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Larry McMurtry’s work is marked by his imaginative connections with the American West. Throughout his career McMurtry has focused on the golden days of cowboys and trail driving and on the transitional time between the early rural life and the new urban one, looking for values to replace the old ones that have disappeared.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Bookish Child in a Bookless Place
McMurtry was born June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas. He grew up in Archer City, Texas, in a family that had ranched in Texas for three generations. Archer City was a small town ruled by religious fundamentalism and sexual strictures. The time spent with his friends and acquaintances in Archer City was as important for McMurtry as was the time spent with his family. Classmate Ceil Slack Cleveland is usually acknowledged as the model for Jacy Farrow in The Last Picture Show (1966) while Bobby Stubbs provided the outline for Sonny in the first novel and later for Duane in Texasville (1987). Before Stubbs’s death in the early 1990s McMurtry inscribed books to him, always suggesting that Stubbs was the model for one character or another. Ceil Slack lived only two blocks away from Larry, and they competed for various school awards. Ceil’s mother, a poet and painter, encouraged Larry’s friendship, and he dedicated Anything for Billy (1988) to her and his first agent.
McMurtry was admittedly out of place among the hardworking but anti-intellectual west Texans who lived along the area called Idiot Ridge. He was “insufficiently mean” in a world where meanness meant survival, where violence against animals in the form of bronco-busting, calf throwing, cattle dehorning, and castrating were all part of daily life. He was a ”bookish boy” in a “bookless” part of the state. However, he did learn about Southwesterners’ violence, intolerance, hypocrisy, and puritanical attitudes, as well as their strength of character, endurance, emphasis on hard work, courage, and particularly what became the most important tools in his workshop— the powers of storytelling and humor. He also discovered one of the chief themes of his work, what he calls the tragic theme of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century Southwest—the end of a way of life signaled by the move off the land. Climbing on the barn at night, young McMurtry looked out across the Texas prairie and sent his imagination with the night trains to Los Angeles and the eighteen-wheelers pointed toward Fort Worth.
College and Teaching
In 1954, after graduating with honors from Archer City High School, McMurtry enrolled briefly at Rice University in Houston, where encountering the library became a transforming experience for the boy. Still, he did not stay at Rice, saying his ”chief nightmare was a freshman math course (the calculi, trig., analytics) which I failed completely.” He transferred to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), where he studied literature.
McMurtry also published in an unauthorized literary magazine, the Coexistence Review, and the student magazine, the Avesta. During his last two years at North Texas State College, McMurtry said he wrote and burned fifty-two ”very bad” short stories. Next, he turned to his cowboy past and wrote a story about the destruction of a cattle herd and another about a cattleman’s funeral. He then decided to connect the two stories and extend them into a novel. McMurtry sent the manuscript to the Texas Quarterly, which was publishing book supplements, and Frank Wardlaw read it and sent it on to a friend at Harper Brothers in New York, who decided to publish it. The novel was released as Horseman, Pass By (1961) and was the basis for the acclaimed film Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman.
McMurtry went back to Rice University for graduate school and received an M.A. in 1960. He then accepted a Wallace Stegner creative-writing scholarship at Stanford University, and in 1961 he returned to Texas and taught at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He began teaching at Rice in 1963 and remained there for most of the 1960s, except for 1964—1965, when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. At Rice University, McMurtry taught literature and creative writing.
Transitions in Life and Writing
During the 1960s, McMurtry wrote several well-received novels. In 1969 McMurtry left Texas and moved to Waterford, Virginia, forty miles northwest of Washington, and for most of the 1970s he lived there with his son, James. Later, he moved into the District of Columbia and lived above Booked Up, his rare-book store in Georgetown. He taught briefly at George Washington and American Universities. McMurtry’s next three novels followed his personal move, making his transition from examining the effect of change on the frontier values of small towns in Texas to considering the difficult adaptation of the new, urban West to the loss of those values.
In the 1980s, McMurtry began traveling around the country and maintained apartments in California for his movie-writing connections, and in Arizona, after developing a close friendship with the Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko. In 1985, he published Lonesome Dove, a novel that he had been tinkering with for years and which had originally started as a screenplay idea.
McMurtry’s life changed following the publication of Lonesome Dove, when Archer City, his hometown, after years of being unfavorably characterized by McMurtry, embraced him and welcomed him home. After excoriating his home town in The Last Picture Show and portraying it as small-minded and “bookless” in his collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave (1968), McMurtry and his family began to transform the small county seat into a literary oasis amid dry, mostly flat cattle and oil country. He renovated the Archer City golf course clubhouse for his residence and bought many of the downtown buildings to house a rare-book operation that is one of the largest in the Southwest.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, McMurtry wrote numerous novels alternating between frontier tales and contemporary sequels to his previous works. Early in 1999, he published Duane’s Depressed, a sequel to The Last Picture Show and Texasville (1987). Soon afterwards, McMurtry came out with Crazy Horse (1999), a biography of the famous Sioux warrior, and then Walter Benjamin at the
Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond (1999), a memoir on cowboying, writing, storytelling, reading and book collecting, aging, and fatherhood. Since 2001, when he released Sin Killer, he has alternated between writing fiction and nonfiction.
Works in Literary Context
After garnering initial celebrity by writing about the passing of the Southwest known to the cowboy, McMurtry changed his focus to urban novels cut off from the old Southwest—a change that did not help his critical reputation. In the 1980s McMurtry returned to the settings and themes he had rejected, and the critical fame he had enjoyed previously came back as well.
Through all of his work, McMurtry’s Texas background looms large. Growing up on a ranch and learning the ranch work ethic, in which every day began early and ended late, McMurtry approaches his work with intensity and tenacity. In the process he has become the best-known Texas writer of the twentieth century. Fictional Thalia and Hardtop County have become as recognizable to many readers as Faulkner’s Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County.
Demythologizing the West
McMurtry has been called the best regional writer that the Southwest has produced, yet his novels are significantly different than such classics of the Western genre as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949). While these earlier cowboy novels idealized their protagonists by endowing them with epic-sized courage and nobility, McMurtry’s writing—particularly his use of satire, black humor, and frequently hyper-realistic detail— demythologizes the West. He portrays people who share the basic human experiences of dissatisfaction, frustration, loneliness, and loss. For example, McCrae and Call, the two cattlemen at the heart of Lonesome Dove, display acts of both heroism and pigheadedness in equal measure.
Escape and Return
Escape and return—looking-to-leave and longing-to-return—characterize much of McMurtry’s life and writing. Drawn to place, McMurtry demonstrates in his work the mythic pattern of escape and return to his ”blood’s country,” his homeland. This is shown most eloquently in Lonesome Dove: the novel is set in motion by McCrae and Call’s decision to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana and ends with one of the men returning to Texas to bury the other in the place most special to him. Throughout much of his life, McMurtry has found his home territory an awkward, uneasy place. Growing up in Texas created productive tension between his love for the land that nourished him and an equally strong aversion to the narrow-minded elements of his heritage. In his work, he approaches these subjects with a ”contradiction of attractions” that produces an ”ambivalence as deep as the bone.”
Works in Critical Context
Throughout his career, McMurtry has been given mostly praise by critics, and he is considered by many to be Texas’s premier novelist. During his early career, as critics gave him high praise, McMurtry himself disparaged his works as juvenile, sentimental, over-edited, and poorly realized. Some critics have faulted McMurtry for inflating insignificant plots and for not fully exploring the important questions posed in his work, preferring instead to pursue the entertainment value of a situation. However, he is consistently praised for his skill in using language to evoke memorable people and places in painstaking, realistic detail.
The ”Trash Trilogy”
Three of McMurtry’s mid-career novels—Somebody’s Darling (1978), Cadillac Jack (1982), and The Desert Rose (1983), are often referred to as the ”Trash Trilogy.” Unlike much of McMurtry’s work, these novels have no interconnected characteristics, but of all McMurtry’s novels, these three have been generally maligned by critics. Calling them trash makes a ready grouping, and, in the long look at McMurtry’s fiction, they are usually ranked low on the list of his achievements. However, as Mark Busby notes in his Dictionary of Literary Biography entry, ”the term also mirrors the subject matter of the three novels—the tawdry, uncentered worlds of Hollywood and Las Vegas, and the trash and garbage through which Cadillac Jack McGriff sifts.” While many critics have given these three books poor reviews, there were also some favorable reviews, and Busby asserts that ”all three include commendable elements.”
McMurtry is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, an epic tale of cowboy life that chronicles the events of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana during the 1870s. Lonesome Dove is the novel his critics had clamored for him to write since he first appeared on the literary scene in the 1960s, and the subject of the novel is the kind he had solidly attacked for fifteen years. Despite some critics’ belief that McMurtry contradicted himself by denouncing novels about the past and then writing a novel about the past, Lonesome Dove was seen as both extending and transforming the genre. Reviewers observed that while McMurtry confined his story to the conventions of the Western genre, including such archetypal characters as the wily Indian villain Blue Duck and the good-hearted prostitute Lorena, at the same time, he imbued these familiar elements with new life, using them to construct a fresh and poignant story that helps deconstruct the familiar myths and legends of the Old West. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his review for The New York Times, writes, ”Many of the novel’s episodes may smack a little of the tall tale. But Mr. McMurtry has a way of diverting the progress of his cliches in odd and interesting ways.”
- Busby, Mark. Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 1995.
- Clifford, Craig Edward. In the Deep Heart’s Core: Reflections on Life, Letters, and Texas. College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Press, 1985.
- Erisman, Fred and Richard Etulain, eds. Fifty Western Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
- Jones, Roger. Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel. College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Press, 1994.
- Landess, Thomas. Larry McMurtry. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1969.
- Lich, Lera Patrick Tyler. Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of the Myth. Austin, Tex.: Eakin, 1987.
- Neinstein, Raymond L. The Ghost Country. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1976.
- Peavy, Charles. Larry McMurtry. Boston: Twayne/G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Pilkington, William T. My Blood’s Country: Studies in Southwestern Literature. Fort Worth, Tex.: Texas Christian University Press, 1973.
- Taylor, Golden, ed. A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth, Tex.: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.
- Reynolds, Clay, ed. TakingStock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989.
- Schmidt, Dorey, ed. Larry McMurtry: Unredeemed Dreams. Edinburgh, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1978.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of Lonesome Dove. The New York Times (June 3, 1985): C20.
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