Larry McMurtry Essay - McMurtry, Larry (Vol. 127)

McMurtry, Larry (Vol. 127)


Larry McMurtry 1936–

(Full name Larry Jeff McMurtry) American novelist, essayist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of McMurtry's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 7, 11, 27, and 44.

McMurtry was known in the 1960s and 1970s as a regional author of distinction and acclaimed as a new voice from Texas. In his works, McMurtry reexamines the frontier myth, introducing more fully developed characters and a darker mood to the Western novel. However, with the publication of Lonesome Dove (1985)—his Pulitzer-Prize-winning, epic-length saga of a nineteenth-century cattle drive—McMurtry became a household name, praised by the public and critics alike. His works continue to focus on tensions between urbanization and the myth of the Texas frontier, as well as disillusionment among aging characters resistant to change. Many of McMurtry's novels, including Horseman, Pass By (1961), The Last Picture Show (1966), Terms of Endearment (1975), and The Evening Star (1992), have been made into successful films. McMurtry is known also for his essays that explore transitions in Texas literature and the nature of the film industry.

Biographical Information

McMurtry was born June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, to William Jefferson and Hazel Ruth McIver McMurtry. He grew up on his father's ranch, an experience from which he would draw material throughout his career. After graduating from Archer City High School in 1954, he attended North Texas State College where he earned a B.A. in 1958. He received an M.A. from Rice University in 1960 and studied under a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University from 1960 to 1961. In 1959 he married Josephine Scot with whom he had one son; the couple divorced in 1966. McMurtry took numerous short-term teaching assignments at Texas colleges and universities during the 1960s while he wrote. He published Horseman, Pass By in 1961 to strong criticàl reviews. The book was adapted into a movie entitled Hud the following year and won two Academy Awards. McMurtry continued developing his reputation—albeit as a regional writer-and published The Last Picture Show in 1966. He won an Oscar in 1972 for his work on the screenplay of this movie. By the 1970s he left Texas, opening a rare bookshop in Washington D.C.; however, he continued to write about both rural and urban Texans. While McMurtry's reputation as a writer and his popularity grew, it was not until the publication of his novel, Lonesome Dove, that he received widespread national recognition. He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel and achieved greater acclaim when it was made into a popular television series. McMurtry has continued to write throughout the 1990s, publishing a sequel and two prequels in his Lonesome Dove series. In addition, he has collaborated with other writers on two fictional histories of real historical characters: Billy the Kid and Pretty Boy Floyd. He lives and writes in Arizona and Texas as well as managing his bookshop in Washington, D.C.

Major Works

McMurtry has published continuously and extensively throughout his career, writing several series of novels centering on common characters or places. His work is united by his themes, which include reluctance to face change, conflict between urbanization and Western myth, importance of place, and the role of the land. McMurtry's themes also include the emptiness of sex versus the promise of love, the void in marriage and family, the nostalgia of the past, emptiness of the present, and hopelessness of the future. In novels such as Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show, McMurtry explores coming of age, as the youth of rural Texas face difficult choices, a lack of opportunities, needs which do not match resources, and disillusionment and loss of innocence. Throughout his career, McMurtry has explored these issues, following his characters throughout their lives. For instance, in his books about the mythical small town Thalia, Duane grows from an idealistic teen in love with the unobtainable Jacy in The Last Picture Show to the wealthy but unhappy middle-aged father in Texasville (1987) to the moody and eccentric individual depicted in Duane's Depressed (1999). His most famous series centers on Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, first introduced as two former rangers hired on a cross country cattle drive in Lonesome Dove. In this lengthy epic, McMurtry alters the traditional Western formula, depicting his characters as both heroic and human. In this novel, he also creates strong female characters, embodying the traditional plot of the trials and dangers of the frontier with deeper ideological issues. In his sequel and prequels Streets of Laredo (1993), Dead Man's Walk (1995), and Comanche Moon (1997), McMurtry expands the story of the central characters' lives from young and immature Texas Rangers to old and bitter men longing for the glory of their youth, unable to come to terms with the changes in Texas. In the 1990s McMurtry began to explore the fictionalization of historic figures in such novels as Anything for Billy (1987), a highly inventive tale of Billy the Kid which barely matches historical accounts. He also co-wrote Pretty Boy Floyd (1994), which was produced as a movie at the same time, along with Crazy Horse (1999), a book about the famous Sioux warrior.

Critical Reception

McMurtry received favorable critiques of his writing with his first novels even though he was relatively unknown and considered primarily a Western writer. In fact, scholars still list his first four books as some of his best work: Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show and his collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave (1968). Critics such as John Leonard reviewing Moving On (1970), Ruth Prigozy writing about All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1970) and Dorothy Rabinowitz in regards to Terms of Endearment, echo numerous other critiques in praising McMurtry's realistic and engaging dialogue, description of place, attention to detail, and entertaining sense of humor. These same reviewers argue that McMurtry is overindulgent, exaggerates, loses sight of his point with too much detail, and is too verbose. Nevertheless, most critics say the balance sways in favor of McMurtry, and argue that his wit and insight make up for the length and lack of focus in many of his works. Most scholars agree McMurtry's best work is Lonesome Dove, a novel they credit with reforming the Western genre. Reviewers praise the novel as a humorous but sincere tribute to the American West, full of rich detail and panoramic scenery. However, some reviewers have also noted that the novel is built on stereotypical characters and dubious historical accuracy. "Lonesome Dove is Larry McMurtry's loftiest novel, a wondrous work, drowned in love, melancholy, and yet, ultimately, exultant," said John Horne, McMurtry's work since Lonesome Dove is consistently compared to the novel, often unfavorably. Nevertheless, some critics note McMurtry's subsequent works still represent substantial accomplishments even though they lack in the scope and appeal of Lonesome Dove. Some critics have said that many of McMurtry's recent novels read like movie scripts. Others, however, praise his work, saying McMurtry brings the imagined West to life with his characters, attention to detail, and humor. In her review of Streets of Laredo, Denise Dwinnells said McMurtry is "… a man who writes as well about women as any American male ever has…." McMurtry's work has mostly received an enthusiastic reception. "When a writer is as good as Mr. McMurtry is," Jack Butler said, "even a relatively minor book is a major event."

Principal Works

Horseman, Pass By (novel) 1961
Leaving Cheyenne (novel) 1963
The Last Picture Show (novel) 1966
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (essays) 1968
Moving On (novel) 1970
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (novel) 1972
Terms of Endearment (novel) 1975
Somebody's Darling (novel) 1978
Cadillac Jack (novel) 1982
The Desert Rose (novel) 1983
Lonesome Dove (novel) 1985
Anything for Billy (novel) 1987
Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood (essays) 1987
Texasville (novel) 1987
Some Can Whistle (novel) 1989
Buffalo Girls (novel) 1990
The Evening Star (novel) 1992
Falling from Grace (screenplay) 1992
Streets of Laredo (novel) 1993
Pretty Boy Floyd [with Diana Ossana] (novel) 1994
Dead Man's Walk (novel) 1995
The Late Child (novel) 1995
Comanche Moon (novel) 1997
Zeke and Ned (novel) 1997
Crazy Horse (novel) 1999
Duane's Depressed (novel) 1999

∗This novel was republished as Hud in 1963.

†The screenplay for The Last Picture Show (1971) was written by McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich.

‡McMurtry wrote the screenplay for Texasville (1990).


Walter Clemons (review date 15 August 1971)

SOURCE: "The Last Word: An Overlooked Novel," in New York Times Book Review, August 15, 1971, p. 39.

[In the following review, Clemons praises Leaving Cheyenne as McMurtry's best work, lamenting its lack of popularity.]

Edmund Wilson on one of life's pleasures: "There are few things I enjoy so much as talking to people about books which I have read and they haven't, and making them wish they had—preferably a book that is hard to get or in a language that they do not know." Earlier this summer there appeared an agreeable book called Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden, who enlisted 27 novelists to write about their favorite neglected works of fiction....

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James R. Giles (essay date Summer-Fall 1972)

SOURCE: "Larry McMurtry's Leaving Cheyenne and the Novels of John Rechy: Four Trips Along 'The Mythical Pecos'," in Forum, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer-Fall, 1972, pp. 34-40.

[In the following essay, Giles, a professor of American Literature at Northern Illinois University, considers the transformation of Texas literature and compares the work of McMurtry and John Rechy.]

In the fall, 1969, issue of Western American Literature, the editor praises Larry McMurtry's collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave, for doing "two things very well. It assesses Texas culture and describes the quality of the life it has fostered. It explores the problems of a native...

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Raymond C. Phillips, Jr. (essay date Summer 1975)

SOURCE: "The Ranch as Place and Symbol in the Novels of Larry McMurtry," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1975, pp. 27-47.

[In the following essay, Phillips explores the transition in McMurtry's portrayal of the Western frontier legend, examining the symbolic treatment of the ranch in the author's first five novels.]

In his essay on the contemporary literary heritage of the Southwest, Larry Goodwyn singles out Larry McMurtry as the young novelist "most embattled in terms of the frontier heritage."1 By "frontier heritage" Goodwyn means treating the history of the Southwest as "the unexamined legend—the propagandistic Anglo-Saxon folk...

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Patrick D. Morrow (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Larry McMurtry: The First Phase," in Seasoned Authors for a New Season: The Search for Standards in Popular Writing, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980, pp. 70-82.

[In the following essay, Morrow, who teaches literature at Auburn University, evaluates the structure, purpose and style of Hud and The Last Picture Show, comparing them to McMurtry's subsequent works.]

Larry McMurtry has now written six novels, and this seems a reasonable moment in time to examine and judge his artistry, to consider the question of his quality. McMurtry's first three novels were tales of nostalgia, satire, cultural criticism and...

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Charles Champlin (review date 16 August 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 16, 1987, p. 12.

[In the review below, Champlin praises McMurtry for his analysis of the emerging problems with the American film industry.]

Larry McMurtry, whose novels-into-films include Hud, The Last Picture Show, Leaving Cheyenne (filmed by Sidney Lumet as Lovin' Molly) and Terms of Endearment, knows his way around Hollywood and is not much enchanted by what he sees.

"With rare exceptions," he says in an introduction to Film Flam, "the pictures coming out of Hollywood today are the last resorts of the gutless. In my...

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Robert Gish (review date 30 October 1988)

SOURCE: "Anything for Larry," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 30, 1988, pp. 1, 13.

[In the review below, Gish, the author of Frontier's End, praises Anything for Billy as an intriguing example of a new type of Western.]

There's much about the Old West and the Western novel that should stay dead and gone: the gun-slinging violence, the racism and sexism (all so predictable and stereotyped when "novelized"), the cussing and carousing—all the qualities that made the West so wild.

But the West (old and new), as every one knows, is a big place and its telling, remembering and imagining take many forms—in fiction and in fact....

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Barbara Kingsolver (review date 22 October 1989)

SOURCE: "Across Texas by Non Sequitor," in New York Times, October 22, 1989, p. 8.

[In the following review, Kingsolver, a novelist and author of The Bean Trees, states that despite a weak ending, Some Can Whistle is engaging and entertaining.]

A novel about a novelist is a narcissistic contraption at best—and, at worst, false advertising. If the truth must be known, we novelists are a pale, unglamourous lot, cowering behind our dictionaries. Few of us have wacky maids and the knack for stumbling on corpses; even fewer of us are rich. But Larry McMurtry can write about anything he wants, and most everything that breathes and is literate will beg for...

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Jim Sanderson (essay date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: "Old Corrals: Texas According to 80s Films and TV and Texas According to Larry McMurtry," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 63-73.

[In the following essay, Sanderson—in the context of considering modern Texan popular culture—critiques Anything for Billy, commenting on McMurtry's dual role as a writer reacting to and creating Texas myths.]

For several years now, in conversations at conventions and at cocktail parties, I have noticed Texans arguing about Texas literature. The same arguments have appeared in print from Texas Monthly to The Texas Observer to The Concho River Review. The more notorious of...

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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (review date 7 October 1990)

SOURCE: "Lonesome Jane," in New York Times, October 7, 1990, p. 3.

[In the following review of Buffalo Girls, Schaeffer—also an author—praises McMurtry's work, saying the appeal of the novel stems from McMurtry's portrayal of an era at the cusp of change.]

Twenty-five years ago, driving across the country for the first time and overwhelmed by the flatness and vast size of Nebraska, my husband and I rented a motel room in a small town just off the main highway. The proprietress wanted us to see two local treasures. One was her "Gone With the Wind" lamp; the other was what the town was known for: its stuffed animal museum. In this museum was a stuffed elk, a...

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Diana H. Cox (essay date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: "Anything for Billy: A Fiction Stranger than Truth," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 75-81.

[In the following essay, Cox compares the historic record of Billy the Kid with McMurtry's depiction of him in Anything for Billy.]

When I was a little girl, about eight or nine years old, my granddaddy, who was one of the town characters (For example, when we remodeled his home in 1932, he put three bathrooms in it and everyone who lived in Humbler, Texas, talked about his decision.), took me into the middle bathroom, reached into a cabinet, and brought out something wrapped in what appeared to be a rag made from an old sheet. He...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 12 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Books of the Times: McMurtry's Sequel to Terms of Endearment," in New York Times, May 12, 1992.

[In the following review of The Evening Star, noted critic Kakutani states that while McMurtry's writing is not always balanced, he is skilled enough to overcome the novel's weaknesses and tell an entertaining story.]

As Aurora Greenway thinks about her granddaughter, Melanie, leaving Texas for a new life in California, she feels her own spirits sink. "All around them," she thinks, "was evidence of what she knew in her own heart: that life was nothing but a matter of innumerable comings and goings, separations and separateness, of departures from which...

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Noel Perrin (review date 25 July 1993)

SOURCE: "Woodrow Call Rides Again," in New York Times, July 25, 1993.

[In the following review, Perrin writes that while the dialogue in Streets of Laredo matches the high quality in Lonesome Dove, the rest of the novel falls short.]

It turns out that the person who can write the best parody of Larry McMurtry is Larry McMurtry.

Eight years ago the Texan published what was instantly recognized as his masterpiece: the epic novel Lonesome Dove. Using every element of standard Western myth—cowboys, whores, outlaws, sheriffs—Mr. McMurtry tells the story of a great cattle drive from the Mexican border up to Montana around 1875....

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Pauline Sarll (essay date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: "Boundaries, Borders and Frontiers: A Revisionary Reading of Larry McMurtry's Horseman, Pass By," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 1, Summer, 1994, pp. 97-110.

[In the following essay Sarll, a member of the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottinham, discusses the way McMurtry juxtaposes conflicting ideas in Horseman, Pass By.]

It is time for a reappraisal of Larry McMurtry's fiction, a reappraisal which recognizes the complexity of his work, acknowledges the serious cultural and literary issues he addresses, and is not tied exclusively to a 'Western' or 'regional' critique.1 One approach which can...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 26 August 1994)

SOURCE: "Books of the Times: Deconstructionist Turns to Building," in New York Times, August 26, 1994.

[In the following review of Pretty Boy Floyd, Kakutani argues that McMurtry and Diana Ossana embellish the myth of the character, but fail to make readers care about his fate.]

The book, written in conjunction with a screenplay on the same subject, tells the story of the famous 1930's outlaw, Charles Arthur (Pretty Boy) Floyd, an Oklahoma bank robber who became such a folk hero that 20,000 people supposedly went to his funeral in 1934. As depicted by Mr. McMurtry and Ms. Ossana, Charley emerges as a charming bandit who more or less stumbles into a life of...

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Thomas Flanagan (review date 10 September 1995)

SOURCE: "Lonesome Dove: The Prequel," in New York Times, September 10, 1995.

[In the following review, Flanagan compares Dead Man's Walk to Lonesome Dove, praising McMurtry handling of atmosphere and theme in both novels.]

In the opening paragraph of Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk, a whore named Matilda Jane Roberts, known throughout south Texas as the Great Western, walks, "naked as the air," up from the muddy Rio Grande and into an encampment of Texas Rangers, holding a snapping turtle by the tail. As Mr. McMurtry credibly reports, "the sight of a naked, 200-pound whore carrying a full-grown snapping turtle" captures the complete...

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Joyce Maynard (review date 19 January 1997)

SOURCE: "The Eve of Destruction," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 19, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review of Zeke and Ned, Maynard, a novelist, states that McMurtry and coauthor Diana Ossana have a created a rich, entertaining, embellished myth.]

In his 20th novel [Zeke and Ned]—written in collaboration with Diana Ossana—Larry McMurtry gives us the characters of Zeke Proctor, a part-Cherokee farmer, husband and father, and his younger friend, Ned Christie, a full-blooded Cherokee now homesteading, like Zeke and his family, in the Cherokee territory known today as Oklahoma. If they make a movie out of this book (and it's not unlikely they...

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Ann Ronald (review date Winter 1998)

SOURCE: A Review of Texasville, in Western American Literature, Vol. 22, Winter, 1998, pp. 373-74.

[In the review below, Ronald, a professor at the University of Nevada, argues that Texasville does not measure up to earlier novels in the series such as The Last Picture Show.]

Few literary sequels live up to their critics' expectations. Still, we had high hopes for Larry McMurtry's Texasville. Its acclaimed predecessor, The Last Picture Show, gave us a rural Thalia in a '50s Texas setting, overlaid with nostalgia and populated by a variety of winsome people. Texasville gives us Thalia and her inhabitants thirty years later. The '80s...

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Further Reading


Bode, Elroy. "Moving on … and on … and on." Southwest Review 55 (Autumn 1970): 427-31.

Contends that Moving On fails to achieve the high quality of Leaving Cheyenne and Horseman, Pass By.

Cameron, Julia. "McMurtry Goes the Distance." Los Angeles Times (7 June 1992): 4, 7.

Reviews The Evening Star and discusses McMurtry's writing style.

Dwinnells, Denise. "'Dove' Sequel Offers Action, Compassion." Christian Science Monitor 85, No. 193 (31 August 1993): 15.


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