He was a ‘cowboy novelist’ who supposedly extolled the American West yet he wrote a history of American massacres called Oh What A Slaughter, and wrote learned, drily amusing essay collections in which he took the accounts of the American West to task. He was repeatedly writing the elegy for the cowboy tradition, over and over: the last cattle drive, the last days of the gunfighters, the last picture show. He published his less-than-admiring views on his fellow Texas writers and their sentimental treatment of the state’s history in an infamous essay (“Always A Bridegroom”). He shared an Oscar for writing the screenplay-adaptation for Brokeback Mountain, with its two cowboys who waste their young years struggling to resist their longing for each other. And he’s a novelist whose titles repeatedly invoked death and desolation: Dead Man’s Walk, The Last Kind Words Saloon, When the Light Goes, By Sorrow’s River, Leaving Cheyenne, Moving On, In a Narrow Grave and, of course, Lonesome Dove.
Given all this, it’s somewhat surprising that Larry McMurtry was as popular as he was — that he became far more than what a sweatshirt he once wore sarcastically proclaimed, “Minor Regional Novelist.” But Hollywood changed that, repeatedly — first with Hud, 1963 adaptation of his novel, Horseman Pass By, which gave Paul Newman a swaggering role as the titular, sexy bad boy (though in the novel, the man’s just an embodiment of Texas’ cold-hearted future). And then The Last Picture Show, the landmark 1971 film about teenagers growing up in a small Texas town, much like McMurtry’s own Archer City, a film that truly launched the careers of director Peter Bogdanovich, and the stars Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges.
But all of that, of course, pales in comparison to the success of A Lonesome Dove, now considered a great, classic Western novel of Old Texas — the kind of yarn which McMurtry regularly derided in his essays and talks. In fact, McMurtry was surprised by its success as what he called a “Western Gone with the Wind” because he tried to put in it all the things normally kept out of the Hollywood myths of 19th century Texas: prostitution, casual infidelities, alcoholism, cattle rustling (by the heroes, no less), water moccasins, loneliness, flash floods, massive boredom, bad food, ignorance, more boredom, illegitimacy, racism and illegal violence (by officers of the law) and even the desire just to escape Texas for someplace greener and lovelier, escape the whole, dreary, exhausting business of the cattle drives — at the end of the age of the great cattle drives.
But the novel’s epic sweep, its sly humor, the way McMurtry — always sensitive to the harsh Texas landscape — could capture its beauties and brutalities in a few words, the appeal of the grizzled, veteran Rangers he created — the one refusing to recognize his illegitimate son despite his affection for the boy, the other happy to live life as it comes, happy for a final adventure but fully aware that it may be their last — all this overcame the novel’s own gimlet-eyed view of all the dusty, gunslinging traditions. Especially when Hollywood made it into a golden-hued, top-grade, mini-series in 1989. After that, McMurtry took control of the screen treatments of his novels, of which there were too many (Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, The Evening Star, Lonesome Dove – The Series (different from the mini-series) and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years).
What McMurtry always considered himself was a bookman, an antiquarian, a book collector, a lover of reading. The following passage comes from my 2008 review of his Books: A Memoir:
Earlier this year, the LA Times published a report about a gala dinner at the Los Angeles Public Library. McMurtry has always liked Los Angeles, and for a company town that is usually derided by novelists-turned-frustrated-screenwriters, Los Angeles has responded warmly to a Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, of course, Oscar-winning) author’s affection. Perhaps it’s because he’s even become a made-for-TV movie producer. In any event, McMurtry was there to receive an award from the Library Foundation.
But McMurtry’s acceptance speech that evening detailed the other reason he loved LA, a reason not widely encountered by a Hollywood-happy world: Once upon a time, there were 115 second-hand bookstores in the city. It was a shelf-filled wonderland to a young, bookish writer from Texas in 1963.
And now that wonderland is utterly gone. Dutton’s, an independent bookstore in LA, closed the very day of the awards dinner.
For his part, McMurtry doesn’t often appear in public. Fairly grumpy, the 72-year-old author is not comfortable “on display” — and it shows. But that evening, he recalled those wonderful old bookshops (he was still able to list 75 of them by name). It must have been a strange evening in Hollywood, watching an Oscar-winning movie producer weep in public over some dusty stores that no longer exist. As he read “Going, Going,” Philip Larkin’s elegiac poem about the loss of traditional England (“I thought it would last my time — The sense that, beyond the town/ There would always be fields and farms”), McMurtry could barely make it through. He had damp eyes and a faltering voice.
For your enjoyment, a sampler of scenes from McMurtry’s best-known films and a sample of some of his written wisdom:
- ‘HUD’: Still Got That Itch?
- ‘THE LAST PICTURE SHOW’: Sam the Lion’s Monologue
- ‘TERMS OF ENDEARMENT’: You’re Going to Realize That You Love Me
- ‘LONESOME DOVE’: Here’s to the Sunny Slopes of Long Ago
- ‘BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’: I Wish I Knew How to Quit You
A Larry McMurtry sampler:
- ‘The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.’ — “Lonesome Dove”
- ‘Prose, I believe, must accord with the land. . . . A lyricism appropriate to the Southwest needs to be as clean as a bleached bone and as well-spaced as trees on the llano. The elements still dominate here, and a spare, elemental language, with now and then a touch of elegance, will suffice.’ — “In a Narrow Grave”
- ‘It’s really quite simple. Mr. Isinglass robbed my father, destroyed my mother, exiled my brothers, and ruined me. If I catch him asleep I’ll kill him. I do hope you like this pudding. I had to ride quite a way to find the plums.’ —“Anything for Billy”
- ‘I don’t remember either of my parents ever reading me a story – perhaps that’s why I’ve made up so many. . . . Of books, there were none. . . . The only magazine I can remember seeing in the ranch house was ‘The Cattleman,’ the trade journal of the range cattle industry, which once ran an article on our family called ‘McMurtry Means Beef.’ — “Books: A Memoir”
- ‘Being crazy about a woman like her’s always the right thing to do. Being a decrepit bag of bones is what’s ridiculous.’ — “The Last Picture Show”
- ‘It may be that one reason writers from the American west have had such a hard time getting their words taken seriously is that they have been competing from the first with one of the most powerful visual images of all: the image of horses running. The Indian and the horse have been together in movies for as long as there have been movies.’ — “Crazy Horse: A Life”
- ‘Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken-fried steak.’ — “In A Narrow Grave”
- ‘In the West, lifting up one’s eyes to the heavens can be a wise thing, for much of the land is ugly. The beauty of the sky is redemptive; its beauty prompts us to forgive the land its cruelty.’ —“Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond”
- ‘He said there were going to be literary parties. I tried to imagine a literary party and was unable to. It was a very abstract effort, like trying to imagine a triangle or a cube.’ — “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers”
- “There’s laws against mobs assembling in this town,” Wyatt insisted. “And if there ain’t, I’ll make one up myself.” … “You’re afflicted with the means today, Wyatt,” Doc informed him.’ — “The Last Kind Words Saloon”
- ‘From him to the stars, in all directions, there was only silence and emptiness.’ — “Lonesome Dove”
- ‘Archer County is not particularly scenic [the setting for “Horseman Pass By” – which became the Paul Newman movie, “Hud”], but I was all primed to observe the impact of Hollywood on my hometown. Black humor was just being invented and I could think of no easier way to get in on it.’ — “In a Narrow Grave”
- ‘The Texans stood watching as the boat pulled away and began its journey across the great gray plain of the sea . . . Call was silenced by the immense sweep of the water. He had not expected the sea to be so large: soon the boat containing Lady Carey and her party began to disappear, as a wagon might as it made its way across a sea of grass. Woodrow Call could be subdued by the ocean if he wanted to – Gus McCrae, for his part, had never felt happier: He was rich, he was safe, and the port of Galveston virtually teemed with whores. He had already visited five.” — “Dead Man’s Walk”
- ‘Biology may be destiny, as a famous thinker claimed; but then, I would contend, geography is destiny, too. I was born in a part of Texas that is essentially Midwestern. Small towns in my part of Texas don’t differ that much from towns in Kansas or Nebraska. These are towns where change comes slowly. And yet it comes.’ —”Books: A Memoir”
- ‘Meanwhile there is still the West that was – with its achievement and its destruction – and the land that is, emptier and emptier on the plains, more and more weighed down with population on the Gulf and West Coasts, and always, that other, endlessly imagined West, the West that can never be fully believed or wholly denied . . . where buttes are tall and horizons long, where women mainly try to stay out of the way, and where an unforgettable company, Gene and Roy, Butch and Sundance, Clint and the Duke, wild bunches galore, and a masked man who kills the bad guys with silver bullets, still gallop from commercial to commercial on some screen somewhere, every day.
That’s the West that even the most accurate scholarship can’t do a thing about.’ —“Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West”