Larry Jeff McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, at Wichita Falls, Texas, twenty miles from his parents’ home in Archer City, Texas (the Thalia of his books). McMurtry’s grandparents had moved into Archer County in the 1880’s and established their ranch along a cattle trail in north central Texas. The nine McMurtry boys (Larry’s uncles and father, William Jefferson McMurtry) moved westward to work on the huge ranches in the Texas panhandle.
At family reunions, McMurtry heard his elders talk about the golden age of their youth and about such great ranchers and cowboys as Charles Goodnight, Teddy Blue, and Larry’s own Uncle Johnny. His hard old uncles, withered and crippled by their long years of cowboying, had been present at the birth of the Western myth, and they lived long enough to see it die. The elder McMurtrys knew, as did Larry, that the new generation could not replace the old. He wrote:All of them lived to see the ideals of the faith degenerate, the rituals fall from use; the principal myth become corrupt. In my youth, when they were old men, I often heard them yearn aloud for the days when the rituals had all their power, when they themselves had enacted the pure, the original myth, and I know that they found it bitter to leave the land to which they were always faithful to the strange and godless heirs that they had bred.
McMurtry’s books can be read as a parting wave to Old Man Goodnight, Teddy Blue, and Uncle Johnny.
Larry McMurtry and his family moved from the home ranch into the small town of Archer City. He was an honors student in high school and was active in many school activities, but the bitter love affair with the ranching country of his uncles found its companion in his own disillusionment with the small town. Small Texas towns, too, were dying, he later wrote, losing their bold and energetic people to the cities. McMurtry soon joined the migration to urban America. He graduated from North Texas State University in 1958 and received a master’s degree from...
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McMurtry examines a central myth shaping American consciousness, that of the Old West, of the cowboys and ranchers, the cattle drives and open range. The myth took form from values that Americans brought with them to the West and then took on its own potent life to shape values in new ways. McMurtry also describes what happens to people who live on beyond the age and the social order that spawned the myth.
Ultimately, McMurtry is probing the American Dream. As one looks over his roster of purposeless lives and wrecked marriages, one might ask why American culture and society are not rich enough to provide the ingredients for meaningful lives when the heroic days pass.
Larry Jeff McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 3, 1936, one of four children of ranchers Hazel Ruth McIver McMurtry and William Jefferson McMurtry, and the grandson of a pioneer cattleman in North Texas. McMurtry grew up on the ranch outside Archer City, Texas, and graduated in 1954 from high school in Archer City; the locale and surrounding setting served as the model for much of his early fiction. After one semester at Rice University, he attended North Texas State University, from which he earned a B.A. in 1958.
McMurtry was married to Josephine Scott “Jo” Ballard in 1959. The marriage, which produced one son, James Lawrence, ended in divorce in 1966. James McMurtry (born in 1962) lived with his father in Washington, D.C., until he graduated from high school; he has developed a successful career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. An occasional actor, he appeared in the made-for-television film adaptation of his father’s novel Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s former wife, Jo, is an English professor at the University of Richmond and has published several nonfiction books, including Shakespeare Films in the Classroom: A Descriptive Guide (1994).
McMurtry returned to Rice as a graduate student in English in 1958 and began work on his first two novels before earning his M.A. in 1960; he also wrote reviews for the Houston Post. Horseman, Pass By was accepted for publication while McMurtry was at Rice. The novel was published while he was a writing student as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1961, studying under Stegner alongside such later literary figures...
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