Terms of Endearment Essay - Critical Essays

Larry McMurtry

Critical Context

In the 1960’s, Larry McMurtry established his reputation with a series of novels that dealt realistically with rural and small-town Texas. In Horseman, Pass By (1961), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1966), McMurtry gave a new twist to the time-honored American genre of the Western. These novels all treat a Texas in a state of flux, still deeply captivated by the myth of the cowboy but increasingly confronted with the realities of industrial America. The mythology of the American West has gone stale: The ranch has been replaced by the oil field, the frontiersman by the bureaucrat. The fictional town of Thalia becomes the locus of the confrontation between past and present.

Terms of Endearment is the third of a sequence of novels set in the changing urban Southwest of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The first two novels in this loose trilogy, Moving On (1970) and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), deal with characters at least tangentially related to Emma Horton. Danny Deck, for example, the young writer who figures in both Moving On and Terms of Endearment, is the protagonist of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. Though these later novels take place in the urban rather than the rural Southwest of McMurtry’s novels of the 1960’s, they share some of the regionalism of the earlier books. Terms of Endearment is a book strongly influenced by its setting: Aurora Greenway is intensely proud of her New England heritage and clings to Yankee culture in her Spanish home in Houston; a character such as Vernon Dalhart is virtually unthinkable outside Texas.

The film version of Terms of Endearment received the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1983. Earlier, all three of the 1960’s novels were adapted to the screen, the best known being the 1971 film version of The Last Picture Show. The popularity of Larry McMurtry’s novels and of their film adaptations is hardly surprising in an era in which much of the focus of American society has been moving from the industrial centers of the North to the rapidly developing South and Southwest.