Lonesome Dove

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Since the publication of his first novel, Horseman, Pass By (better known by its film title, Hud) in 1961, Larry McMurtry has written about the modern West in such works as The Last Picture Show (1966) and Leaving Cheyenne (1971). In Lonesome Dove, he has finally turned to the frontier heritage of the West and written an epic historical novel. Set probably in the late 1870’s (no date is given, but General George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Battle of Little Bighorn is a recent event), Lonesome Dove is a panoramic narrative centering on a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to northern Montana, spanning more than two thousand miles of frontier. Western enthusiasts will find that the novel has a bit of everything: rustling raids into Mexico, stampedes, lightning and hail storms, river crossings, drought, deadly outlaws, gunfights, lynchings, murderous Indians, and Indian fights.

Full as it is of action, however, Lonesome Dove is essentially a novel of character. Leading the large and varied cast are Augustus McCrae (Gus) and Woodrow F. Call, owners of the Hat Creek Cattle Company in the town of Lonesome Dove on the Rio Grande. Both are veteran Texas Rangers who spent dangerous years fighting Indians and outlaws. The gregarious Gus is a compulsive talker and a humorist who, while impressively effective in action, usually prefers to relax, enjoy himself, and let Call do most of the work. Even though Call complains, he is temperamentally suited to the arrangement, for he is a workaholic, a laconic loner who drives everyone else as hard as himself. The genial and expansive Gus embraces life; he enjoys his whiskey, good books, an occasional woman, and an amused observation of human nature. The indrawn Call’s accumulated frustrations have built up a store of suppressed violence. The two of them are perfect foils to each other.

The inspiration for the cattle drive comes from Jake Spoon, a former Ranger crony of Gus and Call, who turns up with tales of tall grass and wonderful country in Montana, available for the first settlers to stake out a claim. Though Call and Gus are rich enough and have no need to make a fortune, Call determines to assemble a herd and be the first cattleman to enter Montana, mainly because it will provide an outlet for his pent-up energies and because it has not been done before. Gus thinks that the enterprise is foolish but agrees to go along for the show.

To collect a herd, Call undertakes a series of nightly raids into Mexico, from which he steals about three thousand head. To handle them, he hires on additional cowboys, most notably Dish Boggett (so named because he was once so thirsty he drank a pail of dishwater rather than wait his turn at the pump).

Call also permits Newt to go on the drive. Newt is a seventeen-year-old boy whom Call and Gus reared when the boy’s mother, a prostitute, died. It is rumored that Jake may be Newt’s father, but it is more likely that his father is Call, who, though usually indifferent to women, had a brief but intense relationship with Newt’s mother. Newt has no last name, for no one has acknowledged him. For him, the long trek will be an initiation into danger, responsibility, and manhood.

Meanwhile, Newt has a platonic crush on Lorena Wood, the prostitute at the local Dry Bean saloon. Dish Boggett and most of the other men are less platonically in love with her, but since her past relationships with men have been a series of disasters that drove her into her present position, she does not care for any of them. Lorena is most at ease with Gus, whose conversation is amusing and who treats her with consideration. Jake Spoon, however, has an irresistible way with women, and when he appears, Lorena goes out of business and devotes herself entirely to him. To his dismay, she insists on accompanying him on the cattle drive in the hope that he will carry out...

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Lonesome Dove Literary Techniques

In addition to the rich characterization, the novel is filled with exciting action. There is, in addition to the cattle drive, a second...

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Lonesome Dove Social Concerns

All of McMurtry's novels, including Lonesome Dove, exhibit a fascination with the juxtaposition of past and present. Like the earlier...

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Lonesome Dove Literary Precedents

Critics have claimed for Lonesome Dove the distinction of being the definitive epic of the western frontier. It has many epic...

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Lonesome Dove Related Titles

In many ways, Lonesome Dove is connected to McMurtry's earlier work. Although set in the nineteenth century, it shares certain...

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Lonesome Dove Adaptations

Lonesome Dove was made into a well-received television miniseries in 1989. It starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and...

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Lonesome Dove Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Booklist. LXXXI, May 15, 1985, p. 1274.

Busby, Mark and Tom Pilkington. Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 1995. Offers a comprehensive overview of McMurtry’s fiction, including a chapter devoted to Lonesome Dove. Also includes bibliographical references and an index.

Cawelti, John G. “What Rough Beast—New Westerns?” ANQ 9 (Summer, 1996): 4-15. Cawelti addresses the revival of the Western in print, film, and on television. He notes that the new genre reflects the loss of the mythic West of the past and shows how...

(The entire section is 321 words.)