Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With his steady stream of novels and screenplays, from The Last Picture Show (1966) to Lonesome Dove (1985) and Texasville (1987), Larry McMurtry is arguably one of the most popular authors writing about the American frontier. Here in this curious new volume, however, an extended and digressive rumination on endings, he does not so much celebrate the mythic West of his writing and upbringing as lament its passing. Largely elegiac, occasionally just plain cranky, McMurtry reflects not only on the end of a way of life that his West Texas family has known since the nineteenth century, but also on the end of a larger Western tradition, the European West, its modernist art and culture. Again and again he finds correspondences between these two “Wests”; if there is a spine to the book, something connecting its meandering, repetitive essays, it very likely has to do with the tension this writer has felt over the years as he has tried to free himself from one landscape and read himself into another. Land and literature—those are his recurrent interests in these pages. McMurtry claims he did not in fact set out to write an autobiography (though he has clearly done so), but rather to describe the distance that separated him from the European writers and historians he has spent a lifetime reading.

Certainly reading is the primary event here, the crucial activity throughout McMurtry’s life. The box of nineteen books given him by an older cousin going off to war launched the young Texas boy into a world quite different from the harsh, featureless High Plains of his childhood. Reading became an imaginative escape, a way to remove himself from the restricted, ultimately doomed life of ranching that was his legacy, and to create for himself a wider, richer, less constrained existence: a community not of cows and taciturn cowhands but of stories and voluble storytellers, a world of books. As he discovers, however, this new world of literature, the colorful and congested European cosmopolitanism that held out such heady promise for a boy brought up on silence, isolation, and empty spaces, is itself in decay. The catastrophe of World War I and the closing of the American frontier—each produced, at roughly the same time, a deep and disabling sense of cultural loss. Moreover, McMurtry cannot quite shake that feeling, the sense of everything winding down. Dissolution permeates his four essays, even if the chapter titles themselves only hint at it: “Place and the Memories of Place,” “Reading,” “Book Scouting,” “The End of the Cowboy—The End of Fiction.” Sad or irritated, fearful or bluff, his tone of voice may vary, but what does not alter is his sense that literary traditions, family rituals, professional customs, regional ways of life are passing, and for McMurtry that is clearly not a happy fact of contemporary existence.

What triggers these poignant retrospections on art and life is a reading of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” It is summer, 1980, a summer of record high temperatures in Archer City, Texas (familiar to his readers as the fictional Thalia). As McMurtry sits sipping on a cool lime Dr. Pepper in the Archer City Dairy Queen, he is struck by the German writer’s lament for the “diminution of the power of oral narrative in our twentieth-century lives.” Reading this, he is stirred to examine Benjamin’s critique: where are the stories and the storytellers now? what has become of that elemental exchange of experience, the oral tradition? Looking around the Dairy Queen he can say that here, in these small, clean, fast-food institutions from the 1960’s, there is at least a place where folks can meet and talk, where gossip can be exchanged, where stories can be told. For this reason, as a potential locus for storytelling, he champions the homely West Texas “DQ,” though on further reflection he is forced to recognize that Benjamin’s assessment is nevertheless probably accurate. Even here, storytellers are nearly extinct, because it takes more than a place; it takes a particular way of being curious about experience and of valuing practical memory to make for a powerful oral tradition. These, he fears, have indeed fallen away, or have more likely been eroded by a nonstop barrage of technological innovation that has smothered curiosity and made memory obsolete. Given the constant stream of information from television sets, people have no time to be curious. Given the prodigious memory banks in computers, what do people really need to be able to remember anyway? Yet without the galvanizing effect of curiosity or the creative power of memory, what hope is there for stories? McMurtry’s grandfather, struggling to survive on the bleak frontier, needed to remember where water holes were, what weather signs meant. It was a matter of success or...

(The entire section is 1984 words.)