honors bestowed upon Graves. A significant portion of this series deals with the Dallas Museum of Art’s “John Graves Day,” celebrated in May 1995, and includes video recordings of the event as well as correspondence, clippings and programs.


SERIES V: Personal Materials, ca. 1920-2002 (bulk 1938-99), n.d.

Boxes 34-43, 47-48

Notebooks, legal papers, financial papers, photographs, journals, objects and academic records make up the majority of the materials in this series. Graves’ academic career is well documented through grade reports and written recommendations, class notes from undergraduate and graduate school, and his Columbia University Master’s thesis on William Faulkner. Of particular interest in this series is the notebook Graves used while traveling in Europe and his journal of a trip down the Rio Conchos, as well as many copy prints of family photographs. Objects of note include Graves’ Royal Standard typewriter and the paddle and tent he used during his canoe trip down the Brazos River in 1957.

Materials in this series are arranged chronologically according to sub-series. The “Reading Notes” journals in Box 38 may not be viewed or duplicated without the permission of John Graves or Bill Wittliff.


SERIES VI: Clippings, ca. 1940-2004, n.d.

Box 44, 47

Photocopies—and the originals, when available—of newspaper and magazine clippings related mostly to Graves’ writing career can be found in this series. The clippings are filed in chronological order. A number of issues of entire magazines are kept in Box 47, due to their large sizes.


SERIES VII: Writings by Others, 1942-2002, n.d.

Box 45-46

This series consists mainly of draft photocopies and printouts of other people’s novels, essays, screenplays and poetry. Also included are correspondence, clippings, research, notes and page proofs. A handful are essays written about Graves, but the majority of the files are creative works that Graves has proofread or for which he has offered promotional comments.

The typescript A Texas Rancher in Durango, Mexico may not be viewed without permission from John Graves or Bill Wittliff.

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

Some materials restricted. Please contact the SWWC for information about access.


Preferred Citation

John Graves Papers, Southwestern Writers Collection, Texas State University-San Marcos


Acquisition Information

Donations since 1988. Donors: John and Jane Graves, Bill Wittliff, David Bowen, Dwain Kelly, and Samuel Hynes.


Processing Information

Previously processed by Jennifer B. Patterson, January 1994, Amanda York, 2002. Inventory Revised by Brandy Harris, 2005. Reprocessed by Joel Minor in 2007 with 10.5 linear feet of additional materials donated by Graves in 2006.


Notes to Researchers 

Books in the John Graves Collection have been cataloged separately. See also the Bill Wittliff Collection, Accession Numbers 88-052, 89-023, 91-001, 91-009, 91-046, 91-128, 92-044, and 92-053 for photographs of John Graves. See 93-104 for Dorys Grover’s collection of research materials on Graves and Southwestern literature. See the Bud Shrake Collection for a letter from Graves to Shrake. See Wittliff 98-042 for Ned Blessing television series script by WDW and Graves.

The Southwestern Writers Collection also holds materials related to the production of A John Graves Reader, including copies of numerous works, correspondence, drafts, galleys and publicity materials, in the UT Press Collection of A John Graves Reader (Collection 090).

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds 2.5 linear feet of Graves materials: