In Mason jars we caught our lightning bugs
  who flitted summer evenings, children heights,
  building the neon globes we set on rugs
  inside for talking, nervous, yellow lights
  when the light was gone for play. I recall that death
  which we saw in the slowly suffocating things
  made our small talk serious, regulated our breath,
  and focused our circle on paired, spasmodic wings,
  raising themselves from the mass. We talked till late
  of the girl chopped up near the bridge at Germantown
  and the cursing boy whose growth God stopped at eight,
  and the adults we would be if we got grown,
  but hushed and watched when a random blink would catch,
  and a light, then life, would fade with a little twitch.

  Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 1976, All Rights Reserved



           Roy Neil Graves
  7. Personal background:


  •  Medina, Tennessee (1939-57).  Born on Groundhog’s Day, February 2, 1939—a fifth- or sixth-generation West Tennessean down most of 32 paternal and maternal lines—to caring, ethical, hard-working parents, Georgia Mae Reed Graves (1910-2010), a homemaker and bookkeeper, and Roy N. Graves, Sr. (1909-90), an auto mechanic and partner in Medina Garage. One brother, Clifton Reed Graves (b. 1941), eventually a mechanical engineer who married Joyce Stallings and had one son, Russell (an aeronautical engineer with the space program in Houston, married to Beth, a mathematics major), and one grandson, Roy. Grandparents Edgar and Minnie Boone Graves (who lived near Medina) and Emerson and Lena Brown Reed (of near Kenton) were both farming couples who had enough children (nine and six respectively) to engender lots of cousins. Played with bright, creative neighborhood kids—including two cousins and the town doctor’s five remarkable offspring—in a WWII and post-war era of unlocked doors and bikes that you could range all over the country on. Picked cotton, carried newspapers, read town water meters, did seasonal farm and pack shed work. Was active in Medina Baptist Church, especially its organization for boys called Royal Ambassadors. Lettered two years in basketball. Took piano lessons from first grade onward. Performed with cousin Julia Kay in annual recitals and in minstrel shows put on by the Lions Club in the late 1940s and early 50s; accompanied the Velvatones, a high school girls’ quartet that won the Mid-South Fair talent show (see “Medina Girl Group’s 1957 Recordings Re-released in London,” The Milan [TN] Mirror-Exchange, 13 May 2003, 8; see also Gwenda Anthony, “Medina’s Claim to Fame,” The Jackson [TN] Sun, 21 Sept. 2003, C1f.). Won $50 in an Our Times national essay contest, arguing against the guaranteed annual wage. Published an editorial piece in The [Memphis] Commercial Appeal about how to keep Southern young people from leaving the farm. Placed second in regional typing and geometry contests. Was valedictorian of a class of 26 at Medina High School (1957)—an all-white group that several teachers praised as the “best class they’d ever taught”—in a racially segregated town and region; received the science award at graduation and was a National Merit finalist. Was admitted to Princeton University—with a deficiency in languages, which the bare-bones MHS curriculum didn’t offer—but decided not to go there.

  •   Jackson, Tennessee (1957-59). In the save-the-world-from-the-Russians context of the late 1950s, entered Union University, a Southern Baptist college near home, envisioning some kind of math-and-science emphasis with the vague career goal of doing college teaching as a Baptist missionary. Class president, freshman and sophomore years. Member of Alpha Tau Omega social fraternity, oblivious to its anti-black and anti-Semitic clauses, morally unjustifiable but moot in practical terms in the WASPish, all-white context at Union. Made good friends and straight A’s. Shifted major to English during sophomore year after hitting physics like a ripe tomato thrown against a wall. Had sweaty nightmares about acceleration curves. Studied piano, took a watercolor class. Did a solo piano recital and had a (duo) art exhibit (1959). Clerked part time in a downtown men’s clothing store and worked weekends as a desk clerk and night auditor at The New Southern Hotel in the declining era of its breed. A chief academic mentor was Jack Farris, an articulate, charismatic Arkansas-born novelist who talked a lot about Truth and Beauty and Faustian quests. Was a busboy at Ridgecrest (NC) Baptist Assembly (summer 1958). Down from the mountaintop, withdrew membership from the Baptist church (1959) and began life as an agnostic humanist. Got a best supporting actor award for a role in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Took French. Carefully selected sophomore courses to parallel Princeton’s divisional requirements while reapplying for admission there. After initial, nearly absolute discouragement from university officials followed by much epistolary badgering and beating on the Gothic doors, was accepted at Princeton for the second time into the Class of 1961.

  • Princeton, New Jersey(1959-61).  Transferred (as one of only a handful of students that year, maybe four or five) to Princeton, still all-male, as a junior English major, electing an emphasis in prose fiction. Joined Wilson Lodge, a non-selective alternative to the Prospect Street clubs. Voted, like a fool, for Nixon. Struggled to adjust to new academic expectations and compiled a passable first-term record. Made two solid friends. Sang bass in the Princeton Glee Club. Did junior papers on Tennyson and Arnold and on Fielding, with Carlos Baker as advisor. Won the Bain-Swiggett prize for an original poem (1960). Worked again at Ridgecrest Assembly as summer cashier (1960) and then clerked at the Princeton University Store (1960-61). Took German and painting classes senior year. Had English classes with R. P. Blackmur, D. W. Robertson, Edward Hubler, Lawrance Thompson. Did a senior thesis titled “Joseph Conrad and the Theme of Self-Deception.” Applied to grad schools at Yale, Michigan (in creative writing), and Duke; got turned down for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship (the ticket to Michigan) and was wait-listed at Yale. Received and accepted a good three-year National Defense Education Act (N.D.E.A.) fellowship, with stipends and course fees, for graduate study at Duke—pragmatically signing its galling loyalty oath. Graduated from Princeton with departmental honors; won the Manners Prize for writing at graduation time in 1961. Headed back to the South, somewhat liberalized and a lifelong yellow-dog Democrat. Spent a last summer at home in Medina with family, dating a local girl and keeping the family yard mowed that summer. Used the Manners prize money, $500, to buy half of a ’59 Chevy that would take me east over the mountains to grad school.
  • Durham, North Carolina (1961-65).  Got a little apartment, lived comfortably. Studied American lit. at Duke, with minors in 18th Century British lit. and Southern U.S. history. Took one term off from school (fall 1962) to work as a tech writer/editor for the Army Research Office (Durham) in Durham and Panama (1962-63) on a pointless pre-Vietnam project called Swamp Fox II that “tested” vehicles in subtropical rainforests. (All got stuck.) Made good money, bought new clothes and a ’60 Austin-Healey 3000 upon return to Duke. Got marginally involved in The Movement, housing a few drop-in friends who worked for SNCC. Picketed segregated theatres in Durham. Sang in the Duke Madrigal Singers. Published (with Norbert Artzt) a fake book review in the Duke Chronicle—making up the poet Jones Goddard Nichollsen, liberally “quoting” his work in the review. Published real poems in the Archive. Finished M.A. thesis, “Emily Dickinson and Imagism” (1964), Arlin Turner, director. Taught female students on the East campus as a graduate instructor. Willard Thorp, visiting lecturer from Princeton, and Prof. Turner were mentors. Took courses with Louis Budd, Benjamin Boyce, Clarence Gohdes. Got interested in regional antiques and in rebuilding old pedal organs. Completed Ph.D. coursework, residence, and languages (French and German) but stopped short of taking prelims, in an era when ABDs could still get college teaching jobs. Realistic prospects included several centers—in towns north of Durham—in the University of Virginia extension program. With my future wife’s approval, accepted the gig in Lynchburg.

  • Lynchburg, Virginia (1965-69). Married Sue Lain Hunt, of Trenton, TN (1965), a graduate of Union University, a pianist, an independently minded elementary school teacher with altruistic leanings. Moved to Lynchburg to teach English at the UVA Branch there, after a summer at the UVA center in Roanoke. Regularly taught night classes and adult students. Lived one year on campus at New London Academy (1965-66), Sue Lain’s employer west of Lynchburg near Forest. Bought an 1859 house nearby but decided not to fix it up because the countryside around it was abruptly being graded away. Paid $4000 for an 1840s brick-and-stone raised cottage at 1501 Church Street, just uphill from the James River (and now a city landmark), and moved into an old, racially mixed urban neighborhood. Acquired two St. Bernards. Helped with some of Sue Lain’s summer Community Action projects. Shifted more or less automatically to the faculty of the new Central Virginia Community College, which subsumed the UVA programs in 1967; was first coordinator of humanities and social sciences and acting chair of English at CVCC. Wrote poems, mostly sonnets, and published in The Lyric. In late 1968 drove Sue Lain, then a teacher at Dunbar High School (with no white students), to the picket site at the downtown newspaper that had taken a reactionary stance on racial integration. First of three children born in 1969, Anna Hunt Graves (later B.A. in American studies, Yale ’90, and a graduate of Simmons in Boston, a freelance author on music topics who eventually worked in retail music in NYC and San Francisco and as a librarian in Maine and Oakland, CA). Relocated in 1969 with the growing family, dogs and cats, back to West Tennessee to teach English at UT Martin, partly because two sets of supportive grandparents lived one county away in the two hometowns, Medina and Trenton.

  •  Martin, Tennessee (1969-2018), with an interlude in Oxford, Mississippi (1976-77). Rented an in-town Martin house for a year but soon moved into a rambling, modestly refurbished T-shaped turn-of-the-century farmhouse on a small farm south of town with two ponds and 18 acres of fields and trees, bought over time in several stages. Two more children: One, Benjamin Lain Graves, born 1971 (later B.A., Wesleyan [CT] ’93, and M.A., Washington State, ’96, a successful professional musician and then a music educator who has appeared at The Grand Ole Opry and on The Tonight Show; in November 2001 he married Kathy Cruver, a New York state native, and in 2003 they moved from San Francisco to Nashville, where after January 2013 they reared a daughter, Olivia James Graves, at age six already a professional actor at TPAC in Nashville). The third offspring, Molly Brett Graves, born 1973 (later B.A. in anthropology, Princeton ’98, winner of the department thesis prize for a study of museums, a world traveler adept at languages, employed abroad after 1998 in Kazakhstan, a marathon runner in the 4:20 range, M.A. ’01 from UC Santa Cruz, journalist with St. Petersburg [Russia] Times 2000-01, an aerial performer on fabric and rope and in 2018 a teacher at NECCA in Vermont, with residential ties to Nashville). On leave from UTM and in residence with the family at Oxford, MS, completed a generalist’s doctorate in English at Ole Miss (1976-77), taking some courses in art, theatre, and education. Did Out of Tennessee: A Book of Poems, the first strictly creative doctoral thesis in English that Ole Miss allowed, Evans Harrington, director and chief mentor. Studied with John Pilkington. In a seminar directed by T.J. Ray, found the first of the lost Runes in a medieval ms. (1977), paradigms that by 1979 led to astounding sub-textual findings in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, an on-going academic calling since. Received a modest NEA-funded purchase award, Oxford-Lafayette County Library, for an original watercolor sketch (1977). Moved through the ranks back at UTM, enjoyed teaching, regularly published and delivered academic papers, taught night classes and summers, stayed busy. Divorced 1982. Kept the farmhouse and land, dubbed The Ponderosa partly because of its two ponds, until 2016. Shared joint custody of three children, who lived mostly in town with their mother until they left in turn for college in the 1990s. After 1977, member of choral groups at UTM and frequent background pianist for campus events. Music director and keyboardist for Vanguard Theatre’s Marat/Sade (1974). Other small roles in Vanguard productions (1971, 1972) and Opera Theatre. Member, Martin Public Library Board (1981-83). Rebuilt a log cabin in the back yard (early 1980s). Had interesting housemates until the early 2000s. Traveled (England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Puerto Rico, the States). Shared an interest in family history and genealogy with my dad, Roy Graves, Sr., a frequenter of deserted houses and lost graveyards until his death in 1990, a warm and generous man who loved to tell stories and who had run Medina Garage with two different brothers after 1929. In the 1990s, advocated gay rights causes at UTM, became a small-time retailer in antiques, and took up running, doing local 5Ks and 10Ks and also eight marathons including NYC and Chicago (best time 3:36:43 at the Rocket City, Huntsville). Supported UTM music and drama programs, track, WLJT-TV, and the Jackson Symphony—and Plan USA, eventually with ten foster kids. Moved and rebuilt two other room-sized log cabins, summers 2002 and 2004, at the Ponderosa. Started another web site 2003 on the Shakespeare project. A lifelong member of the Georgia Mae Graves fan club—its namesake having lived an independent and active life until age 92, finally succumbing to frailty and age in April 2010, two months before her 100th birthday. Became a peer reviewer for The Explicator in 2013. Sold the Ponderosa in 2016 to a young couple who expanded and restored the place handsomely. Finally retired from college teaching in mid-2018, after some 53 years in the classroom. Have now “cultivated my own garden” for some five decades in this rural setting that a December 1970 article in Esquire called one of America’s “Nine Happy Places,” living a privileged life, with smart, strong-minded colleagues and daily work that has often verged on Robert Frost’s ideal, combining vocation with avocation, linking serious scholarship with queries into playful coterie games and ad hoc writing projects that have challenged the mind and animated the heart. My former students, over 12,000 of them, and of course my three industrious, creative, generous, grounded children are my principal legacies, along with my dear granddaughter. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I am in late life “a part of all that I have met.” As a teacher, I’ve always known that I’d never live to see any finished product; thus I’ve always had to proceed on an optimistic faith in the powers of knowledge, disciplined effort, humane liberalism, and personal character and integrity to combat the forces of ignorance and darkness. Having lived through all the national and international threats since the late Depression of the 1930s, and fully aware of the evil and hate in the world, I choose to stay hopeful with William Faulkner that humankind will “endure and prevail” and that right-minded self-governance and the best impulses of our collective humanity can, over time, guide the destiny of our country, species, and planet.


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