I had just turned six when he died, I in Birmingham, Alabama, he in Austin, Texas. But somehow we have denied space, time, and even death to become friends. I never met Roy Bedichek, never sat with him at Conversation Rock, and never corresponded with him. Still he has influenced me more than all but a few living men.
As a sophomore at Temple High, I first read Bedichek. In Foy Dubois’ Texas history class I was to read a book about Texas and write a book report. For some reason, forgotten now, I chose Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. Perhaps, judging the book by its cover, I was caught by its old- fashioned green-and-brown jacket. Perhaps the paisano and prickly-pear, the acorn and mesquite on the cover, the yucca on the spine promised to tell me about this sparce, odd state I had moved to. Perhaps its title seemed magical, or maybe, thinking myself a young poet, I thought I should learn something about nature.
I don’t remember but I suppose I wrote my book report. I know I did not read the entire book. I liked what I read but it was beyond me in vocabulary and scope. For all my pretentions, I was not ready for Bedichek’s ruminations on chickens, mockingbirds, or eagles. What I remember most is not the book itself but Mr. Dubois’ face when I told him I was going to read Adventures. His eyes sparkled; his smooth, shaved face glowed. He asked me why I had chosen the book and told me that Bedichek was raised and buried only twenty miles north in Eddy, a town like all the other small towns on the crisply lighted, yellow-green prairies that roll along Interstate 35. I had passed it often on my way to Waco and Dallas, noticing little more than its old frayed buildings, leaning fences, and a well-kept cemetery.
A few years later at the University of Texas, after I had read Shakespeare and the romantic poets and after I had been inspired by Thoreau, Whitman, and Socrates, I returned to Bedichek and began to understand the look in Mr. Dubois’ face. My brother-in-law, who is interested in Texas and Texas writers, introduced me to Ronnie Dugger’s Three Men in Texas. In that book I saw Mr. Dubois’ look put into words over and again, Bedichek’s friends recalling one by one how they loved, admired, and emulated him. Though comparisons and allusions to Thoreau, Whitman, Socrates, and even Samuel Johnson crept in, Bedichek’s friends did not analyze him. Instead, they wrote of shared experiences and conversations. These men were surprised to find such a man in Texas, surprised more to find him their friend. In reading their stories of him and his rich mind, earthy humor, and genuine concern for them and their development, I yearned to know more about him—to know him, and perhaps to be more like him. Since one of the writers had said that there was little difference in Bedichek’s persona and personality, I took to reading Adventures again.
Having read Walden, I was more prepared for Bedichek’s philosophical excursions. His “Introduction” was his declaration of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For. ” As a young long-hair pretending to be a Cosmic Cowboy, I hoped Bedichek’s book might help me “get back to nature” and learn its lessons. Though I know now that Bedichek would have found such innocence amusing, he probably would have thought it wholesome. Certainly, he would have understood its intent. As his essays in his three nature books show, nature was not for him an end in itself, but a catalyst, a provoker of thought. Bedichek went to nature and brought back philosophy. In writing Karankaway Country, he described the book as “another nature-philosophico-Bedichekio-economico and just about as many other co’s as I may choose to give it. ” The description holds true for all his books, but Adventures is the most Bedichekio. He rambles, chats, confides, and surprises with some odd bit of information or odd association: I was fascinated. How could this man see so clearly? I had seen wildflowers along old dilapidated fences beside the farm roads, but I did not realize the fences protected the wildflowers from the cattle and goats. I had even worked in a chicken battery, loading chickens, so many per crate, to be driven off to the slaughtering house. It had not occurred to me, however, that chickens raised in crowded cages several feet above a manure pit eating only grain could be less nutritious than chickens raised naturally.
If my association with Roy Bedichek had ended with Adventures with a Texas Naturalist and his other books, no doubt he would have remained another of the writers whose works I greatly enjoy, but not much else. Yet one of those odd occurrences happened where desire and circumstance meet. A few months after I had graduated from the university, packed my car, and moved across the Brazos to work on a master’s, William A. Owens became Texas A&M’s writer-in-residence. Knowing his book Three Friends and of his relationship with Bedichek, I applied for and was accepted as his graduate assistant. My job was to prepare clean transcriptions of his taped interviews with Roy Bedichek, made the summer of 1953, the year I was born.
On Saturday mornings I would sit in my campus office, stopping and starting Bedichek, writing down his conversation, phrase by phrase, word by word. He told stories of his father and Quantrill’s gang in Missouri, stories of important older men in his life—Boynton, Brann, Lomax, H. Y. Benedict—stories of escapades with his friends, Witt, Steger, and Doughty, stories of his life in Deming and his dog Hobo. These were the stories he told his friends at Conversation Rock at Barton Springs and around campfires in the Hill Country. And these were the stories I told my friends over Saturday lunches, assuming Bedichek’s low deliberate, slightly gravelly voice, telling how my first day in Deming ”I was eating in this Chinese restaurant and I saw the most appealing face of a dog that I have ever seen. ” I gave him a bone, “a great big bone, bigger than his head considerably. He had to stretch his jaws to get a hold on it you know. And as he sat down there in the sand and began to gnaw that bone, why, I thought perhaps that that was a good omen and I’d better just stay there in Deming. ”
Transcribing the tapes made Bedichek a permanent part of me. Those Saturday mornings he sat with me in my office, which in my imagination became the hills outside Austin, and we talked. He told me who he was and what he had done, and in doing so he told me something of myself and what I needed to do. Listening to his conversation reinforced my appreciation of his prose, which is simply Bedichek talking, perhaps in a less risque, slightly more formal, complex, precise manner, hiut Bedichek talking just the same. It also made me realize why, when I had read “Three Men in Texas” a couple of years before, I had preferred Bedichek. Walter Webb was not a talker. Dobie and Bedichek were. But when Dobie talked one listened because the story was bound to be good; when Bedichek talked one listened to know more about Bedichek and thus more about oneself. That is the art of the conversationalist. Beginning that year, Bedichek and I have had a friendship that has deepened each year.
It deepened as I became more and more familiar with his letters to his friends. When writing my master’s thesis on Roy Bedichek’s friend the poet Leonard Doughty, I met a young Bedichek whom Doughty could address as “My Dear Ernest Dowson, ” as they drank whiskey and recited romantic and Victorian poetry into the early hours. Then I saw Bedichek progress from the heart-sick school of poetry through Tolstoy and out again (“I think I am getting away from [Tolstoy], away from the terrible soul-sickness of Christianity”) all the while loyal to his friend who became progressively more alcoholic and debauched. Bedichek encouraged him, praised him, helped him financially, published him, and never condemned him. Even after he had to ban Doughty from his house to protect his children, he wrote of Doughty with concern and affection.
Some time after I completed the thesis, I began reading and selecting the letters that fill this collection. Each day, reading through the over four thousand letters to his friends, I learned more about the man than I can write here, but two things stand out. First, in these letters Bedichek appears in all his complexity—as he has not appeared before. For instance, the philosopher-naturalist of the essays is joined here with the earthy teller of folk stories. More important, one can see that the earthy philosopher-naturalist was very much Bedichek’s creation. His persona- personality that many friends said was natural was a persona his personality grew into.
In one letter Bedichek wrote, “I have several literary friends (Dobie included) who dog me to write my autobiography. I tell them it is already written in my letters. There I am just as I am. The discerning reader (and who wants any other kind?) can tell when I am joking, posing, serious, and when I am lying and when I am telling the truth.” In these letters one can see he posed a good deal. In a very real way, Bedichek posed until he became the “Hermit of Friday Mountain, ” as the Saturday Evening Post proclaimed him. Since that time, Bedichek’s reputation has rested on that persona. In “Three Men in Texas, ” of the twenty writers who fixed Bedichek’s character for us, only three—B. C. Tharp, T. H. Shelby, and Ed Witt—could claim intimate knowledge of Bedichek before he was sixty.
The second aspect of Bedichek’s character to intrigue me as I read his letters was the extent to which he loved his friends. I had seen this in his friendship with Leonard Doughty; in the full collection I found his art of friendship in letter after letter. Early there are Harry Steger and Doughty, then John Lomax and Ed Witt with whom he remained friends even while their politics and philosophies became more opposed. Later he befriended those who loved his books; counseling Victor Martin on his health, consoling Ella Scott Webb on her failing eyesight, making Ruth Walker feel at home in her adopted state.
Most important are the friendships with younger men, whom he encouraged and admonished and praised. The first of them was Dan Williams, but he was followed over the years by William A. Owens, John Henry Faulk, Henry Nash Smith, Eugene George, James Pratt, Ronnie Dugger, and Dobie and Webb, who were, we should remember, ten years younger. He advised all these men on the greater and lesser problems of life: on taking advantage of trips to Europe, on being careful of the lures of New York, on how to write and what to read, on building their careers, on the politics of the university, the state, and the nation, and on exercise and diet and staying healthy.
And he took from these men as much as he gave. He and Dan Williams traded short stories for criticism. George and Pratt taught him architecture. Faulk and Owens told him stories and sang him songs. All of them inspirited him with their young masculinity.
In reading these letters, I listened to him, thought about his advice, and often changed certain notions I had as if he were talking to me. He has counseled me on gardening, diet, working in a bureaucracy, writing, patriotism, literature, and teaching. Every day I use something he has said to me.
1985 marks the twenty-sixth year since Roy Bedichek died. In that time, thousands have continued to read his books, and his prose is still considered among the best of Texas writers. Developed over decades of writing letters to friends, his style is charged with the intimacy of conversation. No more of us will talk with him, but in these letters written to his friends, Roy Bedichek still speaks to us and through them we can come close to knowing him.