By Claiborne Smith
AUGUST 10, 1998: In the 1995 film Search & Destroy there is a brief scene that's set in Dallas; Don Graham, the president of the Texas Institute of Letters, English professor at the University of Texas, and author, is probably aware of the film for that reason alone, even though the film's subject is not really Texas. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about Texas literature or film escapes him. That scene's most memorable exchange says more about Don Graham than its setting. A traveling shady "executive" and a Dallas secretary are discussing Texas accents:
"How come nobody here has a Texas accent?"The idea that modern people are all homogenized, bland representations of one another, and thus implicitly understand one another, couldn't be more inimical to the work of Don Graham. Everyone mentioned in his recent collection of 20 years of essays, Giant Country: Essays on Texas, is a character come alive, and at least half of the fun reading about them is that they don't understand one another. Giant Country holds its own as a scholarly work, but it's much too engaging and hilarious to accord it that virtuous but lackluster categorization. All the important names of Texas letters are there, but much to his credit, the fact that the names are important doesn't prevent Graham from getting at their essence.
For example, Graham discovered John Graves in 1960, the year Graves' Goodbye
to a River was published. At that time, Graham was a sophomore at North Texas
State University. In Giant Country, Graham gives us Graves according to the
"Northern" critical reception of him, a tack which reveals more about Graves
and Texas literature than merely placing him within the context of other Texas writers.
Here's Graham on writers from the North who moved to Austin in the late Seventies
and "discovered" Graves:
"Yankees fresh from Breadloaf, male, female, and undeclared, all sang his praises. In person, Graves filled the bill, too. Kind, modest, well-read, off-the-cuff, informal, he seemed like a benign uncle. One newcomer even put him in a novel in order for her heroine to have an affair with this Lone Star literary icon. Media maven Bill Moyers came down to Graves' actual hard-scrabble ranch near Glen Rose and asked him a lot of heavy questions about Life, Dirt, Art, etc. and filmed it and showed it on PBS so everybody could feel good about regionalism."
Getting to the point, telling it like it is, and appearing to revel in being contrary
has earned Graham a reputation as Texas' literary curmudgeon, a reputation that may
seem appropriate when you read what he has to say about Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas:
"Paris, Texas has the single stupidest premise behind it that I can remember in any film. It makes Porky's look smart. [Harry Dean] Stanton has been wandering in the deserts of the Southwest for four years, suffering from amnesia. Amnesia! When was the last time that one was hauled out of World War II mothballs? Worse, he suffers from an obsessive fixation upon the place where he was conceived. He believes that this great event occurred in what is now a vacant lot in Paris, Texas. They should have called this film Vacant Lot. I've taken a poll of my friends, and not one of them has ever been moved to wonder where his mama and daddy did it. It's just not a big issue in the Sunbelt at this time."
Comedy is a near-constant presence in Giant Country, and in his teaching. Recently, in a UT summer school class on American literature, he led the class in an analysis of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as classic comedy, of the Shakespearean sort. He mentioned The Sun Also Rises as sexual comedy. In a Don Graham class, there's more of an exchange between professor and student than in the average class. He regularly begins sentences with phrases like, "in my interpretation." He's in charge but he's clearly invested in establishing his students' abilities to provide their own interpretations. No curmudgeon here.
In the statewide coverage of Giant Country that has appeared so far, adjectives like "caustic," "excoriating," and "fearless" are routine. But Judy Alter, his editor at TCU Press and the secretary of the Texas Institute of Letters, explains his perceived crankiness as his tendency to be "increasingly critical of the misuse of Texas literature"; she says that "he's always had a very sharp wit," and thinks that he's only headed in the direction of becoming Texas' literary curmudgeon. Graham himself says that "in the world of Texas letters, if you're breathing, you're opinionated. I am impatient with the overrating of some writers, and I may be wrong about it but I like a frame of reference to be bigger than Texas because I've always read widely in American literature and British literature and now Australian literature and I would like the standard to be bigger than Travis County. If that makes me opinionated, then I'm opinionated."
In person and on the page, Graham has a flair for plainspoken and curt phrasing, which is what a lot of Texans have a flair for - not many of them, though, publish essays written in the style. In Graham parlance, if you want to indicate that Larry McMurtry is adept at landscape description, even in Texasville, you say that "he can still work that side of the street." In one essay, he praises Jessica Mitford's landmark critique of American funeral practices, The American Way of Death, by affirming that she "had the goods on funeral homes." Billy Lee Brammer, author of The Gay Place, is revealed as "a card-carrying intellectual." He recently told me that "there is a strong tradition in Texas letters that you be nice all the time. You know, Dobie and those guys hated McMurtry because he used four-letter words. They hated that!" "Dobie and those guys" - it's such a familiar world for Graham, it's like Dobie-Bedichek-Webb are his neighbors. For the book browser who is aware of picking up a book by a professor with as grandiloquent a title as Graham's (he's the "J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas") it's an ingratiating, but ultimately welcome, process slinking into Graham's folksy style.
Don't be fooled by his blustery bravura, though: Reading him just for kicks is
negligence. Graham opens a scholarly article in Giant Country that invokes
Virgil, "Cotton and Classicism: George Sessions Perry's Farm Novel," which
originally appeared in the Texas Studies Annual in 1994, by recollecting growing
up on his family's cotton farm.
"Although the machine made the work a little easier, the eternal verities of cotton farming remained: low prices; exhausting stoop labor under a broiling sun; threats from rain or drought; insects, both those that killed cotton and those that tormented its tenders; long days; dreams and broken dreams; and Johnson grass: anyone who has worked a cotton field in Texas is familiar with that most durable archenemy of man and cotton. The cotton sacks were longer than a limousine, I later believed, and bottomless, and the rows endless in the heat and sweat of mornings that crawled imperceptibly toward noon's brief halcyon. (Why is it that writing about cotton seems to induce Faulknerian languors of diction and syntax? Perhaps it is the latent aesthete's desire to escape the earth's immemorial retrograde, the downward tug of cotton.)"
When he uses a phrase like "eternal verities," the reader expects him to enumerate intangible, wholly abstract ideas. But the first five items he mentions are facts, rock-hard facts, which seems fitting: How many cotton pickers do you know who use phrases like "eternal verities"? Graham then passes off "dreams and broken dreams" as if it were just one more item in a list and proceeds to mention Johnson grass, something tangible, something "durable." A critic might say that the "dreams and broken dreams" of a cotton farmer need to be unraveled, that they are neglected in Graham's rushed push to end the litany with something tangible. For Graham, though, that commonplace listing is an indication that he refuses to utilize the typical modes of humanizing the cotton farmer's existence. He'd rather gulp poison than be deemed a professor who in full view, unsubtly, goes after the "big ideas." "In spite of his persona," remarks Dick Holland, the former curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection, "he's a pretty serious guy." I'd say we have a latent aesthete on our hands.
Soon that aesthete may have to leave latency. Graham and his wife Betsy Berry, who also teaches in the English department, have an August 31 deadline for the novel they are co-writing, French Resistance; the title essay in Giant Country is their other co-written work. The two met while she was a graduate student at UT (Graham categorizes it as meeting "in the workplace"). Berry recalls that when she was in graduate school, "you cannot imagine what kind of help it was to say to Don, 'Look, I need a good short definition for existentialism. I know that's going to be reductive, but in, say, three sentences, could you give me an idea of what's going on there?' Asking some other professor for something like that, it would be impossible." She says that "people have forever thought that after I met Don that I would have pursued the same focus in my studies. I actually did British literature and modernism but everyone assumes that I know a whole bunch about Texas. I am not crazy about the idea of being a regional writer. I like it here, but the idea, you know, of 'Texas' bores me. And Don finds my scant knowledge of Texas history amusant to say the least." Maybe it's all gone wrong: If Graham is the latent aesthete, perhaps Berry is the outspoken one.
"I'm the one with the European sensibility, dinner at nine, that kind of thing. Don inherited more of the Puritan work ethic than I did. His advice to me before I leave each day to go write - 'Bring five pages or don't come home' - keeps me on task," Berry says. They say they've figured out a harmonious way to work together, and that's editing one another. Graham: "She started out writing fiction; I'm just coming to fiction, and she's really good in my opinion at creating a motif whereas I have to resist the expository approach because most of my stuff is expository." Berry: "Sure, I'd like to make money and I think I've been effective in convincing Don that commercial possibilities in story and characters don't have to detract from the writing." Their home is no airy writers' palace. Being the president of the Texas Institute of Letters requires its fair share of Graham's time. "TIL is a great organization and I would like to continue the programs that are in place. I'm interested in looking around the state and seeing if there are any writers who have been inadvertently overlooked, making sure that they're brought into membership and sometimes that happens from somebody living out of the state for a while or not having published something recently."
If Graham were an independent essayist, not associated with a university and not the bearer of that professorial title, his status as an edgy, opinionated writer wouldn't be such an issue. Because we expect our professors to be well-spoken rather than plainspoken, donned up rather than down, he seems an anomaly. You have to take Don Graham on his own, as a unique commentator. He seems to be aware of that; one of the epigraphs to Giant Country is from the Coen brothers' Blood Simple: "In Russia they got it mapped out, so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here you're on your own."
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