One of the giants of the Texas literary world – one with ties to Kyle and Hays County – died this week.
Don Ballew Graham, a distinguished professor, author, critic and an authentic Texas character who the Dallas Morning News described as the premier scholar on Texas literature, was 79. He once lived in Kyle and taught at Texas State University in San Marcos (then Southwest Texas State University) before moving to teach in the Ivy League and then the University of Texas, achieving fame along the way.
Funeral services had not been set as of press time.
At his death, Graham held one of the most storied posts at the University of Texas at Austin as the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of English. He won the Carr P. Collins Prize for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Texas Institute of Letters and was a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly.
He was also the author of several other notable books about Texas culture and Texas heroes, but was at least as famous in literary circles for his insightful, sometimes biting, and often hilarious commentary on the state of Texas literature. He wrote many articles for other newspapers and magazines, including the Texas Observer and – in his early years – for the precursors to this newspaper, the Hays County Citizen and Kyle News.
Graham’s friendly(ish) literary fight in the 1980s with Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show, was played out in print and became legendary for its wit and provocative review of whether Texas novelists should continue to look to the old west or the new urban state for inspiration.
He was as fearless in his reviews as he was funny. While he often challenged Texas writers to raise the bar, he could be both a sly and ferocious defender of Texas culture against those pompous souls – whether in Austin or New York – who dismissed Texas with stereotypes.
He once told an interviewer from The Austin Chronicle that while southern writers were often romanticized by national critics, Texan writers, and westerners in general, never got that kind of standing nationally.
“My theory is that the East Coast is only interested in Southern writing so much because it’s about race and it’s Gotheric. It fits their idea of the South – that the South is full of crazies, religious nuts, and racists. Whereas they don’t really have any idea about the West at all.”
He said he considered himself lucky that he graduated college before the study of literary theory and deconstructionalism overtook the study of the stories themselves.
“I’ve always thought that literature was interesting in and of itself – its relation to human emotion, experience, history, place – that it didn’t need this kind of structure of theory surrounding it or explaining it through theoretical lenses. I kind of was lucky I that I graduated before that heavy theory hit. I’m sure it produces some great insights, but you have to wade through a lot of bad writing. I do like to take shots at sacred cows, apparently.”
Graham returned to Kyle in 2013 as one of the eulogists for Bob Barton, Jr., the former publisher of the Hays Free Press. He had been close with Barton and his wife, Wynette, or “Tutta,” when he lived in Kyle and was among a group that took on the county’s power structure in the 1970s, campaigning for civil rights and more freedoms on the SWT campus.
“He was altogether a great guy and a fine mind and a keen wit, and I’m grieved to see him go,” said Wynette Barton, who is a major stockholder at the Hays Free Press.
Pat Cox, a county resident who was the associate director at UT (and also served as president of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer board of directors and as chair of the Pedernales Electric Co-op), said Graham “was a friend to many and an inspiration to his students and colleagues. He was also a well-liked thorn in the side of the university an dacademia.”
Referring to one of Texas early, legendary writers, Cox said, “I was proud to have [Graham’s] essay on J. Frank Dobie in my book ‘Writing The Story of Texas.’ I imagine he will be raising a glass or two with Dobie at Joe Small’s Barbecue.”
Graham’s books include “Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire”, which won the Collins Prize, “No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy”, “Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film” and “Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology”, edited along with Larry McMurtry.
Graham is survived by his wife, Betsy Berry Graham, and two daughters.
Funeral details were not available as of press time.