In a Narrow Grave: Larry McMurtry and the Problem of Regionalism

by Jim Farrar (1987)

It used to frustrate his publisher. He'd go on promotion tours wearing a self-deprecating sweatshirt that had Minor Regional Novelist emblazoned on the front of it.

His publisher felt such antics limited his audience and pigeonholed him as, well, a minor regional novelist.

The novelist's name was Larry McMurtry, a Texan who grew up in cattle country and wrote about small towns and aging cowboys.

McMurtry no longer wears that sweatshirt, having graduated to the mainstream of Contemporary Popular Fiction quite some time ago. Four of his books have been made into successful movies and, in 1986, Lonesome Dove, McMurtry's epic of the Old West, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His most recent novel, Texasville, published in April 1987, quickly made its way onto the bestseller lists and was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Lonesome Dove, in the meantime, is still going strong, with well over a million and a half copies in print. And McMurtry's first three books, though not bestsellers when first released, have been reissued in Penguin's popular "Contemporary American Fiction" series, with each having gone through several printings.

All of which suggests that Larry McMurtry is an anomaly. Of sorts. A western writer who has "made it," he is taken seriously by the eastern literary establishment. His books are regularly reviewed in Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review.

Lest we forget the message on McMurtry's sweatshirt, however, we should remind ourselves that other Western writers are, as a lot, treated somewhat less considerately than McMurtry. Edward Abbey, for example, complains in the preface to his reader Slumgullion Stew that he earns only twenty thousand or so a year from his writing, hardly a princely sum, and that his books are regularly ignored by eastern critics.

There have been Pulitzer Prize winners from the West, but aside from Louis L'Amour, how many Western writers do we see listed in the New York Times' weekly bestseller list and, perhaps more revealing of popular taste, how many of these authors' books do we ever see being hawked at the checkout counter of local supermarkets and drugstores?

Critically, and as a market for popular fiction, the West is a wasteland, which makes McMurtry's success something of an achievement for a "serious" Western novelist.

There is, of course, a distinction between an author's being critically successful and popularly successful. The ideal is to enjoy both, though, on the whole, most "successful" Western writers fall into the former category. They publish a book, get one or two laudatory reviews in various local newspapers--national magazines tend to ignore them--and then watch their books sell modestly, after which they quietly return to their teaching positions, their ranches, or, like Edward Abbey, head back to the desert. In short, they're forced to return to their "real" jobs.

As mentioned, McMurtry is a westerner who's somehow managed to enter the critical and popular mainstream. He acknowledges the past without pumping up the traditional western myth that the movies and the Zane Greys and Louis L'Amours have helped create. The myths McMurtry uses in his fiction are more personal, based on family history and on stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. His characters, though typical of men and women who live in the West, are so well drawn that any reader, regardless of where they're from, has little difficulty in recognizing the basic truth in their portrayal.

Though the themes McMurtry addresses in his fiction are specific to the West, at the same time they transcend their specificity and are a comment on the American character as well. McMurtry says in the preface to his series of essays on Texas that "in criticizing Texas, I have not been unaware that there are other states to which the same criticisms apply. If so, that's dandy. I'm sure there are potatoes in Nebraska, but Nebraska is not my rooting ground" (Narrow Grave x.).

Take My Saddle From The Wall: A Brief Biography

The son and grandson of cattlemen, Larry Jeff McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936 in Wichita Falls, Texas, near the small town of Archer City, where he grew up.

McMurtry's youth was spent in north Texas, where he lived on his family's ranch outside of Archer City, the small town, thinly disguised as Thalia, which would become the setting for his early novels.

The vision of the West that defines his fiction was planted during his youth, for it was his generation that witnessed the passing of an older, rougher and, in retrospect, more romantic way of life. He grew up listening to stories, and he listened well. He worked with men who had been cowboys all their lives, who had lived to see one way of life supplanted by another. The sense of loss they felt makes up such a large part of his work that McMurtry himself admits to its being seminal:

In their youth, as I have said, my uncles sat on the barn and watched the last trail herds moving north--I sat on the self-same barn and saw only a few oil-field pickups and a couple of dairy trucks go by. That life died, and I am lucky to have found so satisfying a replacement as Don Quixote offered. And yet, that first life has not quite died in me--not quite. I missed it only by the width of a generation and, as I was growing up, heard the whistle of its departure. Not long after I entered the pastures of the empty page I realized the place where all my stories start is the heart faced suddenly with the loss of its country, its customary and legendary range (Narrow Grave pp.139-140).

After graduating from high school, McMurtry enrolled at Rice University in Houston. His stay in Houston was brief, however. The following semester he transferred to North Texas State University in Denton, where he received his B.A. in English in 1958.

While in college, McMurtry began to utilize his cowboy background, composing in his senior year two short stories, one about the destruction of a cattle herd and another about a cattleman's funeral (Peavy p. 15). The two stories were eventually combined and became the basis for his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, which, after numerous drafts, he completed in 1961.

After graduating from North Texas State, McMurtry began post-graduate work at Rice, where he received the M.A. in 1960. Also in 1960, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship for creative writing at Stanford University.

The following year he left California and returned to Texas to begin teaching in the English department at Texas Christian University.

In the meantime, McMurtry's career as a writer had begun in earnest. Horseman, Pass By was published by Harper & Row in 1961. Though not a financial success, the book received favorable reviews, especially in the Texas newspapers, and, more importantly, was made into an enormously popular film, retitled Hud and starring Paul Newman.

The money he received from Hud enabled McMurtry to take a year off from teaching. He returned to the classroom in 1963, however, this time at Rice, where he remained until 1969.

In 1963, Harper & Row published his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne. This was followed by The Last Picture Show in 1966 and a non-fiction collection, In A Narrow Grave: Essays On Texas, in 1968.

Abandoning his rural and small town Texas settings for the first time, McMurtry published over a five year period what has become known as his "urban trilogy," which includes Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972), and Terms of Endearment (1975).

In the last decade, McMurtry has published four novels, among them Somebody's Darling, Cadillac Jack, The Desert Rose, and, in the summer of 1985, Lonesome Dove. Texasville, McMurtry's sequel to The Last Picture Show, was published in April of 1987.

McMurtry's success is attributable in part to the adaptation of his books into movies. As mentioned, Hud was both a critical and popular success, quite an accomplishment, as well a career booster, for a novelist only in his mid-twenties.

In 1971, McMurtry, along with director Peter Bogdanovich, adapted and wrote the screenplay for The Last Picture Show. The film was a hit and the reviews were good, and focused yet more attention on McMurtry.

Leaving Cheyenne, retitled Lovin' Molly, was filmed in 1974. Unlike previous adaptations of McMurtry's novels, however, it was given a lukewarm reception, most notably by McMurtry himself, who claimed that it was unfaithful to the spirit of his novel (Peavy p. 97).

Terms of Endearment appeared in 1983. The movie was both a critical and commercial success, winning five Academy Awards (including best picture), four Golden Globe Awards, and the New York Film Critics Film Circle Award for best picture. The book was reissued in paperback and, suddenly, McMurtry was everywhere: on the lecture circuit, on the mass-market bestseller lists, and in the gossip columns as sometime-companion to film and television star Cybil Shepherd, whom he'd met on the set of The Last Picture Show.

McMurtry's career has been long and rewarding. Unlike many other writers, especially Westerners, he's neither had to live in near poverty nor struggle for recognition.

Horseman, Pass By was published when he was only twenty four. Over the years, McMurtry has managed to build a solid reputation as one of our finest popular novelists.

Visions Of Thalia: Horseman Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show

Modeled on his own hometown of Archer City, the area in and around the fictitious town of Thalia is the setting for McMurtry's first three novels. In Horseman, Pass By, the symbolism of the title should not be lost on us. The horseman in question is Homer Bannon, a cattle rancher from the old school who, we quickly realize, has become an anachronism.

The story is narrated by Homer's grandson Lonnie, a seventeen-year-old on the brink of manhood who lies awake at night reading paperback books like From Here To Eternity and trying to imagine the world that lies beyond Thalia.

Ostensibly, the novel appears to be a simple coming of age memoir, a first person chronicle of a young man's initiation into manhood. Lonnie's role models are his grandfather Homer, an old cattleman who emphasizes traditional values, hard work, and a reverence for the land, and Hud, who is young and strong and arrogant, a scheming womanizer who finds no intrinsic wealth in the family's land other than its pecuniary value, a man who would gladly swap the cattle for an oil derrick.

The novel opens with the discovery of a dead heifer, killed, it turns out, by hoof and mouth disease, the "worst kind of trouble a cattleman can have."

Eventually, the entire herd must be destroyed, and the Bannon ranch, for all practical purposes, is ruined. The government reimburses Homer for his cattle, but on another level, deeper and more personal than anything that can be bought and paid for, the ranch is gone, destroyed and buried along with the cattle. Homer sees his life's work--his cattle--literally executed, dumped into a pit and covered with dirt. He realizes he is too old to rebuild and that Hud, who will inherit what Homer has worked so hard to create, and who has other plans for the land, will create a different kind of ranch and, by implication, a different Texas. A way of life is buried in the huge pit along with the cattle, one that, unlike cattle, cannot be replaced.

By story's end, a new Texan, personified by Hud, has emerged. As he predicts, Hud gets the ranch and Lonnie, caught between two opposing sets of values, leaves home.

Horseman, Pass By is a eulogy for the Old Texas. Homer, for example, keeps two old longhorn cows in his herd. When asked by one of the hands why he's kept them over the years, he replies, "raised 'em. I been keeping 'em to remind me how times was. Cattle like them make me feel like I'm in the cattle business" (p. 52).

Later, when a government veterinarian suggests he utilize his empty land by selling a few oil leases, Homer angrily tells him he isn't interested:

Granddad leaned back and closed his pocketknife. "Oil," he said, looking down at his hands. "Maybe I could get some, but I don't believe I will. If there's oil down there these boys can get it sucked up after I'm under there with it. Something about this sickness [the hoof and mouth disease], maybe I can't do much about it, but the oil field stuff I can. I don't like it an' I don't aim to have it. I guess I'm a queer, contrary old bastard, but there'll be no holes punched in this land while I'm here. They ain't gonna come in an' grade no roads, so the wind can blow me away." He looked up again, across the land. "What good's oil to me," he said. "What can I do with it? With a bunch a fuckin' oil wells. I can't ride out ever day an' prowl amongst 'em, like I can my cattle. I can't breed 'em or tend 'em or rope 'em or chase 'em or nothin'. I can't feel a smidgen of pride in 'em, cause they ain't none a my doin' (p. 106).

Hud is Homer's antithesis. Whereas Homer rides a horse, Hud drives a flashy cadillac. Their relationship is adversarial, opposite personalities representing the old versus the new, youth versus age, pride versus arrogance. When Hud learns of the government's order to liquidate the ranch's stock, he tries to convince Homer to sell as many cattle as possible, to "sell 'em to someone stupid enough to buy 'em knowing what the situation was," before the ranch is quarantined and the herd is destroyed. Homer refuses, and Hud tells him he is too old and senile to survive in the modern world:

"Someday I'm gonna have your land, Mr. Bannon, and right here may be where I get it. You're the old senile bastard who bought them Mexico cows, and you're the one better get us out of this jam, if you don't want to end up working from the shoulders down yourself.

"I believe you're locoed," Granddad said. "What in hell do you mean?"

"Oh I ain't figured it all out perfect yet," Hud said, "but I can give you an idea. The main thing is you, old man. You're too old to cut the mustard any more. Ain't that how the song goes?" He slapped me on the leg suddenly, like we had a big secret between us. "Liquidate or not," he said. "When this is over you might as well just get you a rockin' chair, so you'll be outta my way" (p. 79).

Hud's victory is only partial. True, he gets the ranch, but only because Homer dies. Hud wins by default. Homer dies the legal owner (and, it is suggested, the spiritual owner as well) of the land he has worked and loved all his life.

It is the heir apparent who administers the coup de grace by executing, literally and symbolically, his benefactor. When Homer breaks his hip in a fall, Hud mercifully shoots him, though as Lonnie says, Hud's motivation "could have been for kindness or for meanness either."

Either way, by story's end the old horseman has indeed passed by, his values obsolete and his life a monument to the simple truth of man's impermanence. In one of his essays, McMurtry sums up his message by posing the loaded question:

My generation had the country only long enough to realize that something was going, but with my father and my uncles it was different: they were the last generation of Texans to have it fully. The country was the ground of their life, their womb, their daylight, and their tomb, and one might now properly ask to whom they have left that country: myself, or Hud? (Narrow Grave p.140)

Change is also the theme in McMurtry's second novel, Leaving Cheyenne. The focus of change, however, is internal and emotional, rather than environmental or societal, though an intense attachment to time and place, like that in Horseman, Pass By, runs through the story.

In Leaving Cheyenne, McMurtry chronicles a lifelong love triangle between three people who also happen to be best friends. The principal characters are Gideon Fry, introspective and heir to a profitable cattle ranch, and Johnny McCloud, a seemingly unambitious cowhand who is content to work for wages all his life. The object of Gid and Johnny's love is Molly Taylor, a woman who loves them both.

Written as a series of first person narratives, Leaving Cheyenne covers a period of almost fifty years.

Gid speaks first, describing the trio's youth and the bond between the three that will last for over half a century. He describes his marriage to Mabel Peters, a shrew of a woman whom he marries on a whim, after hearing of Molly's wedding to a wildcatter named Eddie.

Though they never divorce, Gid's marriage to Mabel is a superficial formality. He loves Molly, a love which, throughout his life, both nourishes and torments him.

Molly takes up the narrative during their middle years, recounting her own life and offering a somewhat different perspective to the events Gideon describes in the first section. She tells us of her marriage, of her two children, Jim and Joe, and of their tragic deaths during the Second World War.

Though Molly never marries Gid or Johnny, it is the two of them, not her husband, who she really loves. Though never saying it directly, Molly realizes that marrying either of them would ruin Gid and Johnny's friendship, and would mean losing one in order to have the other, a sacrifice she is unwilling to make.

It is Johnny who finishes the story. Johnny's narrative is essentially a reminiscence, an old man's recount of a hard but good life drawing to a close. Of the three, he seems to be the one to have achieved inner peace. Unlike Gid, who is obsessed with buying land, Johnny has never owned, nor has he wanted to own, anything other than his saddle; nor does he harbor any desire to marry Molly. He loves both Molly and Gid, which, he feels, is all the wealth he needs.

In Johnny, McMurtry seems say that it is the simpler values which offer the most happiness, that we end up feeling unfulfilled when we start to complicate our lives with too much wealth and, sometimes, with marriage.

Like Homer in Horseman, Pass By, a deeply rooted love of the "blood's country" motivates each character in Leaving Cheyenne.

Molly and Gid especially are tied to the land. Having no desire to live anywhere else, Molly spends her entire life in a house on her family's property outside of Thalia. Similarly, Gid lives most of his (until Mabel makes him move into town) on the family ranch he inherits from his father, a man whose own passion and reverence for the land he has instilled in Gid.

When Gid accompanies Johnny on a trip to the panhandle to work on another man's property, he quickly becomes homesick and starts to ruminate on the things that bind him to his father's land:

The homesickness was the worst part of it, though. I didn't mind the work, and I didn't mind the company; I didn't mind the country or even the cold weather. I just minded feeling where like I wasn't where I belonged. Home was where I belonged, but tell that to Johnny and he would have laughed like hell. He didn't feel like he belonged to any certain place, and I did. He was born not five miles from where I was, too. When you came right down to it, Dad was right: me and him was a lot different. I couldn't get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn't that I liked being in Archer County so much--sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn't there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with what's your own, even if it's hard (pp. 93-94).

Johnny owns no land. Nevertheless, he returns home after working a series of jobs in the panhandle because, like Gid and Molly, he realizes that home is home, regardless of who holds the title to it, a consistent theme throughout all of McMurtry's early fiction.

In The Last Picture Show, McMurtry's third novel, there is no half-loving, half-wistful, vision of home. Instead, the tone is satiric, cynical, and, at times, desperate.

Drawing an important distinction between the two, McMurtry has written that his childhood was "country" and his youth "small town" (Peavy p. 26). Though set roughly within the same period--the early Fifties--the setting and characters are treated less sympathetically than they are in the two previous novels. This is the New Texas we saw coming in Horseman, Pass By. The Thalia we see here is petty, morally and spiritually soft, obsessed with material things, and in every sense of the word, small.

The Last Picture Show is a painfully accurate study of small-town dynamics. The major characters are Sonny and Duane, two young men just out of high school. Like Gid and Johnny, they are in love with the same girl, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of a noveau riche oilman.

But Jacy is no Molly. Shallow and manipulative, she delights in playing Sonny and Duane off of one another. When the two boys finally come to blows, Duane hits Sonny in the head with a beer bottle, blinding him in one eye.

Nonetheless, Sonny and Duane's friendship survives. At story's end, Duane enlists in the army and is shipped off to fight in Korea, while Sonny remains in Thalia to run the pool hall, which he inherits from Sam the Lion, an older man who has taken a liking to him over the years and has been a father figure of sorts to him.

As the story unfolds, Sonny and Duane become adults, and, like Lonnie in Horseman, Pass By and Gid and Johnny in Leaving Cheyenne, they act out rites of passage typical of young men everywhere: they whore together, get drunk together, and, finally, fight one another. Though still friends, the two boys realize they will never be the same, that their relationship has changed, not because of Jacy, but because they have both grown up. Before Duane leaves for Korea, they go the the picture show one last time, which is closing down, to kill some time before Duane has to catch a bus to take him to boot camp. They can't stay, however, because "they had been at the picture show so often with Jacy that it was hard to keep from thinking of her, lithely stretching herself in the back row and an hour of kissing and cuddling. Such thoughts were dangerous to both of them" (p. 208).

In The Last Picture Show, McMurtry portrays the shared loneliness that is typical of a small town. In Thalia, boredom is a way of life. One of the few recreations is sex. Farm kids make do with barnyard animals, while the older town kids try like hell to get the local girls to put out. In a near-perfect description of an adolescent ritual, Duane tries to see how far he can go with Jacy in the front seat of his pickup. Though things never really proceed beyond heavy petting, Jacy allows him to remove her brassiere, and, when feeling generous, lets him put his hand inside her panties. Anything more, she tells him, would be improper.

What Duane doesn't know, however, is that Jacy has already slept with a number of men, including Lester, Duane's arch rival.

Meanwhile, Sonny carries on a long and emotional affair with the wife of the town's high school football coach, Ruth Popper, a mouse of a woman nearly twice his age.

We discover that Jacy's mother, Lois, a strong-willed queen bee type who has retained her youthful beauty, has had an affair with Sam the Lion, the only man in town, it seems, not intimidated by her. Lois sums up McMurtry's attitude after she seduces Sonny, telling him on the drive home that such things are to be expected, whether we think so or not:

"Your mother and I sat next to one another in the first grade," she said. "We graduated together. I sure didn't expect to sleep with her son. That's small town life for you" (p. 201).

Critics have complained that the characters in The Last Picture Show are stereotypes and, for this reason, are not as successful as the characterizations in McMurtry's two previous novels (Peavy p. 36).

It is these characterizations, however, that lend a feeling of authenticity to the novel. Anyone who has lived in a town like Thalia will recognize the spoiled rich girl (Jacy), the high school hotshots and football co-captains (Sonny and Duane), the hairy chested, pot-bellied football coach (Popper), the social games, the cruelty and the strange sexual pairings that define life in a small town.

Of his own hometown, McMurtry seems to harbor ambivalent feelings:

I had begun to suspect that home was less a place than an empty page. In some ways the town seems more remote now than when I lived there, and in time I imagine the remoteness and isolation of the small towns of the West will constitute their most positive appeal (Narrow Grave p. 86).

What emerges from McMurtry's first three novels is a portrait of the rural West, what it was, as well as what it has become. The first two are set outside a small town, which we don't see, except peripherally, until The Last Picture Show. When we do, the vision is sobering, as windblown and desolate as the north Texas landscape.

What They Lived We Dream: Lonesome Dove

Published in 1985, Lonesome Dove is McMurtry's eleventh book, and perhaps his most unusual.

His only historical novel, it integrates many of the themes seen in his earlier books into a long narrative about the end of the Old West.

As mentioned, McMurtry grew up hearing stories of a seemingly ancient Texas, romantic visions that were both better and worse than the rapidly changing present. In an epigraph to Lonesome Dove, he quotes T.K. Whipple's Study Out The Land:

All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.

Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive into the wilderness Whipple refers to, from the south of Texas, north over the Great Plains, and into Montana. Almost a thousand pages, it is a long novel.

The principal characters are two ex-Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, who have become bored down on the Rio Grande. The Indians have been killed, the Mexican bandidos chased back across the border. Worse yet, settlers are starting to trickle in, which rankles Call, who misses the old days and spends most of his time alone, tending the cattle he and Gus occasionally steal from the Mexicans across the river.

Like Gid and Johnny in Leaving Cheyenne, Call and Gus are opposites in almost every respect, though a bond exists between them that nobody, including themselves, seems to understand. Call is small and taciturn, tightly wound and all business. Conversely, Gus is gregarious, loud and fond of drinking whisky. He prefers sitting on the porch with his jug to working the cattle. In their own way, both are tough--experienced Indian fighters who know and trust one another, especially in a tight situation. When Call suggests that they gather the herd and drive them north to Montana, Gus balks. Call needs the challenge, he says; Gus realizes this, but teases his friend about his true motive:

"We might as well go on to Montana," he said. "The fun's over around here."

Augustus snorted, amused by the way his friend's mind worked. "Call, there never was no fun around here," he said. "And besides, you never had no fun in your life. You wasn't made for fun. That's my department."

"I used the wrong word, I guess," Call said (p. 170).

Like Homer in Horseman, Pass By, Call and Gus have become obsolete. They can envision a coming Texas, which doesn't include them. Ranchers, Homer's forebears, are supplanting them. To Call, Montana is analogous to the Old Texas he helped tame. Like Homer, he prefers the life he knew in his youth. Gus follows because that's what he's always done. Though not particularly fond of one another, there is a symmetry to their relationship that goes beyond affection, a bond that runs deep and, as the women in their lives have discovered, is virtually impenetrable.

This is something we see in McMurtry's other books (Gid and Johnny; Sonny and Duane), though in Lonesome Dove it is arguably the primary relationship in the book and the force that drives the narrative.

That cowboys trust and feel more comfortable among themselves is an attitude that has its roots in both fact and fiction. McMurtry acknowledges this attitude and offers a reason for its existence:

Anyone who has spent much time with cowboys will have observed that cowboys are a good deal more comfortable with one another than they ever are with their women, but I think it would be facile to assume from this that most cowboys are repressed homosexuals. Most cowboys are repressed heterosexuals. The tradition of the shy cowboy who is more comfortable with his horse or with his comrades than with his women is certainly not bogus (Narrow Grave p. 72).

He goes on to say:

The basic difficulty, I think, is that the cowboy lacks a style that would put him at ease with women and women at ease with him. His code has prepared him to think of women not as they are, nor even as they were, but in terms of a vague nineteenth century idealization to which not even the most proper plainswoman could really conform. Women shook his confidence because it was a confidence based on knowing how to behave in a man's world, and even the West isn't entirely a man's world anymore (Narrow Grave p. 72).

This is certainly true of Call. He is never entirely at ease around women, though McMurtry offers no reason other than basic nature.

Call's reticence is intertwined with the novel's most significant sub-plot, which concerns Call's illegitimate son, a young hand named Newt.

Whether intending it or not, McMurtry's sympathies ride with Newt. Though written in the third person, Lonesome Dove has the feel of a memoir. One senses that we're seeing the story unfold from Newt's point of view. Like young Lonnie in Horseman, Pass By, Newt is on the verge of manhood. The older men are role models, and women still scare him.

But Newt matures during the trek to Montana and, near the end of the story, Call leaves him in charge of the outfit when he returns to Texas to bury Gus, who has been killed by Indians while on a scouting mission. Though Call never tells him outright he is his father, he does leave Newt with his best horse, a spirited mare named the Hell Bitch, as well as his saddle, which becomes a symbolic acknowledgement of Newt's passage into manhood.

Like Horseman, Pass By, which is similar in spirit, Lonesome Dove is a paean--or perhaps a dirge--to the Old West. As the outfit rides into Montana, Gus realizes their arrival means things will never be the same in this part of the country again. This is truly the last frontier. Everything wild about the land will perish, must perish. That which lured them there will fade into memory simply because they did come. More settlers will arrive, the Indians will be killed or put on reservations, the buffalo wiped out. Gus himself makes this observation after chasing a herd of buffalo merely for the joy of seeing them run:

The buffalo were still running, two or three miles ahead. "Kill any?" Pea asked.

"No, I wasn't hunting," Augustus said.

"Did you just want to run 'em off or what?" Pea asked. As usual Gus's behavior was a complete puzzle.

"Pea, you ain't got your grip on the point," Augustus
said. "I just wanted to chase a buffalo once more. I won't have the chance much longer, and nobody else will either, because there won't be no buffalo to chase. It's a grand sport too" (p. 750)

Though McMurtry makes good use of a number of Western clichés (Cowboys vs. Indians; the prostitute with a heart of gold; a no-account gambler and ladies' man with a white prancing horse; an evil renegade Indian named Blue Duck; etc), Lonesome Dove goes beyond being "just" another Wild West Novel. Reviewing the book for Time magazine, critic R.Z. Sheppard wrote:

But smile when you say cliché. McMurtry is a storyteller who works hard to satisfy his audience's yearning for the familiar. What, after all, are legends made of? The secret of his success is embellishment, the odd detail or colorful phrase that keeps the tale from slipping into a rut (p. 79).

McMurtry takes what are essentially the mainstays of Western literary mythology and, by giving his larger-than-life figures believable voices, reinforces the western tradition while simultaneously giving it credibility.


If anything can be considered a universal theme in contemporary Western literature, it is the bond, felt especially by rural Westerners, that exists between the land and the people who live on it. For better or worse, it continues to appear in the work of our better Western writers, from Edward Abbey's Arizona to Ivan Doig's Montana. From John Steinbeck's Okies and marine biologists in California to Larry McMurtry's obsolete cowboys in Texas, there is a passion for the country that is unmatched in any other literature.

Of the land, and the literature it has spawned, McMurtry wryly observes that "the elements still dominate here, and a spare, elemental language, with now and then a touch of elegance, will suffice. We could probably use Mark Twain, but I doubt we're yet civilized enough to need a Henry James" (Narrow Grave p. 18).

Oregon writer H.L. Davis, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote of the West:

All the new changes in the country, its overgrown towns, its leveled forests and stopped-up creeks, its swarms of new faces and jangle of new accents, are a consequence of something that has happened somewhere.

The past needs to be searched through again to find out what the link is, to find out the things about the new past that the early writers ignored and the things about the older one that they overlooked or threw away (pp. 21-22).

The four novels we've looked at are alike in that they provide us with a sense of continuity, by juxtaposing past and present, between ourselves and our heritage.

I was once asked whether or not there is a difference between a writer of the West and a writer from the West. The answer to that question, I think, is yes, there is a difference.

Mark Twain said that "there is only one expert who is qualified to examine the souls and life of a people and make a valuable report--the native novelist" (p. 168). A novelist, Twain said, develops his voice and style by "unconscious observation," which can only be done by living in one place for a long time.

Larry McMurtry grew up in Texas. His early novels, at least, reflect his Texas background. When he strays from what he knows best, the results are less successful than when he does not. Novels like Cadillac Jack and The Desert Rose, though good, fail to match the power of the four novels we've just discussed.

The same can be said of Western writers in general, I suspect, and about non-Westerners who try to write about the West.

Most writing textbooks tell the fledgling writer that a writer writes best when working with a subject he knows firsthand. McMurtry's work, if nothing else, lends credence to this advice, and shows us what the results can be.


Davis, Harold Lenoir. Collected Essays And Short Stories. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1986.

McMurtry, Larry. Horseman, Pass By. New York: Penguin Books,
(Contemporary American Fiction Series) 1986.

McMurtry, Larry. In A Narrow Grave: Essays On Texas. Albuquerque: Univ. Of New Mexico Press, 1986.

McMurtry, Larry. The Last Picture Show. New York: Penguin Books, (Contemporary American Fiction Series) 1986.

McMurtry, Larry. Leaving Cheyenne. New York: Penguin Books,
(Contemporary American Fiction Series) 1986

McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Peavy, Charles D. Larry McMurtry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Sheppard, R.Z. "It's a Long, Long Tale Awinding." Time June 13, 1985: 79.

Twain, Mark. The Complete Essays of Mark Twain. Ed. Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co, Inc. 1963.

Seminar Notes

February 3, 1987

Diversions, diversions, diversions. . . too many ideas for topics, too many things that interest me. They're all coming down on me like gravy on grits. I have an opinion on everything. The word blowhard comes to mind. . .

Looking over the bestseller lists from the first decade of this century I noticed that one name kept appearing.

Winston Churchill (the one born in Missouri, not Great Britain) topped the list three out of the six years I researched.

It made me wonder why this writer, enormously popular in his day, is, outside of university English departments and a few other literati cum cognoscenti cum Trivial Pursuit champions, is virtually unknown today. The Oxford Companion to English Literature says only this about him:

CHURCHILL, Winston (1871-1947), Missouri-born American novelist, whose historical romances were in their day immensely popular; nearly all of them had titles which begin with the letter 'C' [I love that observation!], and they include The Crisis (1901), The Crossing (1904), and Coniston (1906).

And that's all it says. Churchill was the most popular novelist in America during his day and now, some seventy-five or eighty years later, most people confuse him with a British statesman (of course, that British statesman did win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, but gee, that's being pedantic, isn't it?).

Actually, the reason for Churchill's slide into obscurity isn't that hard to figure out, given the fact that he wrote about things that were essentially interesting or instructive to somebody living in Jazz Age America. Churchill addressed issues, topical issues, that have faded or have been corrected or glossed over by legislation. And that, as any author or student of literature knows, is dangerous territory for a writer. Churchill's writings appealed to current political trends, which explains, I think, why his work is no longer widely read, and why it is treated, instead, as an anachronism, as a relic from a time capsule.

To tell you the truth, I really can't get too excited about Winston Churchill. It would've been nice to say that I'd rediscovered another overlooked and underrated American author whose work is still relevant to our lives today, but I just can't agree with such a statement (However, I think Sherwood Anderson falls into this category. How many people have read Winesburg, Ohio or Poor White lately? It can be argued that he influenced our literature--if nothing else he made the short story a viable literary form for writers to follow--as much as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and any other American writer during the twentieth century. But I'm rambling.)

Well there is one area of contemporary literature that interests me.

You see, I'm a sports fan.

It occurred to me about a week ago, while watching the Johnny Carson show, while watching Mike Ditka, coach of the Chicago Bears pimp his new autobiography, that this is an area of literature, of academia, if you will, that is relatively unexplored.

And for good reason. Many people will tell you that the word "sports" and the word "literature" are about as compatible as a mongoose and a snake.

Thing is, they're usually right. Most of the books that have been written about sports or that use sports as a background are crap.

But there are a few good ones out there. You just have to know where to look.

And there are, as I said, a lot of bad ones, the ones that, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your perspective), define the genre.

I'm gonna do 'em both, good and bad alike.

February 24, 1987

Revenge of the bookstore: My apologies to Richard Brautigan (aw. . . what the hell, he's dead anyway) for stealing his idiom. In regards to p.h.'s notes of 2/17: I was one of the compadres with whom he wandered through the bowels of earth's largest bookstore in Portland last weekend. He'll be happy to hear that I escaped relatively unscathed. True, I had to take out a second mortgage on my home to pay for all the books I bought, but other than that I'm none the worse for wear. As you may have gathered, Powell's is a sight that must be seen to be believed. Imagine the Fred Meyer store at Glenwood as being one big bookstore and you'll get the picture.

Meanwhile back at the ranch: One trick I use to help me make notes on a book is to use a lot of bookmarks. Normally, I'll put a 3 x 5 notecard in the text at the place I want to remember and then write the page number and something about the passage on the card. This works especially well for books you don't want to mark up, underscore, write in the margins, etc. Like library books, for example.

Topical news: Bad pun. I'm directing my energies towards the West. Or Western writers, to be a bit more specific. I was gonna do sports, but that's been taken, and I really had no idea what in the hell I was doing anyway.

Anyway, a general overview: People who live outside of the suburbs of New York City do write books. And some people even read them. No big news to us, but to those who decide who and what ends up being included on bestseller lists, become prize winners, or even get reviewed are a little more myopic than we are. This notion of regionalism fascinates me. Especially when it comes to western writers and western themes (take your pick). In the words of my dearly departed Grandpa Wagner, an old German immigrant who spent much of his life ranching in a Southern Idaho canyon, "people in the East see the West as nothing more than a pissing hole."

Well, I'm taking a peek at that hole. Many fine writers have written about or have come from the West. As a result, any bibliography claiming to be representative or typical of Western literature is going to be arbitrary.

That being said, here's mine:

1. A River Runs Through It. This is by Norman Maclean, a Montana man who taught English for many years at the University of Chicago. His book is a story of fly fishing in western Montana. . . and much, much more.

2. Lonesome Dove. By Larry McMurtry. A helluva book and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to boot. It's about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the late nineteenth century.

3. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Edward Abbey's only bestseller and, from what I've been told, a very funny novel about environmental activism in the Desert Southwest.

4. The Milagro Beanfield War. A book by John Nichols and the basis for a new film by Robert Redford. This is a book that was recommended to me by Driek. . . and by Dan Wilson at the The Book Shop downtown.

5. English Creek. By Ivan Doig, author of the critically acclaimed memoir This House of Sky, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978. Doig may very well be the best stylist now writing about the West. Just my opinion, of course.

6. Dancing Bear. I chose this book, by James Crumley, as a change of pace and to show that western themes don't always include cowboys, Indians, pine trees and dust on the saddle. This is a modern day murder mystery set in Missoula. Crumley was born in Texas and lives in Montana. I chose him instead of Ken Kesey because I'm not sure Kesey belongs to the West anymore.

So there you have it. Time permitting, I might even throw in something by Dorothy M. Johnson or Louis L'Amour. And if you can think of some more of your own, I'd like to know what they are.

The more you can think of, the more you help me prove my point: Yes Virginia, literature does exist west of the Mississippi and east of California.

March 3, 1987

I've identified a new psychosis, which I've decided to call PSPAS (Pre-Seminar Presentation Anxiety Syndrome). Symptoms include a general feeling of aimlessness and, later, a sense of bibliography-theme incongruity, coupled with an intuitive understanding of one's own thesis, but a general uncertainty as to how it can be best articulated. In its later stages, PSPAS can cause its victim to wander aimlessly through the local university library, muttering, all the while, indecipherable epithets to and at himself, like the village drunk in some Irish novel.

But by golly I think I'll be ready for my presentation. . . in one way or another.

I think the good folks at The Book Shop are sick of seeing me. I went into their store a couple of days ago to pick up a copy of Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy and I don't think I'd been there more than thirty seconds before I heard someone behind me say, in a so-it's-you-again tone of voice, "hello. . . Jim. Change your topic again?"

Even if I had decided to change my topic, I don't think I would've admitted it at that point.

How they become bestsellers dept.: I asked Dan at The Book Shop how The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly compiles their respective bestseller lists. He told me that the Times is more concerned with actual figures of given titles than it is anything else.

Each week, the Book Shop receives from the Times a list of titles, for which they're asked to fill in the number of copies of each book sold during the previous (I assume) one-week period. What is implied, then, is that the list is already set and that the participating booksellers are merely supplying sales figures for an essentially pre-determined group of titles. Yeah, says Dan, they do have a place on the form where the bookseller can write in the name of a book not on the list which is selling particularly well, but I got the impression that that's really not the type of information they're looking for.

Publisher's Weekly, on the other hand, just calls a participating bookseller and asks what's hot. No numbers, no forms. They just ask for names. Dan says this is really a more accurate way to do it, since more books get included on the list. He was saying, for example, that they're planning on mentioning Nell Shipman's book (just published here at Boise State and edited by our own Tom Trusky) just so somebody knows the book is out there. Yeah. . . It seems like a fairer way to me, too.

March 10, 1987

"When the going gets weird," says Hunter Thompson, "the weird turn pro." Three weeks to go and things are starting to get decidedly abnormal, and maybe just a bit ugly. I have other classes, midterms coming up, but they'll just have to be dealt with superficially for now. After a while, it becomes a matter of triage, I've decided. I've got one more novel to read, a few more facts to find, and a whole lot of thinking to do before I start to write this hummer. I measure sanity in terms of paper: it's getting close to three thousand (count 'em) pages read for this project so far, and I have no idea what the secondary sources are going to total. Something tells me I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Being one of the first to present your paper to the class is, at best I've decided, a mixed blessing. You get it out of the way but you worry about the lack of time. There's a sense of urgency and a feeling that your research and your conclusions are going to end up being a little half-assed. I feel confident in my topic and the direction things are headed, but it's still a race against the clock.

So here's where things stand. I've limited my focus to two authors, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. Two Western writers, two very distinct styles. Both successful, but in different terms of the word. Both authors write about what it's like to live in the West, but their visions are decidedly different, though they both see essentially the same things. There's a similar sense of loss, a keen awareness of what the West was and what it has become. Their novels reflect this and that's what my paper is about.

That's what makes Sam's project so interesting. Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, Elmore Leonard, Dorothy Johnson, et. al. represent the most common conception, I think, of what the West and its literature is all about.

This is only partly true. The "New West" integrates these old myths and themes into something totally different (and yet in many ways quite the same). Abbey and McMurtry's fiction reflects this new vision, which is at once both contemporary and archaic. Certain themes remain constant in literature, and I think the cowboy, self-reliant, solitary, and in harmony with his world, is something of an archetype, if not in literature, then at least in Western American literature.

March 31, 1987

It's been a long time since we last met, so I really don't have much to say. My presentation's tonight, so for the last week or so I've been concentrating my efforts on my paper.

The way this project has evolved has been both rewarding and exhausting. I started out by wanting to do a paper on Edward Abbey's fiction, and to prove that he's a fine novelist who's been overlooked by the eastern critical establishment because he's a western writer, but, unfortunately, when I started to read his stuff I began to realize that I wasn't particularly fond of his fiction and that he is a much better essayist than he is a novelist. Back to the drawing board.

So I decided to generalize. I thought I'd prove to you that Western writers are not taken seriously by the people who hand out prizes and awards and who determine which books make the jump from popular fiction to contemporary literature, and which books get taught in college lit classes and which don't. Easier said than done. And I'm not so sure that that's a valid claim anymore. The West has had its share of prize winners.

That left me with Larry McMurtry, an author who I had been unfamiliar with until last summer when, on a whim, I picked up a copy of Lonesome Dove while waiting in line at the grocery store. I'd heard that it had won the Pulitzer Prize and I was curious. Novels about the Old West really don't thrill me that much, I'd never taken them seriously and I knew that other people who read "serious literature," whatever the hell that is, didn't either.

I started reading the book that night and couldn't stop. The novel used every cliché about the West that's ever been uttered by cowboy or Indian, but still, somehow, the story rang true.

For my project, I read the book again, and I think I liked it even better the second time. Very rarely does a book almost a thousand pages long finish with the reader wanting more, but this one does.

I was going to use McMurtry's new novel Texasville in my project, but it didn't come out in time. I got my copy yesterday. It's the sequel to one of the books I used in my paper, The Last Picture Show, an update of the tiny town of Thalia almost thirty years later. I'm looking forward to reading it.

April 7, 1987

Since reading Sue's paper, I've been thinking about the Eighties' decided lack of underground literature. I can't think of any book that has been published within the last four or five years that even has the potential to become popular in the same way that On the Road, Catcher In the Rye, or even Thompson's Gonzo pieces. Many of these books are still popular and some of them still wear the underground label, and they wear it well. I wonder why.

Maybe it's a sign of the times. From where I sit I can see no discernable counterculture, at least not of the type that emerged during the Beat or the Hippie movements. As someone pointed out, there's the Punks, but that's really a European movement borne of a more formal class system than the one we see here in the States. American Punks are being fashionable more than anything else, I think. Sure, they're angry, but they haven't produced any literature yet. I don't think it fits into their value system. Or maybe we just have a generation yet to find its voice. Only time will be the judge of that.

Socially, there doesn't seem to be as much anger as there used to be. What's left of it has been replaced by resignation and indifference, or maybe something else that I can't quite identify. Maybe our current literature reflects this, maybe it doesn't. I'm not sure. At any rate, Catcher in the Rye continues to be read, and probably will be read for some time to come.

I haven't read "Catcher" since I was in high school--it's on my summer reading list--so I can't really remember what it was about the book that caught my fancy. But looking through my old dog-eared copy with a broken spine, I noticed I'd underlined quite a few passages and had put a lot of exclamation points in the margins. At eighteen, I must've found a number of universal truths in the thing, though I can't remember a single one. The tone of the book, however, certainly hooked up with my own world view at the time, though I honestly can't say I ever really identified completely with Holden Caulfield. But I sure did know a lot of Holdens, one of whom threw himself into the Snake River Canyon one day. They found a copy of Catcher in the Rye on the front seat of his car. It'll be interesting to see how I react to the book twelve years after I first read it.

April 14, 1987

Since Edith is giving her presentation tonight, I think it's appropriate to mention the significance of today's date. Given the fact she's using Gone With the Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird to illustrate the connection between books and movies, I feel obliged to inform one and all that today, April 14, marks the 122nd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The South shall rise again, at least for about 60 minutes in room LA 107.

Speaking of books and movies, I finally saw the film version of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose this weekend. The film is palimpsest--a rubbing--of the novel, according to the filmmakers. Says so right on the credits. Its an accurate description. The movie remains true to Eco's story, at least in tone and spirit (and all those other intangible adjectives), though the filmmakers have obviously taken their liberties.

In regards to Edith's comment in her paper about people expecting movies to mirror the books they're made from, maybe folks should approach such films as exactly what the director of The Name of the Rose intended his film to be: an interpretation, an etching of the source material, and not a living, breathing celluloid clone of the book on which the film is based. The operative word here is "based." Books are books, movies are movies. They're two separate art forms and, consequently, I think you have to approach them both from different perspectives. There are different textures involved in each and I wonder if it's even fair to compare the two at times. Movies have to be broader, there's no way they can capture the same subtleties a book can.

The topic that refused to die: I've almost finished Larry McMurtry's new novel, Texasville. Being a sequel to The Last Picture Show, I'm somewhat surprised at its comic tone, as compared to the darker, more sarcastic slant of its predecessor. No matter. McMurtry still has a talent for small-town dialogue and observation, though I'm not as fond of Texasville as I was The Last Picture Show.

April 21, 1987

I agree with Paul's comment in last week's notes about there being a certain letdown after all is said and done, when your paper is finished. And hindsight really is 20/20. You keep thinking of things you could've done different, other tactics you could've have taken; you second-guess yourself and reread your paper and it looks like crap. I think the whole thing was made even more intensive by the comparatively early deadline, though I'm sure that those of you yet to finish your papers have similar feelings. My father-in-law is writing to Larry McMurtry--he's passing on some old stories his father had told him about frontier life in Idaho--and he asked me if I wanted to send McMurtry a copy of my paper along with his letter.

No way. . .

After reading tonight's papers I'm convinced of two things:

blacks have been portrayed in a zillion different ways during the development of our literature, and I have absolutely no desire to read Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele or anybody else of their ilk.

I got a good feel for the novels Tam read from her paper, and I'm glad I didn't have to read them. The only book I would be even remotely interested in reading is Fear Of Flying, but I keep hearing its a dead issue, that its no longer controversial or even topical. How come they never made a movie out of it? Maybe Edith can answer that one. Or maybe Kurt. Is there something about the plot that just wouldn't translate to the screen? Is it too explicit? That's hard to imagine.

I thought Linda did an admirable job of blending social and literary history, though I'm not sure whether or not The Color Purple is as much a book about being black in America as it is a comment on being female, a point she touched upon in her discussion. All in all, I thought the paper was informative and thoughtfully done.

One final observation: I've been listening with bemused anxiety to several tales (from Driek, Tam, and Linda) of techno-hassles with word-processing equipment. I've been using a computer for a couple of years now and I'm yet to lose anything or have any major failure or problem, other than the inconvenience of running out of paper or printer ribbons at inopportune moments. My desktop is made out of wood and my knuckles have calluses. . .

April 28,1987

My Prediction Comes True Dept.: In my paper I said that Larry McMurtry's newest novel, Texasville, was destined for the bestseller lists. And so it is. The April 12 edition of the New York Times has it listed as number 15. Watch it climb.

I've been thinking about Tam's paper and I've come to the conclusion that Sue hit it square on the head with her frilly-underwear-beneath-the-flannel-suit theory. Such books are escapist, pure and simple. My wife tells me that when she's under pressure she wants Cosmo, not Camus. Which is understandable. I'll admit that I read Stephen King and books about sports for the very same reason. Doesn't mean that that summarizes my view of literature. So, I guess these books do have their place. Something to do with instant gratification, I guess.

The one thing I've noticed about the Jackie Collinses and Danielle Steeles is that they all involve the rich and well-to-do. I made the flippant comment in class about people not giving a hoot about nymphomaniac bag ladies and, on second thought, maybe that's not so funny or stupid as I originally thought it was. The connection between sex and power is something that runs deep in our society, and I wonder why that is. To be vulgar, poor people can screw just as well as the rich, probably better, but nobody wants to read about them. Something about dominance and winning is all tied up in this, though I'm not sure why people are so fascinated with it. I look at Jack Kennedy and, more recently, Gary Hart and I notice that people are real interested in their sex lives. As if their basic urges were glamorous. If they were both just a couple of garage mechanics from Rigby nobody would give damn. They'd just be a couple of guys who'd cheated on their wives, hardly a glamorous subject.

Footnote to Linda's Paper: I guess I agree with Paul. I kept wondering while I read your paper why you didn't include Invisible Man in your discussion. I know Ellison's not a woman, but you seemed to be focusing more on how blacks are portrayed in literature than you were on women, anyway. It seems it would've fit more into your scheme than The Color Purple did. But that's an unfair criticism because it assumes familiarity with the material before reading the books you chose to read, which, as I read it, isn't the point of the seminar topic. And that's the only criticism I have of your paper. I think you done good and it was a helluva good read.

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