Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship

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9781400042227: Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship

In Myself and Strangers, the much admired author of Goodbye to a River and other nonfiction classics recounts his long, winding journey toward becoming a writer in the years after World
War II.

Drawing upon memory and his journals, Graves moves quickly through his early days in Texas and his brief dramatic stint in the Pacific with the marines. The story starts in earnest with the year after the war, when his quest to find himself takes him to Mexico, where he punches out his young man’s recollections on an old portable typewriter, beginning a lifelong habit of looking inward, of observation and note-taking. We follow him to Martha Foley’s famous short fiction class at Columbia University, and then to Europe, where he spends nearly three years in 1950s Spain, part of the expat communities of Mallorca, Madrid, and Tenerife, keeping the journals that form the basis of this memoir.

We meet dozens of fascinating people: the large and generous Park Benjamin, who put him up in Mexico City; the restless, self-involved expatriates of Mallorca; Pepe Mut and other Spanish friends Graves sails and fishes with, and who allow him to become acquainted with the real Spain; and many other artists and writers, both famous and unknown.

It is a time of serious work and serious play, but whether cheering at a bullfight, sipping a strong local wine at a Canary Island literary salon, or spearing crustaceans underwater, Graves never forgets his deep-seated literary ambition. “I would like so God-damned much to write something worth writing,” he says in an early journal entry. And we see him producing, despite many false starts, a stream of stories and articles and the beginning of a novel.

By the end of Myself and Strangers, Graves has returned to Texas, where he finds both his true voice and the world that has become the focus of much of his admired work. Here is a wonderfully revealing portrait of a young writer on his way—of the strivings, struggles, and self-scrutiny that marked the beginning of an extraordinary literary career.

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About the Author:

John Graves was born in Texas and educated at Rice and Columbia universities. He has published a number of books, chiefly nonfiction concerned with his home region. He currently lives with his wife on some four hundred acres of rough Texas hill country, which he described in Hard Scrabble.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One
Origins
(1920-1945)

I was born and grew up rather unexceptionally in the prairie city of Fort Worth, Texas, my late childhood and youth coinciding with the years of the Great Depression. My family were "nice people" in the Southern phrase, Episcopalian and conservative, with quite a few of the implicit privileges pertaining to that classification, though my father's struggles to stay financially afloat in the 1930s kept us at times barely within the local Establishment's boundaries.

Lying on the eastern rim of the West Texas ranching country, the city had large stockyards and meat-packing plants, an annual Livestock Exposition with its rodeo, and many visitors who wore high-heeled boots and wide hats legitimately, because these were related to their daily work. But its underlying ethos was also quite Southern. Its mythic heroes were often Confederate soldiers, like my four great-uncles, from both sides of the family, of whom two had gotten themselves killed in battle and a third had lost a leg at Chickamauga. Many of the parents of my contemporaries in the town came from other regions, usually in the South-my own mother was born in South Carolina and my father grew up in coastal Texas with a merchant father, though his mother's people had all been ranchers.

Ranching and farming mattered far more in the Texas of those days than they do now. In Fort Worth they were a recent part of most of my friends' family backgrounds, and a number of us, after we were big enough to be of any use, spent our summers doing country work, usually for relatives and at the abysmal rural wages of Depression times. ("A dollar a day and keep" was standard, and workdays often lasted eleven or twelve hours.) My own experience of this sort was not very grand, but it meant a lot to me. One of my older cousins was married to a man who ran a stock farm of several hundred acres not far west of the city, a place that was mainly rangeland, utilized by his beef cattle, and partly creekbottom fields sowed annually to various grain crops.

There I drove an old tractor ahead of a plow, or a binder cutting ripe wheat or oats and tying them into bundles that it dropped into the stubble as it moved along. Afterward I and other workers would stack six or eight of those bundles at a time into shocks to await the arrival of an itinerant thresher, and would do other tasks that needed doing, the most pleasant of which for me-because it had the flavor of old romance-was riding out on horseback and helping to drive in feisty crossbred cattle for branding, dehorning, castration, doctoring, or shipping to market.

There were other fine things about that work. Sometimes I labored alongside talkative Mexican illegals on seasonal jobs like fence repair and firewood cutting, and absorbed from them the Spanish names of things and a stock of unseemly words and phrases. The boss himself, my cousin-in-law, though he was a rough, profane, powerful individual intolerant of weakness in others, was intelligent and had an inquiring mind. He knew much local history, for instance, going back to the Comanche wars of the region, and had a remarkable familiarity with the names and habits of the birds and wild mammals that were all around us there. Later-in part I guess because of him-I went more deeply into these subjects on my own.

And I retained an interest in the land and all that it meant. . . .

Papa had a well-regarded men's clothing store downtown, but his venerable partner, just before the Depression showed its fangs, had bought a large stock of costly merchandise on credit and had promptly died, leaving Papa with the debt during tough times, in an era when bankruptcy was still a major disgrace. A decent and generous-spirited man, he tried not to impose this situation on his family, but it was there.

Hence, for me, there was a slight element of outsiderness that might have helped to keep me from conforming to the pattern into which most of my Fort Worth crowd fitted comfortably, and might also have helped me to break loose later. There were other such semi-outsiders around, and we tended to know one another and to go our own ways after high school, though a few made the jump and became true Establishment types. People of that more standard ilk most often attended the University of Texas in Austin, joining one of three or four "in" fraternities there and getting to know ruling-class scions from all over the state, with whom they would wheel and deal for the rest of their lives. The friendships I had among them, of which there were enough, were based on having grown up in a neighborhood together and attending the same public schools, and on much hunting, fishing, and other country activity. A number of the less prosperous ones ultimately married money, and as a result made more money and became staid and conservative adults, as their parents had hoped all along they would do. I suppose my parents had hoped for much the same thing, though they never pushed me in that direction.

I was not a rebel loaded with social bitterness, but I did see early that those friends' pattern was not for me. For one thing, I was an inveterate reader and shared few of the ruling passions of their world, such as spectator sports, school spirit, and discussion of what local families had how much money. So when the time came, I attended the small scholarly college of Rice in Houston, soaked up literature and history and friendships, and have been grateful ever since for the experience and the institution.

By the time I finished my studies there we had a war on our hands and, along with several million other Americans, I went to it, another break with personal background. Patriotism was involved, of course, but I think mainly I just wanted to see the fighting. If you had grown up on tales of Rebel great-uncles and the Marines at Belleau Wood, you tended to feel that way.

At Quantico, Virginia, I endured candidates' class and was made a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, got imbued with esprit, went through artillery school, and then was sent to Camp Pendleton on the west coast, where the new Fourth Marine Division was being shaped up. This unit shipped out of San Diego in January of 1944, combat-loaded for the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll.

War is an overwhelming sort of subject and possibly has small pertinence to reminiscences concerned with a writing apprenticeship. But as a force it loomed behind my generation for the rest of our lives, and since my fighting career was pretty short, I might as well summarize it here.

Kwajalein was not a tough battle for most artillerists besides the forward observers landing with the infantry. Our guns were set up on islets within firing range of the main fortified islands, Roi and Namur, which were being pounded by naval gunfire and bombs from aircraft. I and my gun crewmen and our four 75-millimeter howitzers (toys in today's terms) spent the night on one such islet, got sniped at by two or three lingering Japanese who had to be hunted down in the palms and underbrush, and the next morning fired on Roi-Namur in support of the main infantry landing there, until friends and enemies in the beachhead, as reported by our observers on their radios, became so intertangled that we had to stop shooting. And for us that was Kwajalein, though the infantry, as usual, suffered its full quota of casualties.

Then came a sojourn at the new Fourth Division tent camp on a flank of Maui's Haleakala volcano, a pleasant time that didn't last long, for in June we went to Saipan in the Marianas. This was no atoll but a fourteen-mile strip of rough hills full of caves, cliffs, gun emplacements, bunkers, and self-confident hate-filled foemen who gave us hell on the beaches and kept it up as we pushed northward, for the whole time I was there, which turned out to be about two weeks. By then I was on the battalion staff as assistant operations officer, with a section of bright youngsters and duties concerned chiefly with surveying in new gun positions as the infantry advanced and we had to move forward time after time, in order to keep firing in their support. This involved instrument work in a sort of no-man's-land behind the front lines, where bypassed Japanese snipers, most of them fortunately poor shots, could make things interesting on occasion.

The beaches had been rough for just about everybody, but I lost only two men while engaged in that later surveying work, neither of them badly wounded, then received my own comeuppance at battalion headquarters one misty early morning, when thirty or forty disoriented Japanese, trying I think to get back to their main force, barged in on us over the top of a little hill and a brisk firefight ensued. They had the advantage of surprise, but we had a machine gun and more people and after a time the hill was quiet. I joined a group going up to check on things, but when we got among the bodies one turned out to be not a body but a live Jap playing dead, who-a friend told me later-rolled a grenade out in front of me which exploded.

The permanent damage turned out to be only the blinding of my left eye, but that was the end of my career as a combatant. After a few months in naval hospitals I finished out the war on limited duty in North Carolina, in charge of a demonstration battery of howitzers which we fired over recruits arriving from the Parris Island boot camp. I guess I was lucky, really, not only in surviving the grenade but in missing out on my division's next island fight, which was Iwo Jima. On Saipan before I got hit, only a few good friends of mine had been killed or maimed, but Iwo took a far bloodier toll.

I didn't feel lucky, though. I felt incomplete. I had been willing, and had gotten pretty good at handling the superb young Marines under my command, and at the work we did with instruments, maps, and guns. But I hadn't managed to last.

Two
A Mexican Interlude
(1946)

Fresh out of the Marines in late 1945, I spent some time at home in Fort Worth and then went to Mexico. What I had known abo...

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Graves, John
Published by Knopf (2004)
ISBN 10: 1400042224 ISBN 13: 9781400042227
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